Wash your cares away

The French have put faith in the curative powers of salt water for generations, believing it can heal everything from back pain to cellulite. Sarah Barrell takes the plunge in Biarritz
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Therapy, by its very definition, is meant to be therapeutic: the restoration of mind and body administered by gentle healing hands. Whisper the word at a meditative pitch to conjure images of essential oils, massage and gentle soul-probing on soft cushions. But as I signed in for a thalassotherapy session on a chilly morning in the French coastal resort of Biarritz, it became apparent that somewhere along the line the "feel better" factor had got lost in translation.

Therapy, by its very definition, is meant to be therapeutic: the restoration of mind and body administered by gentle healing hands. Whisper the word at a meditative pitch to conjure images of essential oils, massage and gentle soul-probing on soft cushions. But as I signed in for a thalassotherapy session on a chilly morning in the French coastal resort of Biarritz, it became apparent that somewhere along the line the "feel better" factor had got lost in translation.

"You are supposed to be ready, undressed madam," said a lady with a blinding white lab coat that outshone her smile. "Your therapist is waiting. You should be quick, quick!" she added in French, before doing a sharp about-turn across reception with a precision that could not have been easy in a pair of rubber clogs. Thalassotherapy (treatment with sea-water products) has a long tradition in this part of France and was first taken up by the Greeks along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. By the 1800s Euripides' ancient revelation that "the sea cures the maladies of man" had once again become fashionable. The term (from the Greek thalassa, meaning "ocean") was formalised by a French doctor from Arcachon and business in Biarritz boomed. Empress Eugénie, the nervy wife of Napoleon, quickly gave her seal of approval and the resort-sanatorium was born.

Today, around 250,000 people visit thalassotherapy centres across France every year. The top spas have traditionally been found in Brittany, Monte Carlo and Biarritz, but the therapy also works well as an export. Many French people now travel to resorts in French-speaking Africa (most fashionably Tunisia) for their cures. The French spa hotel group, Accor, is branching out into Dubai this year, and will open the region's first wellness and thalassotherapy resort in November.

In Biarritz, it seemed things hadn't changed that much in the couple of centuries since the area earned its nickname "the madman's coast". Judging by my surly receptionist, now, as then, saltwater therapy is still plainly defined as treatment for the insane. Inside the changing room, things were looking less pernicious. Fluffy white robes dangled with comforting weight from the walls of low-lit cabins, around which lay a smorgasbord of heaven-scented soaps, lotions and potions. I clocked all this at lightning speed while scrambling out of jeans and into a recalcitrant bathing suit, all the while trying to find somewhere to "misplace" the 1920s-style fabric bathing cap I'd been given.

Back in reception I was handed a computerised printout of my séjour. Written in French, it read like the operating instructions for nuclear submarine. "Multijets sous marine" was the first mystifying directive. Beyond the times and places of my appointments, I was lost. But following the procession of purposeful people in towelling, I managed to find the Azur Suite where I was shown to the "marine aerosols" room.

This salon was firmly in the 21st century, and charged with negative ions from a hi-tech lamp. Having not been brought up in outer space, the ultraviolet light felt a tad creepy, but the effect after about 10 minutes was definitely stilling. Experts will tell you that sea water has the same chemical composition as blood. When heated to body temperature, it is thought to enable trace minerals and ions to penetrate the skin, renewing reserves of magnesium, potassium, calcium and some 50-odd other elements depleted from the blood by stress, poor diet and pollution. This was in essence a way to take the sea air 21st-century style.

Summoned out of my space-pod by Madame Brusque, I headed for the bain multijets. As complicated as this had sounded in quick-fire French, the resulting Jacuzzi of lukewarm salt water was straightforward and the coloured disco lights, dancing to the changing pace of the high-pressure jets, went some way to disguising the green seaweed solution around me. Fifteen minutes later, unsure if I felt anything other than sticky, I flopped on to the outdoor terrace overlooking Biarritz's glorious Grande Plage, a curiously public place to be dressed in nothing but a robe. I nodded a demure "bonjour" to the old gents passing with their pedigree poodles and attempted a chic smile as young surfers dragged boards along the beach below.

Next came the seaweed wrap. Algotherapy seemed akin to being a piece of wallpaper, as I was laid out on a table and slapped up and down with a nutrient-rich paste made from Laminaria digitata, a type of seaweed of which more than 50,000 tons are harvested annually in south-western France for thalassotherapy. My therapist deftly covered me in the stuff in under five minutes, then wrapped me in cellophane topped with a heated blanket and thrust an emergency call button in my hand before scooting out and turning off the lights. An I'm-a-spa-lunatic-get-me-out-of-here panic ensued, closely followed by nervous hysterics at the sheer idiocy of my situation. Tip: ill-suppressed giggling does wonders to alleviate the itching that increases as the human sushi wrap heats up.

My maitresse returned 15 squirming minutes later to hose me down with a shower so forceful that I was chased into the corner of the tiled room. A swim in the indoor oceanic pool helped me regain my dignity and calm, more so than the knowledge that I had apparently just shed a month's worth of toxins. The next half an hour was spent gleefully lolling around under cascades of salt water in tiered Jacuzzis. But had I realised that my next treatment was pool-based I might have opted for some towel time. Thalassotherapy has been so successful in dimple-obsessed France because it is supposed to break down cellulite, but my skin was beginning to take on the texture of cold porridge.

"Plié, relevé, et plié les genoux," said a wiry young instructor whose head was just visible above the walls of the "gym pool". Thanks to 10 years of ballet classes this aqua aerobics session, complete with more high-pressure jets, was easy. Less than therapeutic was the close proximity of six octogenarian men exercising alongside me in the tiny pool. I tried not to smirk too much as we filed out half and hour later, like a spectral corps de ballet. It was definitely time for tea.

Thursday afternoon is "tealassotherapy" time at the Biarritz Miramar. In the spa café you'll find well-preserved couples quietly sipping herbal infusions alongside chic thirtysomething women in robes nipped in at the waist tighter than a corset. A stilted conversation with a woman next to me revealed that a certain class of femme Française swears by thalassotherapy for post-natal convalescing; her baby and her dog, she told me, were being attended to by hotel staff.

With everything from weight loss to circulation problems, backache to rheumatism said to be cured by saltwater treatments, women are not the only devotees of thalassotherapy. "Most of our customers come as couples," explained spa director Florence Lude over a cup of jasmine tea. "Traditionally they come for two weeks annually - once to prepare for winter and then again to recover from its effects." Still a couple of treatments away from completing my day's session, I couldn't claim to feel anything other than very, very clean. But one look at my spa partners suggested that there is more to this than sanitation. Current wisdom dictates that French woman don't get fat, despite a diet of pain au chocolat and brie. Perhaps there's something in the water.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies daily from Stansted to Biarritz airport, which is within walking distance of the city centre. Alternatively, bus number six runs every 30 minutes and costs €1.50 (£1). A taxi costs €15 (£11).

STAYING THERE

The Sofitel Miramar (00 33 5 59 41 30 00; www.accorthalassa.com) offers "thalassotherapy discovery" packages from €444 (£305) per person, including two night's half-board accommodation, and three treatments a day. Doubles start at €314 (£224) with breakfast.

WHAT TO TAKE

Treatments are usually taken in the nude, but swimwear including a hat is essential for public areas.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Tourism Biarritz (00 33 559 22 37 00; www.biarritz.tm.fr) The French Tourist Office (09068 244 123, calls cost 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).

Comments