“Naked as a pickidy bird” is the expression always used in my family to
express raw, carnal states of immodesty. I’m not really sure that such
a bird exists but I do know that anything from the lacy hem of a slip
showing to ‘lawd almighty cleavage was enough to get the oh my
goodness’ going from my steel magnolia of a grandmother. How I managed
to tumble so far from the tree is a constant question in my mother’s
e-mails. What can I say? I am living in the country of topless bathing
and the c’est la vie attitude.
I like to think that I am not nonplussed when I see a semi-nude woman
on a beach. But I confess that my first summer in France, I was shocked
to see the cashier at the boat rental cabana propped behind the counter
with her boobies propped on top of the counter; right next to the
rental rates. I still cannot comprehend what would make her think that
she was acting anywhere in the realm of professional decency. However
after a recent trip to the hammam, or legendary,
Middle-Eastern-inspired steam baths of Paris, I have discovered the
joys of shamelessly cavorting in public with a whole lot more than my
North Africa and France share a bond that dates back to Napoleon’s
brief occupation of Syria and Egypt at the end of the 18th century.
Hammams are just one of the great traditions that the millions of North
African immigrants have brought with them across the Mediterranean Sea
since then. (For a listing of the best ones is town, see the next
page.) Organized along the same lines as the original Turkish baths,
these steam oases offer more than just a restful place for bathing. If
you follow a few centuries-old guidelines, you might find the
experience leaves you physically and mentally tingly and with a whole
new appreciation for pickidy birds.
1. Choose a hammam that you are comfortable with. Before shelling over
your money look around, even if you are only allowed to visit the
public areas. Get a feel to see if the level of cleanliness is up to
2. Most hammams require you to make a reservation for a massage or
waxing so call ahead. At a place like Les Bains du Marais, you should
call at least 2 days in advance, if not more. Others can usually
squeeze you in even if you call on the same day. The situation isn’t as
critical for a gommage (body scrubbing).
3. Some hammams offer two different types of waxing. The traditional
kind with paper strips takes less time to do so it is cheaper. If you
opt for the Épilation À L’Orientale, don’t expect the strips or as much
of the ouch. This technique uses a thick paste of honey, sugar and
citron that is touted as being more effective with the lemon giving a
little kick of antiseptic to ward off those pesky little bumps.
4. What you take with you is very important. Don’t be stingy here. Some
women literally roll in suitcases filled with their toiletries. Think
in terms of shampoo and conditioner, something to keep your hair out of
the way afterwards, a mask, your foot scrubber, lotion, and extra
towels. Some women bring mats, like yoga mats, to sit on.
5. You don’t have to bring soap if you are interested in trying the
legendary savon noir, or black soap. It’s reputed to be made from olive
oil or pulverized olive pits, depending on who you ask. The idea is
that it primes your skin for a better gommage. Usually you can buy the
soap at the front desk for about 8 euros and sometimes it’s offered
with your price of entry.
6. Maybe it is just me, but I think it is a very wise idea to buy the
gant de gommage (scrubbing mitt) if it’s not offered with the price of
entry. Otherwise you might get someone’s hand-me-down dead skin mixed
in with yours during the scrubbing process. Yuck. Don’t think that this
is the usual neon pink pouf hanging in your shower. This little monster
is guaranteed to take a century’s worth of dead skin from your corps
(meaning body, dead or alive, in French).
7. Speaking of which, during the gommage you’re going to see you
rolling off your body parts in disgusting gobs and collecting on the
beautiful marble floors. Best not to watch this process. Just know that
afterwards you will be absolutely glowing and so touchably soft that
Narcissus will think he has a twin.
8. Here is what your schedule could look like. Some people like to start with the body treatments–
* Usually you getting the waxing taking care of first. Torture before pleasure.
* Then shower and head to the main steam room for 30 minutes or so.
* Use the provided buckets to rinse off the marble slabs and to cool yourself off.
* Dip into Le Cauldron for 20 minutes, or for as long as you can take it.
* Now you are ready for your gommage and algae wrap.
* Finish with a glorious massage.
* Some people top everything off with a blast of cold water, others repeat the steaming cycle before dousing themselves.
* Now to the Salle de repos. All of the other steps are optional but
don’t omit this one. Here is where you get to lay down, take a nap or
just rest and enjoy how wonderful you feel.
9. Most people advise you to plan on a 3- to 4-hour-minimum stay but
there is nothing to keep you from enjoying a full day of decadence or
starting out with just an hour or two.
10. So now that you have all of the details you just need to decide how
far you are prepared to strip down. There’s nothing wrong with starting
off slowly. Some people wear a bathing suit, many of the French women
wear just a bikini bottom, most of the North African women wear their
bras and panties. It’s totally up to you.
The first time I went to hammam I dragged my aunt along with me. She
was in town for her birthday and I thought it would be a great way to
celebrate. We sat gawking and petrified for all of an hour, covered
from armpit to toes in huge bath towels. She even had her big leather
purse hidden underneath. We looked like two very out-of-place, humble
tourists. It took me quite a few more visits before coming up with
Being totally naked in a room full of strangers and not acting like a
tourist isn’t easy. If you can solve this dilemma then you will have
discovered something liberating. For those of us who started
complaining about our big butts, fat thighs and pot-bellies at the age
of 14, an afternoon at a public bath can conjure feelings of torture by
self-consciousness rather than decadent self-pampering. All I can say
is, take an afternoon, take your time and get over it. You’ll leave the
hammam with a mind as clean and glowing as your skin. C’est la vie ici.
The Pickidy Bird
(in alphabetical order)
Les Bains du Marais
www.lesbainsdumarais.com (in French and English)
31-33, rue des Blancs Manteaux, 75004
I gave this place two chances to impress; 3, if you count me trying to
get info over the phone. It failed miserably each time. Trompée,
because the location is central, the interior is luxe and even the air
is lightly perfumed with oriental scents that help transport you
ailleur. If they could get more welcoming people to staff the front
desk and skip the whole pretentious routine then this place would be
stellar. Guess they don’t feel the need since they cater to the rich,
famous, and well-heeled of Paris. But hey, give it a try if you don’t
mind feeling unworthy before you even have a chance to get undressed.
Hammam des Grands Boulevards
28, blvd de Bonne Nouvelle, 75010
Itsy-bitsy would describe their steam area and à la plage sort of
explains their plastic beach chair decor in the relaxation area. Still,
this place is clean and just down the street from many of the hotels
and tourists spots such as the Hard Rock and the Musée Grévin (wax
museum). Perhaps you might want to avoid going on Wednesday evening
when the FFN (French Federation of Naturistes) have their weekly
outing. Since the hammam doesn’t have a website, here are the basic
details but be sure to call and confirm before going so you won’t have
Fees: 21 Euros for weekdays, 23 for weekends and includes robe, towel,
sandals, soap and a locker. Entry plus massage is 45-55 Euros and entry
plus massage and gommage is 55 to 60 euros.
Hours: Saturdays from 1 to 5 is the only time reserved exclusively for
women and Tuesday and Fridays are reserved for men. All other days are
mixed so you are required to wear a bathing suit. They are generally
open from 1 till 10 but on Monday they don’t open until 3.
43-45 rue Petit, 75019
Métro: Ourcq, line 5 (when you come up the stairs turn in the opposite direction)
The cliché is going to come up so I might as well use it here—this
hammam is a true oasis. It is a perfect mix between a traditional
Turkish bath and a modern spa that should please even the most finicky
clientele. And… the 39 Euro entry fee is the best deal in town! It
includes everything from a plush robe, a medium size towel, slippers,
plus a sarong for bathing discreetly, which most of the other places
omit. In addition you get the scrubbing glove, soap and a gommage by
one of the trained staff. And, I almost forgot, mint tea and a pastry
is included. No other hammam even comes close. Plus the set up here is
perfect. The decor is tasteful. The steam rooms are inviting and
comfortable. Even better, the Salle de Repos is actually isolated and
tranquil, unlike in most of the other places where it usually serves as
a passageway. Plus in this resting room there are fluffy lits to rest
on, with laundered terry cloth coverings.
While this hammam is not in the center of Paris it is easy enough to
get to and well worth the extended trip. If you go on a Saturday you
can bring your mate and share in a couple’s experience. If you go on a
Sunday, expect to be bumper to bumper.
147, rue Gabriel Péri 932200 Saint-Denis
Métro: Saint Denis Basilique, line 13
You see women rolling their suitcases into this place as they full
intend to stay a while—and with good reason. The hammam is equipped
with all you need for a mind-and-body cleansing experience. While the
decor is more kitsch than cool, I love that each room is set to the
perfect temperature. When you enter the main steam room, it feels
comfortable at first but by the time you have arranged your affairs and
settled into a comfortable, contemplative position the sweat is pouring
off of you. By the time you are ready for Le Cauldron, you are prepared
for the blast of heat. I actually lasted 10 minutes before feeling like
I was going to suffocate in a coffin of humidity—if my skin didn’t
boil, bubble and melt off my bones first. If you go before 7PM during
the week, it’s nice and calm and you probably won’t be disturbed by
There are just two drawbacks: One, the hammam is a little too far to be
completely convenient. You have to take line 13 all the way to the end
then follow the Mai 8 signs through an outdoor covered mall to the
trolley tracks. After you cross the tracks, it’s about another 3 blocks
on your left. (You might want to stop at the grocery store on the right
hand side of the street to pick up a bottle of water.) The other
disadvantage, and this is just me being picky, but the ceiling inside
the steam room is covered in some funky anti-moisture foam so it makes
the prospect of doing a little daydreaming somewhat horrifying.
If you’re a novice to the whole hammam experience, then you can sit and
watch the homemade “How To” video in their waiting area. Also, they
have one of the best wax specials—legs, maillot and underarms for 55
euros. And whatever you do, don’t forget to bring a bottle of water.
Mosquée de Paris
39, rue Geoffroy-Saint Hilaire, 75005
Métro: Jussieu, line 7
This is the Disneyland of Hammams—at first glance you could hardly
imagine a more ideal setting. Cloistered in a Muslim mosque, beyond the
minaret, hidden terrace, arched doorways, marble steps, colorful
mosaics and the trickling of a fountain, is room after room of scantily
clad, barely glad—OK, butt-naked—women. When you walk through the
little door tucked behind the pastry display counter, you can’t really
miss the sights. And therein lies the first of many problems. The salle
de repos/relaxation area is right smack dab in the middle of the
First things first though. True, the entry fee is only 15 bucks, about
37 for the works, making this the cheapest of all the hammams. But you
get nothing, nada, rien du tout extra, unless you count the privilege
of digging into a hamper full of soggy, rubber, loaner slippers as a
perk. Add to this initial delight that the cheery dame (I’m being
sarcastic here) who collects your money doesn’t bother to offer any
sort of explanations such as, “walk past all of the burly women
slathering oil over the nubile bodies, and continue through the
assortment of naked nymphs alongees sur le
oh-so-pleasant-against-wet-skin rubber mattresses, turn right when you
see the woman with her legs spread wide getting a waxing intime and you
will find the changing room.” Good grief, luckily I have an instinctive
sense of direction.
Once you store your stuff in your locker and drop a euro in the slot so
that you can retrieve your key, please, oh, please don’t forget which
one is yours ’cause there’s nothing written on the key ring that will
lead you back to the right one. And there’s nothing like finishing a
few hours of indulgence and relaxation by doing the Cinderella’s
slipper routine with a room full of lockers.
Now, on to the good part. At the Mosquée you have plusieurs rooms to
choose from, all with varying degrees of heat. You can go from mild,
meaning a little drafty, to Le Cauldron, where you have to crawl in all
fours in order to avoid being singed. Here you will find some women
lounging torpidly by the little basin. A few occasionally roll over and
slip under the water. But the last time I looked, there was an oil
slick on top of the pool that would have Green Peace seriously
The opportunities for real relaxation are minimal here and the crowd is
much more touristy than serious, but it is an excellent place to come
with a group of friends, as the location is truly beautiful and they
have a great restaurant. Women are welcomed on Mondays, Wednesdays,
Thursday and Saturdays. Tuesdays and Sundays are saved for the men. The
hours are generally 10 to 9pm, except on Fridays, when they open at
2PM. Also they take a long summer holiday that can last until late