Parisian hot spots

From the exotic pleasure palaces of the 19th century, to their more humble, but more truly Arabic, modern counterparts, the hammam - or Turkish bath - is an extraordinary, hidden feature of the French capital. Words and photographs by Jason Oddy
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Madame Bertha is watching the early evening news as I finish photographing the Cleopatra Club Hammam. A hennaed Algerian woman in her 50s, and the Cleopatra's patronne of some 20 years, she cannot take her eyes off the screen. "A dozen villagers murdered in their beds, the work of the fundamentalist GIS," announces the anchorman in machine-gun Arabic. Madame Bertha shakes her head. Her homeland, she says, is "screwed, gone to the dogs". She would cry, if she still could. But now it's closing time and her customers - all of them women and, today at least, all north African - have gone home. They've left behind the familiarity of the hammam, where once your pores have surrendered their last trace of grime to the twin assault of the gasping wet heat and the unforgiving scour of the "gommage glove", you relax on blue vinyl mattresses and drink strong tea from tiny plastic cups.

Next it's our turn to head out into the chill, dark air of the boulevard de Belleville, the main thoroughfare of a funky, polyglot, occasionally unpredictable part of town that teems with people. Its rundown buildings and chaotic street markets and large immigrant population may not be the Paris of picture postcards, but it is as familiar to the French as, say, an area like Brixton is familiar to the British. Over the past four decades France has undergone a demographic revolution. Millions of immigrants from its former colonies have settled here, bringing with them new customs.

Over in the Arab quarter of Barbes-Rochechouart, you are greeted by streetside ovens full of roasting sheep heads, their eyeballs bubbling and their teeth clamped around spits. Wedged into the sharp corner of one of those triangular buildings that abound in France is the Bains Maures, one of two neighbourhood hammams. Like the Cleopatra, it started life 30 years ago to cater to the capital's growing north African population. Inside, Toufic Bachir presides over an establishment that echoes to the sounds of Oasis as the background music. He tells me that he believes his customers come here to escape. It's not easy being an Arab in Paris these days.

Paris's first Turkish baths appeared in the 19th century when the country was in the grip of an orientalist craze. Only one of these early public baths, the Bains d'Odessa, still survives intact. The others have either disappeared or have been turned to more profitable uses - the capital's most famous nightclub, Les Bains Douches, occupies a former bathhouse. Huddling in the shadow of the Tour Montparnasse, central Paris's solitary skyscraper, the Bains d'Odessa is a curious building. Built in 1895 by a Monsieur Pasquier, it retains much of its exquisite fin de siecle decor. Its tiled outside walls are adorned with sculptures of glowering Neptunes and beatific nymphs nestling among clusters of finely cast ceramic stalactites and seashells. Within, time has been less kind. But even the moribund plaster fountain, flock wallpaper and oppressively profuse pot plants cannot disguise the fact that this place must have once been the dernier cri in ablutionary chic.

By far the most beautiful extant hammam in Paris is within a mosque complex, the Grand Mosquee, built in the Twenties. The hammam is modelled on the lines of a classic Turkish bath. You begin by sweating it out on a marble slab in the vaulted steam room where the thermometer hovers around the 70C mark. Next door a cold plunge pool stops you from overheating and, once your body has been thoroughly purged, you repair to the dimly lit, colonnaded relaxation room for a ritual pummelling. The hammam has a reputation for loucheness and it could certainly do with a lick of paint. But those not put off by these decadent touches will probably agree that they only add to its charm.

For Parisians - like the one who assured me that far from being racist he really loved Moroccans, so long as they stayed in Morocco - the mosque's hammam is the acceptable face of Arab culture. The grandeur of its colonial conception has tamed it. Inside the Bains Maures or the Cleopatra it's another story - they are real, working hammams, full of real people. It's here that you'll see a facet of modern French life that struggles along against the odds. And it's here too, in the company of Madame Bertha, Monsieur Bachir and their clients, that you will really feel as though you have been transported to some faraway, foreign land

Cleopatra Club Hammam, 53 boulevard de Belleville; Les Bains Maures, 54 boulevard de la Chapelle; Les Bains d'Odessa, 5 rue d'Odessa; Le Hammam de la Mosquee, 39 rue Geoffroy St Hilaire.

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