In the first spa town we visited, Vichy (famous for curing rheumatism), the covered promenades in the Parc des Sources and the grand architecture of the baths gave the town a cosmopolitan air, and it was easy to forget the town's healthy origins. When we saw the narrow roads that cling to the mountains, and giant volcanic outbursts of rock, Le Mont-Dore's history as a spa (and centre for the treatment of asthma) was more obvious.
The tourist office here was intent on playing down its watery associations and, instead, on making the most of the town's sensational situation, strung out along a rift in the mountains alongside the Dordogne. The emphasis was on hearty outdoor pastimes such as hang-gliding, angling and skiing. Nevertheless, occupying pride of place in the place du Pantheon are the flamboyant arches of the Etablissement Thermal, set on the site of a former Roman baths. And, despite the best intentions of the tourist office, the morning congregation was determinedly taking the waters.
A similar sight greeted us on our way up the funicular railway, which climbs up to the wooded plateau of Le Capuchin between banks of broom and rosebay willow herb. Below us, the benches of the open-air theatre were packed with people watching the somewhat elderly dancing health- consciously on the stage; first the foxtrot, then the waltz, all to a blare of music.
Down the road from Le Mont-Dore is La Bourboule, (specialising in allergies) with its Grands Thermes, and several majestic buildings that once housed private baths. And, a little further on, Volvic has turned its mineral water into a worldwide industry. You can take the waters here, but only as part of a factory visit, and from plastic bottles.
It was in Chatel-Guyon ("cite du magnesium" and the "number one spa centre for treating digestive tract conditions") that the prospect of taking the waters really began to appeal. This was partly due to the hotel. We had fixed on the Hotel Splendide, but as we made our way there we kept coming up against the Hotel Continental, standing full square on the hill, huge and imposing above the neo-Byzantine splendour of Les Grands Thermes. All roads seemed to lead to it.
We dithered, we drove from one to the other, decided on the Continental - and stepped back into "la belle epoque". Our room had no television but it did have a chaise-longue, a deep leather armchair, marble-topped bedside tables, and windows opening on to a balcony constructed from delicate filigree ironwork. The freestanding bath had claw feet. The shelves of the armoire were lined with fresh paper and, from our bed, we could see across the jumbled orange roofs to Calvary Hill - once the site of Gui II's castle (hence the name) and now of a cross erected by "the Mission" in 1884, and lit up in neon at night.
But it was the public areas of the hotel that worked the time-machine trick best, with floors and panelling that had the shine that comes from loving care, a grand ballroom with great mirrors and, most evocative of all, a dozen little polished tables attended by leather chairs - which would be the perfect setting for bridge afternoons.
In the morning we went to the breakfast room and sat by the window overlooking the well-named jardin sauvage spilling down the hillside. How civilised, I thought: linen napkins and individual napkin rings. But then we were ousted: the table belonged to two regulars, and we were relegated, as mere newcomers, to a table near the kitchen door and paper napkins. There was, we realised, not a guest there under 70. Which rather summed up Chatel- Guyon altogether.
The park, the Point de Recontre, with its walks and games daily at 3pm, was a subdued reminder of former times. But between 5pm and 7pm the forecourt of the Grands Thermes thronged with curistes - strolling or sitting, chatting in clusters of chairs, each had a little bottle encased in wicker dangling from his or her wrist. This was when they took the waters from the spring Miraton et St-Han, under its central shelter. Then suddenly, at 7pm, the crowds melted away, and the lady at the spring mopped the counter, crawled out underneath and trotted briskly off until next day.
There is a normal life; on market day the street leading up to Calvary and the astonishing frescos in St Anne's Church were heaving. The town's fine architecture - Art Nouveau, Romanesque, solid suburban - and splendid countryside has plenty to offer younger visitors. But, between May and October, health is the town's priority. And the tourist office takes its job seriously with lists of doctors, "guides du curistes" and copies of the Auvergne Thermale magazine all readily available.
The baths remain stupendous, with their mosaic floor, vaulted ceiling, indented carved rosettes, curving staircases and columns of rose-red marble. And, though Chatel-Guyon's heyday is past (the Grand Hotel has been turned into apartments and, in the casino, the delicate Art-Nouveau gazelles and ears of corn carved on the columns are obscured by the one-armed bandits each with a pensioner hard at work), the curistes were having a whale of a time.
Soirees dansantes seemed to be all the rage. One day there was a dansante on the terrace by the casino, a seven-strong orchestra playing with gusto in the bandstand, the dancers equally energetic. A great red banner hung from the roof of the Continental, declaiming "le bal" on Friday night. The card tables were removed from the ballroom and repositioned in the hall and corridors. Each was laid with a tablecloth, an arrangement of flowers and a set of namecards. When we able-bodied holidaymakers went up to bed, the rugs had been rolled back for dancing. Being an invalid looked rather good fun.
Hotel Continental is at rue du Docteur Gubler, 63140 Chatel-Guyon (00 33 4 73 86 08 85). Tourist Information Offices are at: avenue de la Liberation, 63240 Le Mont-Dore (00 33 4 73 65 20 21), 1 avenue de l'Europe, 63140 Chatel-Guyon (00 33 4 73 86 01 17). `Auvergne Thermale' magazine is available from tourist offices and Thermauvergne, Residence `Les Chataigniers' , 8 avenue Anatole-France, 63130 Royat (00 33 4 73 34 72 80). Or visit their website at www. auvergne-thermale.tm.frReuse content