Pyrenees spas: bathing beauties

These mountains may be running low on pistes, but their thermal springs keep flowing in abundance. In fact, France's spa towns are enjoying a renaissance. Adrian Mourby finds himself in hot, smelly water

It takes approximately 8,000 years for rainwater to percolate down below the Pyrénées before boiling up again, full of sulphur, in places such as Barèges. During that time a lot has happened in this most southernmost valley of France - France for a start.

It's quite a thought, as I stand here with a hosepipe trained on my half-naked body, that the country of Napoleon, De Gaulle and Charles Aznavour did not exist when the water in this hot, smelly jet-douche last saw light of day.

Barèges has had a curious history. The Romans never marched this far. The valley leading up here was pretty much impassable until the invention of dynamite. Then during the Hundred Years' War some English soldiers took a wrong turning and found themselves surrounded by very small, fierce men who claimed to fear nothing but God and avalanches. British squaddies, true to form, nicknamed the diminutive locals "toys"and the nomenclature stuck. Today, many Barègeois still add the suffix "Toy" to their surname.

Later it was noticed that the sulphurous pools in the valley could heal cattle with cut or damaged limbs and so Louis XIV despatched some of his wounded soldiers. In the days before antibiotics the thermal pools of Barèges proved a big success. Hotels were built and a fountain was commissioned from Le Vau, the architect of Versailles. The Bourbons also built a barracks and in 1860 Napoleon III built a sanatorium for French military heroes.

By then, of course, word had got out about these inaccessible valleys in the High Pyrénées. This was the place for a cure. In 1841, Cauterets, a village in the next dead-end valley along, built a public bath-house and very soon the fashionably sick - Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Sarah Bernhardt and George Sand - flocked in. Princess Golitsyn was so entranced that she brought a pretty blue wooden dacha from Russia and had it reconstructed in Cauterets.

What people liked about the Pyrénées was that, being older than the Alps, its slopes were lower and therefore warmer, while fed with the same mineral-rich water. Put simply, you could take a three-week cure in nice hot water without freezing your butt off every time you got out. Then in 1907 the French government enacted a law that spa towns could run casinos and the stage was set for a rash of Pyrénéan thermal pleasure domes. In Luz, in St Lary and in Beaucens-les-Bains it was party time. In Argelès-Gazost they even piped thermal waters 12 miles so they could open a casino.

All that changed after the Second World War when the Fourth Republic decided that it could no longer finance spa treatments as part of the national healthcare scheme. Of all the spas Cauterets declined most spectacularly. The vast Hotels Angleterre and Continental stood empty in Boulevard Latapie-Fleurin, hitherto one of the most fashionable streets outside Paris. The theatres closed and the three casinos reduced to one. Barèges continued to service the military but ladies in muslin no longer gossiped on the Promenade Horizontale.

Both resorts gained a reprieve of sorts with the advent of cheap ski holidays but that didn't stop the burghers of Barèges turning their backs on history and sticking a woeful concrete vestibule on the Napoleonic baths in order to repackage the town for a cellphone-wielding 1980s clientele with no interest in health and heritage. The large imperial plinth of Barèges marble bearing the word Thermes disappeared behind a reception desk.

Now all that is changing. Global warming may mean the Pyrénées is running low on pistes but the baths are back big time and plans have been drawn up to restore the 1860s façade of Barèges. In Bagnères de Bigore a new kind of spa aimed at hedonistas has been opened in the shell of the old thermal baths. Aquensis is a pleasure dome with New Age treatment rooms full of plinky plonky music, a hammam, twin alfresco Jacuzzis, an audiopool where you get to hear more plinky plonky music if you put your head underwater, and a glass-bottomed pool on the roof which doubles as the ceiling for the main building below, so as you enter you see silhouettes of people swimming above you.

Old-fashioned cures have not been forgotten, however. I'm aware of this as Madame Klebb tells me to turn around so she can now train her power hose on my left flank. I'm sure she and her water cannon first saw service during the Sorbonne riots. I hold on grimly to the wall-mounted bars to avoid being flushed away.

Cauterets and Barèges remain proud of their medicinal raison d'être. In numerous white-tiled chambers you can be boiled in thermal waters or wrapped in thermal mud for rheumatism. You can also have the water squirted into your nostrils to cure TB and other respiratory ailments. I've drawn the line at that. Good healthy British catarrh is eminently preferable to having 5,000-year-old sulphur water up my sinuses.

The water torture eventually ends and I thank Madame Klebb for sparing me any further discomfort. I am propelled on my way with a hearty slap in search of my next treatment, something with mud, I suspect.

Two hours later, I emerge into the single 17th-century street that is Barèges as the light is going and skiers are returning from a day at La Mongie. The sun has long since disappeared and yet, for all my complaints, I feel surprisingly good. The cheery shopkeeper who sells long, dangerous knives for a living salutes me as he locks up and I'm equally cheery back.

Maybe there is something to this hot smelly water after all.

HOW TO GET THERE

Adrian Mourby travelled as a guest of the High Pyrenees Tourist Board. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) offers return flights to Pau from Stansted starting at about £80 return. Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; holiday autos.co.uk) offer one week's car rental from £116.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For further information contact the High Pyrenees Tourist Board (00 33 5 62 56 70 40; highpyrenees.com).

1. Pau

An elegant university town surrounded by racetracks, which is also home to the local airport Pau Pyrénées. During the 16th century the Chateau de Pau (00 33 5 59 82 38 00) was home to Princess Marguerite d'Angoulême. She is credited with putting the town on the map as a seat of learning and free-thinking. Pau Tourism (00 33 5 59 27 27 08; pau.fr).

2. Lourdes

The gateway to the High Pyrénéan spa towns has derived its own form of tourism based on the pilgrimages to Bernadette's grotto. There, in 1858, the teenage girl claimed to have seen a number of visions of the Virgin Mary. Today, the faithful come from all corners of the globe in their quest for a healing miracle. The castle was built by the English but surrendered to the French at the end of the Hundred Years War.

3. Bagnères de Bigorre

The largest of the spa towns, it is home to the huge Church of St Vincent and has the best new spa, Aquensis (00 33 5 62 95 86 95; aquensis-bagneres .com), which charges €16 (£11.40) for two hours of self-indulgence. If you're staying the night, check in at Les Petites Vosges (00 33 5 62 91 55 30; lespetitesvosges.com), a brightly painted teahouse with four cheery bedrooms, opposite Aquensis.

4. Pic du Midi

At 2,877 metres this is the highest point in the High Pyrénées. It consists of an observatory (picdumidi.com) accessed by two cable cars up from La Mongie at a cost of €25 (£17.80) return. Founded in 1880, the observatory is famous for taking exemplary photos of the planet Venus. English language audioguides are available for €3 (£2).

5. Barèges

With a population of only 250, Barèges is the tiniest of the Pyrénéan spa towns, with Napoleonic baths and a street plan that dates back to the era of Louis XIV. Stay at Mountainbug (00 33 5 62 92 16 39; mountainbug.com) in Rue Madame de Maintenon, named after the Sun King's wife.

6. Luz-St Sauveur

This imposing spa town clings to the sides of a narrow valley and is crossed by the vertiginous Pont Napoleon III. The 80-metre drop from the bridge is a favourite with bungee jumpers. The thermal baths, Luzea (00 33 5 62 92 30 30), are in Avenue de L'Impératrice Eugénie, which is named after Napoleon's wife.

7. Cirque de Gavarnie

A huge natural amphitheatre on the Unesco World Heritage list. This mountain ridge is cut by La Brèche de Roland, 40m wide and 100m high, that, according to legend, was cut by Charlemagne's nephew, using his sword while attempting to escape the Saracens (or Basques) during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass.

8. Pont d'Espagne

This marks the entrance to the Parc National des Pyrénées, famous for its huge and long waterfall and access to the Marcaudau and Gaube Valleys. The north face of the Vignemale, which is the highest point in the Spanish border range, closes off the upper point of the valley.

9.Cauterets

An 11th-century religious settlement that enjoyed a celebrity makeover in the 19th century once the train route from Lourdes was opened up. A new pleasure pool is currently being built at Le Rocher pavilion opposite the old baths. Stay at Les Ruisseaux (00 33 5 62 92 28 02; lesruisseaux.com) on Route de Pierrefitte.

10. Argelès-Gazost

A busy, low-lying market town that gained its thermal status by piping in water. The casino is looking a bit down at heel but it has recently opened its very own Climate College. In winter it is a good base for skiing the various valleys. Argelès-Gazost tourist board (argeles-gazost.com).

10. Barèges

With a population of only 250, Barèges is the tiniest of the Pyrénéan spa towns, with Napoleonic baths and a street plan that dates back to the era of Louis XIV. Stay at Mountainbug (00 33 5 62 92 16 39; mountainbug.com) in Rue Madame de Maintenon, named after the Sun King's wife.

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