A hammam for madame
The courtyard of La Mosquee De Paris is a blue-and-white wonderland, complete with mosaics, sculptures and chirping birds. A world away from the Metro strike that consumes Paris the day I visit, the mosque is instantly soothing.
Much like a Mediterranean cafe, the front terrace bar ("salon de the") is awash with the scent of freshly brewed mint tea. A glass-front display case overflows with North African treats but it is the unassuming door behind the cabinet that lures most visitors. A discreet arrow points towards the mosque's hammam and a sign on the door lets you know today is "reserve aux femmes" ladies only.
A Middle Eastern variant of the steam bath, brought to Paris by North African immigrants, hammams are age-old places of social gathering, cleansing and relaxation. The fact that this hammam is in a mosque gives it an enhanced sense of meditation and calm but the worshippers themselves never cross paths with the ladies on a pampering mission.
Built in 1927, the Hispano-Moorish mosque is architecturally spectacular. It also has a restaurant, a souk (market) overflowing with crockery and colourful fabrics and the salon de the. A mixture of tourists and locals slips through the gates but those who visit the hammam the most are Parisian to the core.
Squeezing past the dessert cabinet, I slip into a darkened anteroom with cushioned lounges against each wall. The sweet smell of rose petals and apple fills the room and another door opens to the massage parlour.
A stout woman in a long, white lab coat greets me abruptly, indicating a price list, a menu of different hammam combinations, including massage, gommage (a loofah scrub-down), mint tea and tagine. She bustles towards the counter, selects an orange loofah mitt for my personal scrubbing use and stuffs three tickets into my hand: "un the", "une gommage", "une massage 20 mins". Finally, she slips a sachet of black soap into my hand and indicates the changing rooms. She points out the hammam rooms through the steam and beyond the massage tables, marble columns and blue cushioned mats where a few women are draped, with towels wrapped around their heads and bodies, eyes closed in deep reverie.
In the locker room, a lone woman dries her hair, blissfully nude and oblivious to the new kid on the block. And herein lies the question: to be nude, semi-nude or not to be at all? I'm slightly uncomfortable waltzing into the sauna sporting a string bikini, so I settle for the topless approach and wander into the misty chambers.
In the first chamber, an ample-bodied woman is sprawled across the marble bench, lathered in a black mass of gritty soap from head to toe. She's straddling a hose, shooting water down her back and exfoliating enthusiastically as she chats to her neighbour, a woman equally lathered and frothy.
At one end of the scrubbing room is a small area with two adjacent tables, both of them covered with padded mats. Another stout woman stands guard. She's decked out in an oversized singlet and skirt and is saturated. She ushers me back into chamber one but I get lost and find myself trapped in one shower cubicle, then another, before I follow a side door into the hammam proper and the steam descends.
It's gloriously foggy and the sauna's healing mist engulfs me instantly. It takes a moment before my eyes adjust, as a small skylight above provides the only outside light.
A marble stage is raised in the centre of the room. Off to each side of the stage are partitioned platforms, also raised, with water cascading down the sides.
A plump woman squats on a platform, dipping her bucket into the water and dousing herself. She is surrounded by beauty products, from shampoo to facial cleanser, mud masks and shaving cream.
The third chamber is searingly hot. My nostrils burn as I acclimatise, seeking a space beside the plunge pool as a group of gorgeous French women shriek and splash each other with the cool water.
I slink back to the main room and lie on one of the raised marble slabs, breathing the sauna in deeply. It's a hard surface but as the steam relaxes the muscles, your body sinks in and before too long you drift away.
Soon my reverie is broken by stout woman No. 2 calling "Gommage! mademoiselle, gommage?"
She hustles me onto a table. The padded mat lining squelches beneath my wet body as she dons my orange loofah mitt and starts. This is a thorough scrub-down: there's not so much as a hint of lather to soften her voracious scouring. But the results are remarkable.
She scrapes over my breasts, scratches across my stomach and lifts my arms above my head before tearing over my armpits. She flips me over, slides my briefs down and scrubs my bottom vigorously. Layer upon layer of dead skin rolls from my body.
"Rinse. Apres massage," she barks. And I head for the showers, where I lather myself in the black soap paste and let the water wash away the dead skin cells. I venture into the cool room adjacent to the reception desk, seeking my massage salvation. Two Turkish women stand over the tables, rubbing oil into their clients, massaging their temples, breasts and toes.
I lean against a marble column, dozing off before I am again summoned. I'm basted up like a turkey dinner, dripping oil as stout woman No. 1 pummels and caresses me in rotation.
It is strangely soothing but I'm an oil slick once she's finished.
I head back to the shower for another rinse before reclaiming a sauna room slab for my steam-off finale. The oil sinks into my pores as I in turn sink into the marble. I towel off the oil residue in the locker room before enjoying the mosque's piece de resistance in the courtyard: Un the de menthe at a mosaic-covered table with little birds twittering at my shoulder.
On the Left Bank, La Mosquee (39 Rue Saint-Hilaire, phone +33143313820, see www.la-mosquee.com) is about a 10-minute walk from Ile Saint-Louis or Rue Mouffetard. The closest Metro station is Place Monge.
Opening hours: women, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday 10am-9pm, Friday 2pm-9pm; men, Tuesday 2pm-9pm, Sunday 10am-9pm. Full body massage, gommage scrub and baths is €48 (NZ$109).