The other side of Vichy, the most elegant city in France

The other side of Vichy, the most elegant city in France

The other side of Vichy, the most elegant city in France

“There is an endless park that needs women with headphones and umbrellas” – Getty

Lying along the Allier river, it is the most elegant town in all of France. Vichy really needs crinoline flounces, and dudes in boatmen and blazers, to get her off to a good start. Indeed, he gets them, during the annual June party that celebrates Napoleon III. Other times, you’ll just have to do your best. Put on your sweatpants or Everton away stripe around here and you’ll look like a real idiot. These are the imperial surroundings.

Or they once were. Vichy, one hour from Clermont-Ferrand, in northern Auvergne, is truly a small spa town on which international and imperial riots have grafted and then detached, leaving a picture of grandeur that today’s 25,000 Vichyssois fill with surprising adequacy .

The most famous spa town in France

As with most spa towns, the Romans were the first to enter. It has since been the most famous place in France, the only French spa among 12 added to the World Heritage List in 2021.

The celebrity therefore resides primarily on the water of the Vichy spring, a sparkling object if ever there was one. Drinking the stuff, getting wet, getting massaged, or better yet, all three consecutively relieves a list of ailments that stretches with every Vichy representative you talk to. Then, the second source of stardom, the radiant asceticism comes with a veneer of historic glamor. In the 1860s, Emperor Napoleon III brought needs, lovers and refinement to the city.

Festivities at the annual Napoleon III party in Vichy - Getty

Festivities at the annual Napoleon III party in Vichy – Getty

He built foamy buildings and chalets and large parks in what was soon Europe’s most famous spa town. The wealthy showed up to drink, bathe, and have their colon irrigated. The city was a favorite of the French colonials. As a local guy once told me: “Many were terrible drinkers. They came for liver relief. ”Given the saucy possibilities lining the baths, it’s not certain that the livers got as much relief as expected.

The streets of the provincial town now flourished with grand classic hotels and over-decorated villas in the manner of the Belle Epoque. The city has hosted world-class performances: opera, classical music but also the Buffalo Bill traveling company. Vichy became a summer capital of France and remained so until the 20th century.

A travel poster advertising Vichy -

A travel poster advertising Vichy – “six hours from Paris” (now only three) – Getty

Don’t talk about the war

Then came the stain. The collaborators moved. Its international status explained the choice of the city in 1940 as the headquarters of the regime of Marshal Pétain, Vichy’s third claim to fame. The place had more accommodations than anywhere in France, bars Paris and Nice. It could absorb ministers, officials and diplomats. It also had the only international telephone exchange in France outside the capital, a nearby airport, and a history of managing the high and the powerful. They felt comfortable there.

Since then, the World War II record has haunted Vichy. Locals don’t like to talk about it much. As former mayor Claude Malhuret said: “The people of Vichy never sought the regime.” It wasn’t their fault that the bad guys chose to settle among them.

Therefore, they have spent a lot of time banishing the ghosts of undeserved notoriety or, at least, making them take their rightful four-year place within a 2,000-year history of spaism and sophistication.

Visitors will always show up to see where Pétain lived and worked, as they search for the site of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. These days, though, the shadows have receded – still vital and darkly fascinating, but primarily a subplot of the sunlit story of Vichy. Makes a fascinating ensemble.

Pétain in Vichy in 1942 - Getty

Pétain in Vichy in 1942 – Getty

A spotless city

There are, as someone clever once wrote, no bad figure for Vichy: “He is the beneficiary of 500 years of investment by wealthy hypochondriacs.” You must start at the Parc-des-Sources, the vast tree-lined epicenter of Vichy life, a delightful central square as provincial France offers.

At one end is a huge glass and metal pavilion, where you can try all five different Vichy waters for free sale. This pushes you into the company of people for whom difference is an important issue. I doubt you will hang around too long. Across the trees, past the orchestra stage and café terraces, is the fantastic opera house and casino, half classic with caryatids, half Art Deco with cast iron and glass. The initial core was built by a British colleague named Badger. Inside, the decor – in the foreground gold and ivory – goes beyond reason in an extravagant way.

This was the noble environment in which French democracy committed suicide. On July 10, 1940, the parliamentarians gave full power to Philippe Pétain, 84. As a plaque in the foyer registers, 80 MPs and senators voted against the Maréchal, but 569 voted in favor. So the marshal had a free hand to reverse the republic, substitute “Work, family and country” for “Freedom, equality and fraternity” – and otherwise complete the task of the Nazis.

The noble environment in which French democracy committed suicide - Alamy

The noble environment in which French democracy committed suicide – Alamy

Most of his work was done right here, on the edge of the Parc des Sources. Halfway there was the large and very elegant Hotel-du-Parc. The first floor became the foreign ministry, the second the offices of the PM and, on the third floor, Pétain himself had rooms from which he theoretically ruled the whole of France (and not just the southern “free” zone). His former apartment has long been owned by an association of nostalgic Pétain fans. You will not enter to visit. On the other hand, you can see – directly in front of the building’s entrance – a plaque on a stone stele commemorating the August 26, 1942 roundup of 6,500 non-French Jews ordered from these premises.

Here, and in the adjacent streets, an eclectic mix of monumental buildings – Art Deco, Gothic, Italian, British with the arched facade – has been put into service as government offices, ministries and embassies. Also, after 1942, the Gestapo headquarters. The wandering is good. Deprived of threats, these streets give Vichy an unusual interest and dignity in a small town.

And then there is the endless park which needs women with hats and umbrellas, but has more joggers than necessary. It is bordered on one side by chalets built by Napoleon III for himself, his mistress and various minions. On the other side, it flows towards the Allier River, full of possibilities for water activities, bars, bistros and other evocative elements of carefree leisure. You may be on vacation. You probably are.

“Vichy has an unusual interest and dignity in a small town” – Getty

Get the waters

Tradition suggests that, in Vichy, you take the waters. Admittedly, the number of “curistes” – or spa users seeking health – has declined since the great spa days in the early 20th century, when around 110,000 arrived each year. The decrease in demand was exacerbated by the limitation of funding from the French health service. If the state didn’t pay, the patients didn’t show up. So Vichy treatments, we now learn, are also extraordinarily effective in the great battles for well-being of the 21st century – the ones that patients pay for themselves – against aging and obesity. I’d tell you more about this but, frankly, the details have slipped below my boredom threshold.

I am not a natural client for spa treatments. Worship at the temple of your body generally makes me want to march to play a trombone and throw the scotch back at me. Nor am I very impressed with the spa “bars” that only sell herbal teas. But on the occasion I went to the most elegant of Vichy’s three spas, I must say that all the bubbling baths and massages made me feel a lot more lively. This was unexpected.

Inside one of the many thermal baths of Vichy - Alamy

Inside one of the many thermal baths of Vichy – Alamy

Farm at the table

Then I went to lunch. This is the Auvergne region and Auvergne does not produce raw carrots. Eat meat. Cattle, sheep and Salers pigs trot out of the farm gate and practically directly onto the dining table. My petit salé lunch included pork cuts for a family of 10, embellished with lentils. Half a bottle of St Pourçain red further nullified all the good I had done in the morning. Vichy has a nice closed-loop system that goes here: fatten them up and soften their arteries so they need spa treatment so they’ll feel guilt-free from overeating and drinking again. Repeat. This has a lot to recommend it. I suggest you follow suit.

Then you could shop or stroll in the oldest part of Vichy. Here is the home of Albert Londres, France’s most famous investigative journalist. He exposed, among other things, the scandal of the French Guiana penal colony. Not far away, the 17th-century Palais Sévigné was requisitioned as Pétain’s second residence in 1940. The then-owner of the palace Elisabeth Risler-François used her presence as the perfect cover to hide a Jewish refugee and organize Resistance activity. Neither Pétain nor the people ever noticed him. The Vichy story is more nuanced than anyone has told you.

Where stay

The best in town is the five-star Vichy Célestins Spa Hotel, associated with the Céléstins spa across the street. The bar and restaurant are also excellent (vichy-spa-hotel.fr; double room only from £ 145). Tighter budgets might try the three-star Hotel Le Midland. It has a definite sense of class (hotel-midland.com; doubles from £ 61).

Where to eat

At Maison Decoret, Jacques and Martine Decoret have a Michelin star, an elegant 19th century setting and prices to match in what is among the best restaurants in Auvergne (maisondecoret.com). Right on the river, La Table de Marlène is also quite elegant, from a gastronomic point of view. It is within the Rotonde premises which also boast a less ambitiously priced bistro overlooking the water (restaurantlarotonde-vichy.com).

How to get there

EasyJet (easyjet.com) and other airlines fly directly to Lyon, from where Vichy is two hours by road or 90 minutes by train. Meanwhile, the Intercité train service from Paris Bercy arrives in Vichy in just under three hours (sncf-connect.com).

Further information

vichymonamour.fr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.