In St.-Denis, an Oasis for Women

THE northern Parisian suburb of St.-Denis has a Gothic cathedral that rivals Notre Dame — Basilique St.-Denis, the final resting place of French royalty for centuries — and a Sunday market filled with artisanal cheese and fresh produce.

But Parisian women in the know don't make the trek out to the end of the Métro Line 13 for either. Instead, they head to Hammam Pacha (147, rue Gabriel Péri, phone 33-1,, an authentic women-only Maghrebi bathhouse.

Hammam Pacha knows its worth. On a gray Sunday, a steady flow of Parisians and St.-Denis residents gladly handed over 29 euros (about $35 at $1.21 to the euro) for a day pass plus 13 euros for a body exfoliation, or gommage. Other services like épilation (waxing), massage, a "masque de beauty" or body wrap together can run around 120 euros. Visitors shuck their layers and stuff them in metal gym lockers (keys are provided), and slip on white freshly laundered cotton waffle robes, snap together disposable flip-flops, and join the tide of women as they shuffle to the wet rooms through the salle de repos — the harem-style resting room where visitors can sip tea while lying on straw tatami mats cushioned with embroidered pillows from Arab lands while admiring the Middle Eastern tiled ceilings.

A cold plunge pool and a dry sauna are in the first room; in the next, an open room of showers and the public massage spaces. Beyond a third set of doors is another warm, tiled room with large open shelves sprawled with spagoers.

Women, most naked now save skimpy bathing-suit bottoms (which my Parisian friend Baraq and I hadn't known to bring on our visit last fall), wander in chatty clubs of twos and threes.

The tiled wet rooms are hot, but nothing is quite so hot as the steam room. Pushing open the door releases a cloud, behind which women emerge like ghosts — standing, lying down, pushing the limits of human endurance in eucalyptus-scented heat. The smart ones tote water bottles from room to room.

After a long steam, women tap a masseuse. If the intention is gommage, for which each woman is given her own cellophane-packaged rough glove, the masseuse will test her arm first to see if enough skin sloughs away with a rough swipe — if not, she is sent back for more steam.

My Algerian masseuse, Sarah, wore shorts, old flip-flops and a ratty looking T-shirt. She threw a bucket of water over the tiles to "clean" them and indicated that I should lie down.

She vigorously peeled away a year's worth of dead skin in gray layers. My skin was pink and smarting when I went to shower off.

A round of sauna, steam and dips made Baraq and me drowsy. Joining the women in the salle de repos, skin still smarting from the aggressive peeling, we scanned the menu, opted against the fresh salads and ordered a plate of honey cakes and tea infused with fresh mint.

Realizing I was due back in Paris for dinner, I reluctantly left the warmth of Hammam Pacha, grabbed a much needed bottle of water from a kiosk and caught a quick peek at the cathedral before riding the subway back to Paris.

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