Like a trip to the Louvre or stroll around Montmartre, a hammam expedition should be at the top of every Paris to-do list. With close to 80 hammams scattered throughout the city (with larger concentrations, biensûr, in the North African communities) they play a prominent role in Paris’ cultural tapestry.
For the uninitiated, hammams are public bathhouses where people go to steam, scrub, relax, socialize and rejuvenate. Descended from the Romans and modeled after Turkish baths, they consist of interconnected tiled rooms full of steamy air, streaming faucets and half-naked bodies (they’re traditionally single sex, with special co-ed slots at times).
No two hammams are alike. Choose poorly and you could wind up having one of the most harrowing experiences of your life (believe me!); choose wisely, and you’ll be tempted to swear off sunshine forever.
Since the bathing offerings at hammams are pretty much standard, what sets them apart is their atmosphere (from hospital stark to warm and Moorish), and size (from William Klein’s Club Allegro Fortissimo to what you see below).
That is why if you can’t squeeze a trip down to Marrakesh, a journey to Les Cents Ciels is your best bet for authentic, luxurious bathing en mass. Located in a posh suburb of Paris twenty minutes by metro from the center of town, this lantern-lit, 1000m2 hamman (the biggest in Europe) is filled with cozy couches, starry ceilings, vaulted walkways, and a gorgeous mosaic-tiled steam room big enough to fit a couple of American baseball teams (now that’s a yummy image).
As soon as you cross the threshold to Les Cents Ciels you feel like you’ve walked onto the set of “A Thousand and One Nights” only the walls are real, the people aren’t actors and the only costumes worn are meant to get wet. Once you process the dramatic change in scenery from drab suburbia outside, you’re welcome to slip into the house attire (bring your swim suit, they take care of the rest) and journey down the stairs to the various bathing rooms.
I’m told I have one hour of languor in the wet heat before my gommage, and that fifteen minutes before my appointment I should slather myself in a moisturizing sludge to primp my skin for scrubbing. I bake in the sauna and take a dip in the pool before venturing into the main steam room where a handful of ladies lounge about as if Ingres were painting their portrait.
My caramel-coated body joins the scene until I’m moved to a private chamber for my scrub down. With a brillo-like mitt, I’m scoured from neck to toe, flipped over twice, then dumped with buckets of warm water like a baby in a tub; only I’m lying on a table. After a brisk shower and inspection of my now buttery soft, glowing skin, I venture upstairs to one of the low-lit relaxation rooms to snuggle up with my tea on a plush, super sized couch. Despite it being one of the most glorious days of spring, I lay there staring up at the ceiling’s twinkling stars for hours.
Who needs the sun when you’ve got one hundred skies?
Basic entrance fee: 40E, includes access to hammam, suana, chill out rooms, restaurant & pool.
Extras: treatments such as massage, gommage, and facials need to be booked in advance.
Access: women only, except for evenings (Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri) and Sunday afternoons (2nd and 4th of each month) when the hammam goes co-ed.
Need to pack: your bathing suit and toiletries
All images courtesy Les Cents Ciels