Tuesday 17 January 2012

Bathing in Paris

The rather unkind stereotype of the French as a nation unfamiliar with the daily shower is a persistent one. I suppose those who cling to it also believe the French chew garlic, drink red wine for breakfast and wear strings of onions around their necks.

There was a time, however, when indoor washing facilities were basic and the bathroom, as we know it today, a rarity. So what did people do when washing "up as far as possible, and down as far as possible" at the kitchen sink wasn't enough? They went to the public baths, les bains-douches. These were baths in the sense of personal hygiene and were provided as a public service, often in the same establishment as the local swimming pool.  (If you read French, you'll find a very interesting article with photos here: Le Zinc: Bains Douches de Paris.)

Thermes de Cluny
Public baths go back to at least Roman times in Paris — the ruins of the Thermes de Cluny in the centre of the city testify — then were forgotten for a few hundred years before making a comeback in the 18th century. At around the same time the notion of bathing as a leisure activity emerged. The first "swimming pool" in Paris was built in 1785 by Barthélemy Turquin on a floating jetty on the Seine. A few years later the Piscine Deligny opened, also on the Seine, and was a popular feature of public life in Paris until it sank in a storm in 1993.

The first indoor pool was built in 1884 and is still in use today in the 10th arrondissement, Piscine Château-Landon (see below). It wasn't until the building of the swimming pool at the Buttes aux Cailles (13th) (see below) in 1924 that the functions of public hygiene and leisure were strictly separated.

In 1946 the Piscine Molitor was the scene of the birth of an icon: the bikini. It was considered so scandalous that they had difficulty finding models for the presentation, so they got a dancer from the Casino de Paris — who was used to dancing nude — to strut her semi-naked stuff for the occasion. The bikini is of course still with us, but sadly the fabulous Art Deco Piscine Molitor closed in 1989.

Today Paris has 38 municipal swimming pools and 18 bains-douches. The latter are free so if you're in Paris and you need a scrub, you've no excuse. Bring your own towel!

Some of the municipal swimming pools of Paris deserve special mention:

Piscine Château-Landon (10th)

Piscine Château-Landon
(photo: Mairie de Paris)
Built in the Art Deco style, it consists of two pools: 25×10m and 10×6m. The dressing rooms and showers are on a double-level gallery surrounding the pools. The pool is partly lit by natural light thanks to a large glazed wall at one end. If you're around during the Nuit Blanche — an annual all-night arts festival, usually in early October, when many museums, art galleries, and other cultural institutions open and free of charge — try a psychedelic night-time swim accompanied by classical music and multi-coloured lights.

Piscine Pontoise (5th)

Piscine Pontoise
(photo: Mairie de Paris)
This is one of the most aesthetically pleasing pools in Paris and is registered as an official historic monument.  Built in 1933 in the Art Deco style in a striking red-brick building, its opaque glass ceiling allows the natural light come in.  You may have seen Juliette Binoche doing her lengths in the Piscine Pontoise in the film Trois Couleurs: Bleu.  It is one of the city's biggest pools (its main pool is 33×15m) and it has a 1m diving board. The building also houses a gym, two saunas and four squash courts.

Piscine de la Butte-aux-Cailles (13th)

When it was built in the 1920s it was only the fourth public swimming pool in Paris.  It was innovative in that it separated the functions of washing and swimming into two separate sections of the establishment.  Designed by the architect Louis Bonnier, its façade in red brick is in elegant curves with hardly a straight line to be seen.  It is also registered as a historical monument.  The building is lit mainly by natural light: a series of  small windows to light the old bains-douches, and great arching windows for the main building.  The pool's water comes from a natural spring 580m below ground and arrives at a perfect 28°C.

Open-air pools

Six swimming pools in Paris have roofs that open, weather permitting:
  • Roger le Gall (12th)
  • La Butte aux Cailles (13th)
  • Keller (15th)
  • Auteuil (16th)
  • Hébert (18th)
  • Georges Vallerey (20th).

50m pools

Most municipal pools are 25m long, a few are 33m. There are six Olympic-sized pools:
  • Suzanne Berlioux (Les Halles) (1st)
  • Roger Le Gall (12th)
  • Blomet (15th)
  • Keller (15th)
  • Georges Hermant (19th)
  • Georges-Vallerey (19th — built for the 1924 Olympics, this is where Johnny Weissmuller won three gold medals before going on to become a model and then to play Tarzan in twelve films.

Getting there

Addresses, opening times and rates of the municipal swimming pools of Paris:

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Skibbereen Eagle said...

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jordiparis said...

Intéressant article sur ces belles piscines de Paris. On peut aussi signaler la piscine des Amiraux (20ème arrdt, architecte Henri Sauvage) et la piscine Rouvet dans le 19ème.