Happy hours at the watering hole

Andrew Eames had a divine time splashing and drinking his way round the mineral springs and spas of the Vosges mountains
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The Independent Travel
I arrived in the Vosges mountains in the wake of a rainstorm. But the conditions were absolutely apt: I was there to track down water - lots of it.

Good old H2O is a precious commodity these days, and from the map it was clear that I'd come to just the right place. My train had to weave between ribbons of blue rivers named Marne, Meuse, Madon and Moselle.

The Vosges lie 200 miles to the east of Paris, not far from the wine route of the Alsace-Lorraine. But the country's number two drink wasn't good enough for me: it had to be the water route, and a good flushing out with watery degustations from Contrexeville to Plombieres les Bains.

Mineral water is big business in France, far bigger than wine in terms of volume sales. At the last count there were 1,200 varieties in the shops, each with its own particular quality. Did you know, for example, that Evian is for babies, and Vichy for gout?

The Vosges is the source of two of the top-sellers, Vittel and Contrex, which is second only to Evian in France. Whole leisure industries have grown up around their springs.

Vittel has had an invigorating effect on its environment: the immaculate town is full of chateau hotels and imposing houses, and the countryside around is a healthy verdure of golf courses and carefully tended woodland. Brand owner, Nestle, has been busily buying up more land to ensure that no pollutants sully the sources. Insecticides and herbicides are out, natural predators are in.

Vittel has three springs. Which of them, I wondered, should become my tipple? The spa director, Mme Melcion, outlined the choice. Grand Source, she said, was for kidney stones - to flush them out, drink six litres a day for three weeks. Bon Source was used externally for spa treatments - drinking it would make me pee. Hepar, however, was rich with minerals, effective against stress-related ailments like my twitching eyelid, and I'd only need to drink a litre of it every day. But I should be sure to take at least 10 minutes over each glass, and have the first before even getting out of bed.

So, sloshing around from my first Hepar (smooth, heady, with a slight gooseberry nose) I entered the elegantly colonnaded halls of the spa, designed by the same Charles Garnier who created the Paris Opera, to be sprayed with Bon Source.

But I'm not really a spa sort of person. My ethos is that if it doesn't hurt, isn't cold, and doesn't take place early in the morning, then it can't be doing any good. It did occur to me though, when ordered by a white-coated woman with a powerjet to face the wall, that I could have had a similar experience at the hands of the riot police.

The slimmer's spa of Contrexeville, opened in 1774, lies six kilometres to the south-west. Much patronised by Napoleon III, it's a bit more aristocratic than Vittel - and a touch more discreet. In the early hours the Contrex clientele were discussing their operations over fat-free croissants. Most people, said spa director Dr Annie Mazuy, would be following a specially drawn-up plan which incorporated exercise, spa treatments, and food and water intake into an overall slimmer's package, the Forfait Minceur. Even the hotels had special menus du jour. My scrummy three-course lunch in the Hotel Cosmos (artichokes, roast rabbit and orange Charlotte) totalled a mere 650 calories, barely more than a Mars bar. And if I felt hungry, said Dr Mazuy, then I should drink Contrex: it would replace any mineral shortfall. Dr Mazuy gave me a guided degustation in the glass-walled rotonde. Most of the springs tasted like, well, water, but the Source-Great-Source had a remarkably sulphurous nose. By mid-morning I had a bit of a bouquet myself. Battered in green goo, wrapped in cling- film and left to cook, I smelt like something the Japanese would have happily eaten raw. The distinct impression of high tide did not leave me until the end of the day.

But the Contrex speciality, said Dr Mazuy, was a four-hand, underwater massage. An increasing number of men are going on spa cures but I'd challenge any of them not to feel fearful of their bodily response when faced with Sandrine, Pascaline and the Vaseline. "Four-hand" turned out to be the massage equivalent of synchronised swimming, complete with smiles, and "underwater" meant lying under parallel sprinklers squirting Contrex.

Thank God I'm a true Brit, and kept my trunks on. Two belles in bathing suits massaging a chap with lubricant may be a deeply relaxing experience for some, but I can tell you that as soon as their hands started heading north I was concentrating furiously on the most unpleasant episodes in my life. After that, the countryside was a relief.

The description "mountains" over-glorifies the rolling, forested landscape of the Vosges. I had taken it literally, and picked up a car in Vittel, but I should have rented a bicycle and chosen the back roads. The water route lopes across gentle hills, crosses the Canal de L'Est, and pauses in the third spa, Bains-les-Bains. This is how French spas used to be: a little old and sad. Bains-les-Bains clients are true curistes, recommended by their doctors and largely funded by the state. Once upon a time, France's 108 spas catered mainly for colonial officers and soldiers purging their systems, but, today, with more antibiotics, fewer colonies, and tighter government purse strings, the - pardon me - bottom is falling out of that market.

Although both Vittel and Contrexeville still had handfuls of state-funded curistes, they had also courted new, well-heeled businesses. The resort's substantial casinos alone were indicative of that. Bains-les-Bains was thinking about trying to bridge that gap, but the town was a significant step behind the last spa on the route, Plombieres-les-Bains.

Plombieres is a trellis of alleys, railings and wrought-iron balconies wedged into a deep fissure of a valley about 50 miles south-east of Vittel. In the space of 100 yards there are 27 different springs in the valley bottom, some of them up to 80 degrees C. None of them are bottled but each is supposed to have a slightly different curative property, ranging from the spine (Source Alliot) to the eyes (Source Sainte Claire). Of all the watering holes, Plombieres' art deco rotonde had the feeling of easily familiarity, of a meeting point for the same folks year after year.

Romans used to lounge around in a mineral water piscinae at Plombieres, and today's treatments are housed in the original buildings: the underground galleries date from Roman times, and the rest of it from the era when Louis XV, Napoleon III and consumptive authors hung out in the hope that the water might flush away their diseases.

Plombieres' renovated spa, Calodae, is charmingly amateurish, compared to Vittel and Contrexeville and, at just Fr65 (pounds 7) for two hours with a choice of 10 treatments, cheap. Accordingly, it's full of novices like myself, wandering around the corridors, peering into cubicles, grinning inanely, and being squirted at from all ends.

This year Calodae was opend up by the town hall. Their idea is to re- vitalise a struggling community, and so far it has worked well, to the consternation of the grander establishments. But there are horrors here too. On the list of special extras is vaporisation anale and the tantalising goutte a goutte rectal. To get from any dangerously wandering hosepipe, I wrapped myself in a bathrobe and disappeared down the Roman tunnel to get up a good sweat in the hammam. Then, when my egg-timer told me I was in danger of melting, I relocated to the ceramic room. There I discovered that by barely moving my diaphragm I could make the room echo with a sound that blended pop group Portishead with Gregorian chant.

I'm not sure whether it was the Hepar, the Contrex, the Vittel or the fear of vaporisation anale, but I emerged from the Vosges with my flickering eyelid completely cured. My bouncy bits do still quiver, however, when I remember that awesome trinity, Sandrine, Pascaline and the Vaseline.

VOSGES fact file

Getting there

Vittel is five hours by train from Paris, and an hour by car from Strasbourg airport. Cars and bicycles can be hired in Vittel. The water route (route thermale) is clearly marked with blue signs.

Where to stay

Various packages are offered by the spas, from walk-in treatment lasting just one day right up to a complete cure lasting for three weeks.

The biggest presence in Vittel is Club Med, which fills four of the key hotels and has access to all the leisure facilities and treatments (tel: 0171 581 1161). An all-inclusive week costs from pounds 588, but spa treatments are extra.

In Contrexeville, contact the spa direct (tel: 0033 329080868, fax: 0033 329082540). A week's slimming package, with hotel, activities, spa treatment and special diet menus, costs from Fr4,240 (pounds 450) per person.

Plombieres les Bains is more geared to attracting day or weekend visitors. A two-night, half-board package in a one-star hotel, with various town visits, and four hours in Calodae, costs from Fr814 per person. Arrangements are made via the tourist office (tel: 0033 329660130 or fax: 0033 329660194).