Two plus years in Geneva and I had never been to the public baths, or hammams, at Bains des Pâquis. One Tuesday ago, with the help of a friend, I finally made it happen! I used to frequent hammams in Morocco on a weekly basis yet I never felt an urge to go the hammam here in Geneva, knowing even before going that they would be radically different.
I lay out the differences between the two below, feel free to skip ahead to the Genevan description.
In Morocco, hammams are always separated by sex: men go to one bath, women to another. They’re usually not even in the same building (no use in having a peep hole for anyone trying to sneak a peak!). Before heading to the hammam, you set aside a plethora of things to take along with you: buckets, water scooper, small stool, all of your shower essentials (shampoo, conditioner, soap, razor, etc.), towel(s), flip flops and a change of clothes. You can buy the black soap in advance or purchase it at the bath itself (the black soap is the mainstay of the entire experience, softening the dead skin particles resting on your skin for you to scrub off). The second mainstay is the abrasive shower glove, which should be purchased beforehand.
When you arrive at the hammam, you pay a small fee (when I was there in 2011, a little less than 1 USD), disrobe in a changing room and hand your bag containing your belongings to a woman who keeps everyone’s bags in little cubby holes and guards them. You leave your towel on towel hooks and with your sandals, and not much else (perhaps your underwear if you’re more modest), you finally enter the hammam itself. Traditionally, it is set up in a series of rooms (this varies depending on the size of the establishment); usually the first room you walk into after the changing room is slightly warmer, the second hot and the third steaming.
When you enter the first or second-warmest room, you find an open space along one of the walls in the room and set up shop, putting down your stool and arranging all of your shower essentials all around. You rinse off and lather up with the black soap, take your stool (leaving behind your shower essentials) and sit in the hottest of the three rooms. The hottest of the rooms will ensure that your pores open up and that the black soap penetrates deepest. After sitting with the soap on your body for about five to ten minutes, you begin scrubbing yourself all over. Slowly but surely you’ll see dead skin come literally roll off of your body; this calls for rinsing the showering glove and continuing with the scrubbing until you no longer see little skin rolls (gross but completely true!). You come out of the experience with baby-like skin.
Usually someone will scrub your back for you if you go alone and if someone is alone at the baths, they also expect someone to ask if they want their back scrubbed. Normally, however, women come with friends or family, children included (small ones who adorably sit and play in the buckets full of water). Let there be no doubt: going to the hammam in Morocco is a highly social activity.
After getting through the black soap stage, you head back to the room where you left your shower things and proceed as you would in your shower at home, lathering, shaving, etc. One walls will be lined with faucets of hot and cold water. You take your buckets and mix the hot and cold water to your liking and use that to rinse off during your shower. The dirty shower water that rolls off of you (and others) collects in the center of the room in a large drain, which the women who work at the hammam periodically clean. If you’re feeling lazy or luxurious, you can pay someone at the hammam to even scrub you down.
When you’re all done, you wrap yourself in your towel, take your things and head back to the changing room. You tip the bag check lady and change into your clean clothes like you would after a regular shower.
There are some similarities but the hammam experience feels completely different in Geneva. First and foremost, it is not limited to just the hammam. There are saunas for those who enjoy sitting in hot, dry air; Turkish baths for those who prefer wet and humid hot air; and the hammam for the exfoliators and black soap enthusiasts. You can even pay to get a massage! Some crazies go through the different baths and rooms, only to end up taking a dip in the lake…
At Bains des Pâquis (I’m willing to give the hammam at Genève Plage a try before I start generalizing), there are two bath areas. A miniscule one marked ‘hammam femme’ for women, barely fitting 6-8 women, and larger co-ed hammam (pictured below).
As you can see from the photo above of the hammam, the basics are just about the same: faucets for hot and cold water, buckets for you to mix the water until the temperature is to your liking, small bowls to help you scoop the water onto yourself, etc. When the room is steamy with heat, the starry ceiling is dreamy: big plus. The big minus for me though is the long, tiled bench. How can I know that it’s clean enough when I sit there? Another aspect that I think detracts from the experience is the complete absence of the social dimension: People walk in, keep quite to themselves and walk out. But perhaps the social aspect was only fun in Morocco where every conversation was a new adventure. This brings me back to the time I went to the hammam with a friend who had nipple rings on both of her breasts – man, was that a conversation starter!
A huge highlight for me at Bains des Pâquis was the Turkish bath: hot, humid, wet and a great view of the lake. When turned on, the windows fog up and takes on a cozy appeal.
For 20 CHF (+1 CHF for the black soap), it’s a cool experience to be had at least once in Geneva. If you’re not so comfortable in your birthday suit, you can always bring your bathing suit.
DON’T FORGET TO BRING FLIP FLOPS or your feet will freeze and you will leave the baths feeling cold rather than warm and relaxed.