The one daytrip I really wanted to make from Sofia was to Rila Monastery. It’s one of the, if not the, Bulgarian site most touted when I was doing my pre-trip research. (Rila Monastery even made an appearance in an audiobook I enjoyed, Street Without a Name, by a Bulgarian woman who left Sofia as a teenager shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and returned years later to her much-changed country.)
Lots of tour companies offer day visits to the monastery from Sofia, many of them combining the monastery with a stop at Boyana Church, another UNESCO site. I settled on Traventuria, a company that operates mid-sized motor coaches from near the Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral to Rila Monastery and Boyana Church. read more
I added Sofia, Bulgaria, on whim to the 8-night side trip I’d planned for us before our latest house- and cat-sit in Antwerp, Belgium. It was really a matter of “as long as we’re in the area (Bucharest, Romania), why not?” I didn’t know much about either Sofia or Bulgaria before then. Pre-travel research confirmed my general impression of a less-than-wealthy Eastern European capital, still recovering from Communism and still relatively new to the EU. As of the latest census I could find, Sofia has a population of 1.2 million people as compared to Bucharest’s 1.8 million. Bulgaria is both the poorest country in the EU and the fastest shrinking population in the world.read more
I admit I had low expectations of Bucharest. I’ve been to many former Soviet bloc countries and there are certain less-than-positive aspects to them all: the ugly over-sized Brutalist architecture (so often built on the site of historic buildings that would be a treasure now), abundant graffiti (which my dad plausibly chalks up to unleashed freedom of expression), and infrastructure and common areas suffering from the financial costs of Communism. Bucharest definitely has those aspects, but it still boasts a wealth of gorgeous French-style architecture, a picturesque old town, and lots of restaurants, cafés and bars (beyond the “drink till you puke” bars and strip clubs that some Eastern European cities use to entice westerners looking for cheap thrills). Despite some streets still holding onto that grubby party vibe and derelict buildings scattered amongst the pristinely restored, Bucharest has the feel of a city moving up and offers many charming streets, elegant boulevards, and cosmopolitan shopping and dining options at great prices.read more
I recently sent the following to a family member. I can’t count how many times I’ve forwarded this to friends and family and it occurred to me (finally) that I ought to just post it on Wanderwiles. Et, voilà!:
A MONTMARTRE WALK
I always tell people that Montmartre is worth a visit and makes a great walk. A lot of people skip Montmartre because it’s more down-scale and crowded and has some steep walks, but it does have some of the best views and most classically Parisian locales and can be done mostly downhill if you follow the route I’ll set out. It’s not unsafe (I have a friend who owned a jewelry store there and loved the area), picturesque (beyond a certain grunginess) and charming in its own way. There is a large immigrant population in Montmartre, it’s the bustling fabric district of Paris, and it’s full of tourists and a fair amount of party-minded types in addition to merchants and the like, so expect bustling activity, noise and a colorful international vibe going in. Here’s my favorite route: read more
We got our first chance to try De Waterbus yesterday, the river bus that leaves from Antwerp’s Steenplein and makes a 30-minute run to nearby Hemiksem via Kruibeke. De Waterbus is new as of July 2017 so not yet in service when we were here last spring and not so appealing during the cold days when we were in Antwerp last October-November. Yesterday, however, was perfect: warm and sunny; just right for an explore.
The Waterbus leaves every 30 minutes on the hour and half-hour from Steenplein (the pier where the free cross-river ferry to Linkeroever docks, near Het Steen castle). The cost is €3 for a one-way trip or €5, round-trip. De Waterbus has plenty of room and racks for bikes and a nice, air-conditioned interior and public toilets.
It’s fun to watch the bustling water traffic on the Schelde while the banks are mostly high water reeds and grasses or industrial structures. Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe after all.
The Waterbus made a quick stop on the right bank at Kruibeke, but we stayed on to Hemiksem on the opposite bank where walked a short distance to De Veertoren Taverne a pub I’d spotted online for lunch. There’s nothing else near the dock save tidy new homes.
After a nice lunch of steak, frites, salad and ice cold Gouden Carolus Tripels, we hopped the free cross-river ferry to the Kruibeke side of the river. (This ferry runs every half hour on the 14 and 45.) I’d seen Castle Wissekerke in the village of Bezel online and wanted to visit, but had been discouraged in the past by the apparent need for a car. I was excited to realize we could actually walk from a Waterbus stop. Checking Google Maps, I saw it’s actually a much shorter walk to the castle from the bank opposite Hemiksem (2 km) than it is from the Kruibeke Waterbus stop (2.5 miles) even though Bezel is in the Kruibeke municipality. The ferry dropped us off at a small parking lot that gave way immediately to the bike trails of the Kruibeke Polder. “Polders” are manmade emergency flood plains that also serve as extensive biking trails connecting towns throughout Flanders and the Netherlands as well as being nature preserves and walking paths. We were the only pedestrians getting off the ferry and we would have loved to have bikes, but it’s still a nice walk and we enjoyed our stroll through wild wetlands and marshy forest. The bikes are routed away from the cobblestone walking path which is an added benefit for those on foot.
In no time, we arrived at picturesque Castle Wissekerke surrounded by a little lake populated with swans, geese and ducks.
Entrance is €5/adult and happily included an English-language booklet with two paths through the castle, one for the nobility and one for servants. We were turned loose to explore the castle which we had almost entirely to ourselves. It was fun and refreshing to be allowed to look through documents, open secret doors, climb a bell turret, descend to the medieval cellar and kitchen, and generally wander and indulge our curiosity with minimal restraint. (There’s a children’s academy of some sort using a portion of the building and that was one of the few areas we weren’t encouraged to visit.)
The castle was the home of the family of Count Philippe Vilain XIII and is mostly decorated in restored Napoleonic glory. There are many original items as well as period pieces. Although the castle dates back to the middle ages, it’s current iteration is more a mansion than a fortification. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Wissekerke and are happy the Waterbus and ferry made it doable on foot from Antwerp.
We wandered through the terrace of a charming café called Bistro Den Duiventoren next door to the castle and peeked in a little “free museum” and bar across the street which is only open on the weekends before retracing our steps to the cross-river ferry and then catching De Waterbus back to Antwerp.
Katakolon, Greece, is an easy port for cruise passengers. Although Ancient Olympia is the main draw, the quaint waterfront town of Katakolon sits just at the end of the cruise pier. I’d visited Katakolon and Ancient Olympia years ago with my sons. We’d taken an excursion to Ancient Olympia then, but I wanted more freedom on this visit so I’d arranged a Sixt rent car for the day.
In doing my pre-trip research, I found Sixt to offer the best price as well as port-side car drop off. Sure enough, a nice young woman was waiting with a car when we walked off the pier. Some paperwork and a quick inspection of the car to make sure there were no dings or malfunctions that might later be attributed to us and we were off.
I’d downloaded driving directions to Olympia and the Mercouri Estate winery pre-trip and added them to my calendar. Coordinates and addresses at the ready made it easy to program in our destinations and T-Mobile had us connected in Greece and data-ready so Google Maps had us covered. The roads in the area nice and well-signed and it was an easy 30-40-minute drive to Ancient Olympia. Our only slight snag was when Google Maps took us to the tour bus parking. A few questions and a little luck put us in a free parking lot right by the Ambrosia Garden Restaurant and a wide paved footpath that lead across a small creek to the Archaeological Museum of Olympia. (The path is wide with white stone lines laid across concrete and regular intervals. If Ambrosia is on your left, the museum is ahead. The path is visible on Google satellite view of the area.)
We paid €12 apiece for a ticket that granted entrance to the archaeological site and three associated museums: the Archeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Olympic Games and the Museum of the History of the Excavations at Olympia. We decided to save the museum for later and went straight to the archaeological site where we spent a couple of hours wandering the many ruins.
The Archaeological Museum was a great ending to our site visit. Although not large, the collection is impressive and well laid out. The building is modern and well lit and there are clean modern toilets available in an area accessible downstairs and to the left of the main doors as you exit into the outside courtyard. We opted to forego the other two museums.
Walking back along the footpath to our car, we decided that Ambrosia offered a too-easy and appealing place to stop for lunch. We ate outside under a vine-covered lattice and thoroughly enjoyed our Greek lunch.
Back in the car, we drove about 30 minutes straight to Mercouri Winery only to slip through their wide gate just before closing time. I’d downloaded their brochure, but completely forgot that they close at 3pm, Monday through Saturday. Our hostess was a little less than welcoming, but all turned out well. She sold us a tasting of wine and left us to wander on our own, just asking that we avoid a cruise ship tour that was on the property. We preferred to be on our own anyway, so that was no problem…if a little less-than-flattering in her delivery. Oh well.
We explored the gorgeous grounds, sipping our wine and charmed by the peacocks we found, especially the male in full display, slowly rotating at the top of a split stairway leading to the slightly-crumbling original estate house.
A marble marker proclaimed a self-rooted vineyard to have been planted in 1870. Oranges and flowers, antique wine-making equipment and an old well decorated the winery while the sea sparkled in the distance. It was all achingly picturesque.
From Mercouri, it’s a less than 10-minute drive back to Katakolon. With plenty of time until we had to be back aboard ship (and the car rented for 24-hours), we decided to check out a local beach before heading back to town. We found long, sweeping beaches near town lined with houses and totally deserted but with tire tracks showing that these were, as in my native Texas, drive-on beaches. When you have a wealth of beach, it’s a thing.
We dropped off the car in the same spot we’d left it, rendezvousing with the same nice young woman. In our remaining time, we explored the quaint, touristy streets and waterfront of Katakolon. We sampled local food and drink set out in the many shops, finally buying a bottle of honey wine before heading back to the ship.
I rented our little 4-door Volkswagen hatchback online from Sixt for €38.49 including all taxes and fees. (There were lots of taxis waiting at the port as well as cars and vans available for on-the-spot rental. There is also a €10/person train that runs from near the port to Ancient Olympia, but if you miss it coming back, you’re on your own.)
Entry to Ancient Olympia and its museums was €12/person.
Mercouri Winery usually charges €10/person for a tour and tasting. We were charged something less, but I forget what.
By way of comparison, the ship offered a 5h30min. excursion to Olympia and the Mercouri Winery for $179/adult and $159/child. A 5h15min. excursion including a tour of Ancient Olympia, the Archaeological Museum and free time cost $119/adult and $99/child. Neither excursion appeared to include lunch.
After transiting the Suez Canal, our first port in Europe was Piraeus, Greece, the nearest port to Athens. I’d been to Athens a couple of times before, but it had been awhile and I’d never been with David, so we were both really looking forward the day. We wanted to do Athens on our own, though, and planned to take advantage of the Metro system. Not only did the Metro offer freedom of movement, but it is also very cost-effective, particularly when compared with exorbitant cruise line excursions.
Our ship docked at Cruise Terminal C “Alkimos” of the massive Piraeus port. Our Gate was E12, although the gate itself referenced Terminal B “Themistocles” which I think was the terminal building just next to ours where another Celebrity ship was docked. In any event, cruise ships dock at Gates E11 and E12; Gates E1-E10 are docks for the many ferries that service Greece’s scattered islands. The Piraeus Metro station is near Gate E6, a walk we made in about 30-35 minutes. There are buses that run between the far gates and the Metro Station and nearby train station, but we had too little information regarding buses at that point to be sure which one to choose (although we could have asked a driver or waiting passengers) and we were curious to at least see a little of Piraeus before we headed into Athens for the main show.
We walked on a wide sidewalk with the water of the port on our left. The Metro station was eventually on our right, across a broad street. There is usually a pedestrian bridge over the road to the Metro station and nearby train station, but it was closed due to construction along that stretch of the road. Still, between Google Maps (thanks to our T-Mobile international data plans) and following the crowds of people moving with the purposefulness of commuters, it was easy to find the crossing to the station. Just inside the station, we split up with me heading to a bank of ticket machines to the left of the main doors and David getting in line for a live teller to the right. I was easily the “winner” and flagged him away from his slow-moving line as soon as I had our 5-ride passes in hand.
Since Piraeus is the terminus of the Green Line 1 of the Athens Metro system, there was nothing to picking the right train. Metro Line 1 that runs between Piraeus and Athens is the descendent of a steam railway opened between the two cities in 1869. It’s the only one of the three Athens Metro lines that runs primarily above ground. The cars are nice and modern, although on our return to Piraeus in the late afternoon our car lacked adequate air conditioning and I was too warm until I could move into a seat where a breeze through a high, open blew directly on me.
Hoping to beat the worst of the day’s heat, we wanted to check the Acropolis off our list first. We rode the Green Line 1 eight stops to Omonia and changed there for the Red Line to ride three stops to the Akropoli Metro station. We just followed signs and found navigating the Athens Metro to be easy.
The escalator from the Metro station opened onto a cobblestoned, mostly-pedestrian street. A short walk straight ahead in the direction we exited the Metro and a turn to the left found us at the entrance to the Acropolis. Unfortunately, a not insubstantial line was already formed. Given the docking time of our ship, the 8am opening time at the Acropolis, and the travel time to Athens (which was not appreciably longer by Metro than it would have been by bus or car through traffic), we knew there was no way to beat the crowds, but this was daunting.
The hold-up appeared to be only two tellers and an inefficient charging system. Guides hawked tours, promising to the ability to cut the line, and we considered it, although we didn’t want a guide, just the cut. A nearby sign tantalized with the information that online tickets to the Acropolis will be available soon. Oh well, we just waited. It actually wasn’t too bad and we through the line in about twenty minutes. (It did get warm in the sun, though, even in early May. An umbrella/parasol wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially if you find yourself at the Acropolis in the summer.) Although a €20 ticket for just the Acropolis and its slopes is available, we opted for the €30 package ticket that includes the Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library and more.
Crowds were spread out across the expansive slopes and walkways leading up to the Acropolis, so we could view the approach, theater/odeon, etc. relatively comfortably. But, crowds were funneled back together at the main stairs.
This is one of the frustrating facts of visiting someplace on a cruise or when a cruise ship or ships are in port: hordes of people wanting to visit a major site all at once. Having visited on much less crowded occasions, I regretted that this was David’s first glimpse of the famous ruins.
Moreover, extensive work is being done on the Parthenon and other structures, so large areas are cordoned off and work-in-progress is visible from nearly every part of the Acropolis. Despite the drawbacks, it is still one of the great wonders of the ancient world and it was good to be back.
Descending from the Acropolis, we headed north this time, following signs to the Roman Agora. We wandered this small rectangle of ruins, admiring its unique octagonal Horlogion or Tower of the Winds which once housed a 2nd century BC water clock.
Leaving the Roman Agora, we walked down a street bordering a fenced off area containing the ruins of the Library of Pantainos, then turned right down a street (Vriskaiou) drowning in graffiti towards the ancient Plaka district and the much larger grounds of the Ancient Agora.
Like the Roman Agora, the Ancient Agora was included in the combination ticket we’d bought at the Acropolis. Highlights of the Ancient Agora area include the massive Temple of Hesphaestus and the beautifully rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, a many-pillared, 2-story building with long open porticos and which houses a small museum.
The grounds are also lovely with paths wandering through flowering plants. There’s also a small Byzantine church on the site dating back to the 11th century, The Church of the Holy Apostles, with stunning wall paintings once hidden beneath plaster.
Hungry after our busy morning and ready for a break from the heat, we chose a restaurant, To Uovli, just outside the entrance gate to the Ancient Agora. Their lunch special offered “homemade” fare, including great bread, a hearty Greek salad for 2, moussaka and chicken gyros plus two glasses of beer for €28. Sitting outside in the shade and overlooking the Ancient Agora, it was a near-perfect break, marred only a tiny bit by the too-dry gyros.
Sated, cool and happy, we headed off after lunch to explore the rabbit warren of shops in the Plaka a we made our way to the Athens Flea Market.
Syntagma Square and the hourly changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building was my ultimate destination. There was no way I would let David miss that unique ceremony!
We arrived at the front of the Parliament right on schedule and staked out a spot at the front of a growing group of people. The ceremony was everything I’d remembered from previous visits, the unusual uniforms, over-sized pom-pom-bedecked shoes, and almost-absurdly-stylized steps a unique mix of solemn and almost funny. I couldn’t shake images of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks no matter how hard I tried to focus on the somber symbolism of the ceremony and the eternal flame in front of the tomb of an unknown World War II soldier.
After the ceremony, we ducked into the iconic Hotel Grande Bretagne to admire the beautiful lobby before taking an elevator upstairs to admire the view over Syntagma Square from the top-floor bar. (We also availed ourselves of very nice bathroom facilities. An early lesson I taught my sons when traveling with them: You can often skip unpleasant–and often for-pay–public bathrooms by dressing neatly and walking confidently into a high end hotel. I’ve never been stopped.)
Happy with our day and ready to head back to the ship, we got on the Metro at the Syntagma station, rode two stops to Omonia and changed to Green Line 1 for Piraeus. Scanning a bus schedule at the Piraeus Station, we saw we had several options for buses back to the ship. We walked back to the main road on the waterfront to a nearby bus stop and caught bus 843 which dropped us off in less than 10 minutes right at Gate E12 and our ship.
Practical info: The Athens Metro/Tram/Bus tickets cost €1.40/ride and are sold on a non-personalized ticket for €7 for 5 rides in 24 hours and €14 for 10 rides in 3 days. You can reload the cards at machines in every Metro station. I had no trouble paying at the machine in Piraeus with my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card.
The Acropolis is open 8am-8pm with the last entrance at 7:30pm. Tickets to the Acropolis and its slopes are 20 and the combination tickets are 30 and include 1. Acropolis and its slopes, 2. Ancient Agora and the museum at the Stoa of Attalos, 3. Roman Agora, 4. Hadrian’s Library, 5. Olympieion, 6. Kerameikos (Archaeological Site and Museum), and 7. Aristotle’s Lykeion. Pay in cash or card and the entrance to the Acropolis. Hopefully, TICKETS SHOULD AVAILABLE ONLINE SOON to avoid the long queues.
By way of comparison, Celebrity offered a 6h45m excursion which included motor coach transportation, entry to the Acropolis, the New Acropolis Museum (which we decided to skip in favor of the Agoras and Syntagma, but which does look excellent), a souvlaki lunch and free time in Plaka for $179/adult and $159/child. We spent €102 (about $119) in total for our day (Metro/bus tickets, Acropolis combination tickets and lunch).
I visited my first hammam years ago in the Marais during my second stint living in Paris. I’d been super intrigued and curious about the hammam experience, but with my then-fairly-limited French, cultural uncertainties, and doubts about dress and modesty and expectations and such, I hesitated to go. When a friend who’d been living in Paris many more years than I had and who swore by semiannual “gommage” (exfoliation) treatments at a favorite hammam invited me to go with her, I jumped on the chance. It was a fun–and kind of crazy–experience, lounging around with lots of other naked and semi-naked women in clouds of steam, then being roughly scrubbed by a burly Tunisian woman (who nearly smothered me with her ample bosom as she leaned over me to work) before sending me off to recover with hot mint tea. I felt like a prize heifer ready for the show. The hammam was a far cry from the gentle, pampering spas favored back home in the States, but boy, was I scrubbed pink and seriously exfoliated!
On our current stay in Paris, I’d put another round of gommage high on my to-do list. Older and more confident, less modest, with my one hammam experience under my belt, and with much-improved (if still sadly lacking) French, I was ready to give it another go. The old hammam in the Marais is now closed, but I’d always wanted to try the hammam at the Grand Mosque of Paris so figured now was the perfect time.
A quick check online showed that reservations aren’t required and that the hammam at the Grand Mosque is open every day but Tuesday. I settled on Wednesday, reasonably early (around 11am), hoping for a less-busy time, and that’s what I found. So, for those intrigued by a visit to the Grand Mosque’s hammam but maybe feeling a little intimidated, here’s a step-by-step walk-through of my experience and what to expect:
Start by entering at the corner of rue Geoffroy-St-Hilaire and rue Daubenton (across from the southernmost corner of the Jardin des Plantes). The door is literally set into the corner. [The entrance to the mosque itself is a block away, on the far side of the building from the Jardins des Plantes on rue Georges Desplas, although the mosque gives its official address as 2bis Place du Puits de l’Ermite, 75005 Paris, which is a small square off rue Georges Desplas.]
You walk through a pretty little courtyard and enter as if you were going to the mosque’s café.
There’s a counter with pastries on display; the cafe is to the right, the double doors to the hammam are tucked inconspicuously in the corner, just to the left of the pastry counter as you face it. No need to talk to anyone at this point, just push the door and go on in.
You’ll find yourself in a colorfully painted waiting room/seating area with another set of double doors on the far wall. Go through those doors to find the welcome counter/front desk of the hammam where you choose and pay for the services and any items you’d like to purchase or rent for the day (exfoliating glove, soap, towel, bathing suit, etc.)
Options ranged from a simple entry to visit the hammam and enjoy its sauna and bathing facilities (18 €) to various “forfaits” or package deals, the most expensive of which includes lunch. I chose the “Forfait 53 €” which included:
1 Entrée Simple (unlimited time to use the hammam’s facilities for the day)
1 Massage 20 (a 20 minute massage with orange blossom-scented oil)
1 Gommage (exfoliation)
1 Savon Noir (a packet of special black soap of a soft-wax consistency)
1 Thé à la menthe (a hot, sweetened mint tea to finish off my visit)
I also paid €6 for an exfoliating glove (“gant”). The hammam accepts cash or credit cards.
The lady at the counter gave me three plastic disks on stretchy wristbands to act as tickets. These were engraved with “GOMMAGE,” “MASSAGE 20M,” AND “THÉ.”
The lady indicated two boxes of plastic shower slippers behind me opposite the desk and told me to take off my shoes and choose a pair of slippers. I wore these for the rest of the day until ready to leave.
Adorned with my “bracelet” tickets and carrying my glove and packet of soap as well as the bag containing the towel, a hair clip, dry underwear and a few toiletries I’d brought, I headed across the massage area and through a door to the right that leads to the long, narrow locker and changing area. Only one other woman, a Frenchwoman of about my age, was in the changing area when I arrived. We exchanged a few words as we disrobed and tried to figure out the system; it was both of our first visit.
Unlike the previous hammam I’d visited, signs state that the hammam of the Grand Mosque requires a “bathing suit” in the interests of hygene; total nudity is not allowed. The term “bathing suit” is very loosely interpreted, though. Panties/underwear or bikini bottoms are fine. Tops are optional and quite a few women, myself included, opted for topless.
Be sure to bring a 1€ coin to operate the lockers. You can’t lock or remove the key (also on a stretchy wristband) without the coin. It will be returned to you when you return the key.
Leaving the dressing area, the showers and toilet areas are through a door to your right (directly across the vaulted massage area from the front desk). Toilets and sinks are to the right through that door. Showers and hard plastic gommage tables are to the left. Showers are mandatory before using the hammam, but I wasn’t exactly sure how that would work, so I originally brought my towel with me to the showers. Mistake. Leave your towel in the locker until the end of the day, or at least until just before your massage. There’s nowhere to set down a towel that isn’t wet and you’ll be soaking wet (and plenty warm) from the steam anyway.
[Photos aren’t allowed in the hammam and I was able to take these after I’d re-dressed only because it was a slow day and no women were in the rooms at the time. From here on out, I can’t offer any more photos from inside the hammam.]
Communal, two-headed showers are on either side of the gommage space with a stone ledge along one wall between the showers. When I arrived, a gommage was in progress and two ladies were lounging on the ledge. One, an older, solid-built woman was topless and had her underwear pulled aside while she did a bit of exfoliating on her own with one of the rough green gloves sold at the hammam and a bucket of water. So much for American modesty! The other, smaller woman appeared to be in a bra and panties. Above them on a high ledge, stacks of plastic buckets were available for visitors. On a central table, a hammam employee scrubbed away at a guest on one of the hard plastic gommage tables. (There is a small private room with tables just outside the shower and toilet area that I gather can be booked for those uncomfortable with the communal atmosphere of the hammam.)
The showers were so hot as to be nearly scalding. Attempting to moderate the heat simply turned off the flow. Hmm. I made quick work of the shower, using a bit of the oily black soap from the packet I’d bought with my package.
Finding the shower/gommage area to be small and not particularly attractive, I moved on to the next room which was mildly heated with a ledge and garden hose with sprayer on the far wall. A couple of women were sitting there, but I moved on to the next room, the main steam room, a lovely and large, multi-vaulted space.
Two long marble ledges run down the long sides of the room, divided into six separate seating/lounging areas (three on each side), each with an alcove on the back wall with hot and cold water faucets and a little basin. These long ledges flank a large round central platform (10′ or so across), also of marble and sporting a large 8-sided star motif in red, yellow and black. A central dome rose above, collecting a cloud of steam. A couple of women sat on one of the side ledges, splashing water from a plastic bucket onto themselves as they leisurely washed and visited. I chose the central space on the opposite side and stretched out on the warm, wet marble. I closed my eyes or gazed up at the mottled blue of the painted vault above me, occasional drops raining down. This room has the look of a classic old hammam: off-white marble covers the floor and ledges; red granite lower walls give way to blue mosaic tiles on columns which in turn support the mottled blue upper columns and vaults. Small colored windows high on the walls let in a soft light and a little occasional sound from the street, but offer complete privacy.
When I felt ready for a little more heat, I moved into the farthest room of the hammam. This smaller space offers a low marble ledge to the left, a faucet straight ahead with delightfully cool water, and a raised, red granite hot-tub-sized dipping pool to the right, all under a high vaulted ceiling. Today, the pool was unfortunately empty–but pristine–for some sort of maintenance. The heat is such in the room that there is a huge difference depending on where you sit. On the lower ledge to the left, it wasn’t so bad. If I moved to sit by the little pool, up higher, the moist heat was so intense it burned my lips. I could only take short stays in this room, but enjoyed moving back and forth between this space and the large vaulted steam room. I soon claimed a plastic bucket and would fill it up with the relatively cooler water to splash on myself from time to time as I lounged in the large vaulted room and daydreamed. It was a pattern the other women followed as well.
I exchanged a few words with the other visitors, but mostly people kept to themselves or visited with the friends they’d come with. The older lady from the gommage/shower area asked me to hand her down a stool from a high ledge. People commented on the heat or shared info about the hammam, but mostly we just lounged about. At most, there were maybe only a dozen women, of various ages and body types. I felt like I’d entered a scene from some long-ago-far-away place, relaxed and dreamy in the clouds of steam, unselfconscious in the all-female atmosphere.
Periodically, one of the gommage or massage ladies would walk through the steam rooms, eye the tickets on our wrists and beckon to one of the guests. Eventually, it was my turn to follow one of these women back to the gommage area. I laid down on the hard white plastic table and handed her the gommage glove I had purchased. She put it on and went to work. Wow. At one point, I wondered if she might scrape me down to raw meat. (I think I should have re-slicked myself with the weird black soap beforehand, although when I asked her about that, she told me it wasn’t necessary. She may have been more worried about her schedule than my skin, though.) She scrubbed me pink, lifting my arms, pulling aside my bikini bottoms to get at my haunches, the dead skin sloughing off onto the table. (Sorry! But, that’s how gommage works.) When she was done, she hosed off the table and floor while I hit the showers again before heading back to the steam rooms.
I visited with two English-speaking ladies in traditional bathing suits in the smaller, least-heated room until I was called for my 20-minute massage in the beautiful main massage area by the front desk (see top photo above). I went to my locker to deposit my glove and soap packet and dry off beforehand.
The massage began face-up on a padded, towel-covered table. The masseuse used copious amounts of orange blossom-scented oil, covering me from head to toe, even oiling my chin and the sides of my nose, massaging my temples and scalp. If your complexion can’t handle oil, just let them know not to do your face. It was delightfully relaxing, though, albeit leaving my hair a total oil slick. Oh well, I’d known a shampooing was in my future after the hammam anyway.
Once again, modesty is at a different level than in the States or many anglophone countries: Another masseuse worked on another guest at a table maybe six feet away. Oh well, I closed my eyes and totally forgot about them. “My” masseuse rubbed chest and belly as well as back, neck legs and arms. The hammam massage is more a firm rubbing and kneading than some sports massages I’ve had where elbows and knuckles are used to break the grip of painful knots. It’s relaxing and luxurious and a delightful way to end the day (and recover from the more business-like work of the gommage).
With the massage done, I tried rinsing some of the thick oil off in the shower, but found it pointless. So, I just wiped off as much as I could with my towel and got dressed save for my shoes and coat. (The plastic grocery bag I’d brought for wet things was put to good use.) My hair was so oily that I just slicked it back and re-clipped it for the ride home on the Métro. Not exactly glamorous. Again, oh well.
I exchanged my one remaining plastic ticket at the front desk for a small tray with paper napkin and a steaming glass of sweetened mint tea. I carried these to one of the padded ledges around the massage area where I kicked off my slippers and stretched out my legs to enjoy my drink. I’m generally not a fan of sweetened tea, but this was delicious! As I sipped, the older full-figured lady I’d first seen topless in the shower/gommage area added her last layer of black, traditional Muslim clothing before heading out. I bid her “au revoir” and a “bonne journée” which she returned. It’s good to be reminded how we’re all just people under our clothes.
Practical info: I spent about 2 hours total at the hammam, feeling that I’d done things at a comfortable, leisurely pace. With company, it wouldn’t have been hard to stay longer. The hammam at the Grand Mosque of Paris is open every day but Tuesday from 10am to 7pm. Details about the hammam are online here. Note: the hammam is cleaned with chlorine for anyone having a sensitivity.
The nearest Métro stops are Jussieu (lines 7 and 10), Place Monge (line 7) and Censier-Daubenton (line 7).
Things to bring: a towel, a euro coin for the lockers, a credit card or money, a clip or tie to get hair off your neck, dry undergarments, basic toiletries (shampoo, if you want it; cosmetics, etc.), a brush or comb, a plastic bag for your wet towel and bathing suit.
Don’t wear much or any make-up to the hammam, especially mascara; it will be steamed off you or smeared down your face in no time. Don’t expect to get out of the hammam with presentable hair.
David and I visited the adjacent mosque before I sent him away to enjoy my time at the hammam. Entrance to the mosque and its gardens is €3 per person. Head coverings are not required for women, although I did wear a scarf out of respect. Prayer rooms are off-limits to tourists. Open 7 days/week, find more about the Mosque here.
Yesterday was the first Sunday of the month (December), which means Free First Sunday of the Month at the Louvre and many other Paris museums. (The Louvre and the Rodin Museum are free on first Sundays between Oct. 1 and March 31. Other museums offer Free First Sundays all year. See the bottom of this article for more info.) I’ve heard and read the horror stories about Free First Sunday hordes, so wanted to check it out myself so I could report what I found on Wanderwiles. I’ve been to the Louvre more times than I can remember and am a past member of Amis du Louvre, so I’ve always avoided these Sundays. Since we’re just in Paris for a month this time, David and I decided we’d give the Louvre a miss on this visit unless First Sunday surprised us…and it did!
First off, we decided NOT to be waiting when the museum first opens at 9am. Although I’ve seen recommendations to do that, I’ve also heard that there are huge lines waiting at the opening which thin over time. Also, we wanted to go to the first Sunday of Advent at the American Cathedral at 11am. So, we went to church, walked the pedestrian-only Champs-Elysées (another first Sunday of the month thing), then rode line 1 of the Métro to the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre stop so we could enter the museum by the underground Carrousel du Louvre entrance (thereby hopefully avoiding any line at the above-ground pyramid…and the cold drizzle of the day).
UPDATE: As of June 2018, the Porte des Lions entrance on the Seine side arm of the Louvre has re-opened to regular individual ticket holders. (It had been designated group-only for awhile.) This has always been my favorite every day entrance for quick access to La Grande Gallerie and the Mona Lisa (just up the stairs from this entrance and mid-way down the gallery on your left). However, the Porte des Lions entrance has previously been closed to all on free first Sunday and may still be so. Also, the Porte des Lions entrance is now only open to individuals who already have a ticket or museum pass. Buy Louvre tickets online here. (As mentioned below, this portion of the Louvre is more prone to excessive crowds on free first Sundays.)read more
While I drop in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris any time I walk by and there’s not a line, it’s always extra special to visit during a service. One particularly special ceremony to look out for is the Vénération de la Couronne d’épines (Veneration of the Crown of Thorns).
Everything about the veneration contributes to the beauty and religious aura of the famous cathedral: The clouds of incense, the music, the cloaked men and women, the ritual kissing of the gold and glass reliquary which houses a woven crown of reeds, now minus its thorns. The thorns were dispersed over the centuries, some 70 of which have been affirmed as original by the Catholic Church.
The Veneration of the Crown of Thorns takes place on the first Friday of every month and every Friday of Lent at 3pm. On Good Friday, the veneration lasts from 10am to 5pm. Dressed in white cloaks, the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (“les chevaliers du Saint-Sépulcre de Jérusalem”) assist the church canons with the service and help maintain order and a prayerful attitude. (They keep a watchful eye for the over-zealous. Apparently, one or two fervent worshippers have “rushed” the crown in the past.)
Like most things at Notre Dame, the Veneration of the Crown of Thorns is free and open to the public. You can participate in the service (including kissing the relic) or simply view the proceedings while standing on the sides, just beyond the roped off area (from where I took these photos). Just remember to be quiet and respect the dignity of the ceremony and the sanctity of the moment for participants.