Vichy: A splash in the waters of life

Indigestion? Problems with your gall bladder? General aches and pains? Liz Jensen seeks an antidote in Vichy's spas

The Auvergne is France's Wild East: a violent, dramatic region of thick forests, extinct volcanoes, and thrilling electric storms. Three hours by train from Paris, its macho, elemental frontierlands play turbulent host to the lone rangers of outdoor sport: mountain hikers, paragliders and white-water canoeists.

To add to the rugged romance, there's even gold, of sorts, in them there hills. For, thanks to the simple mechanics of evaporation and condensation, the volcanic mountain ranges of Auvergne contain an ever- bubbling supply of one of France's more lucrative and magical exports: mineral water.

The genteel spa town of Vichy, perched on the rim of the Massif Central, provides the perfect antidote to the Sturm und Drang of the nearby landscape. Like a demoiselle in a frilled petticoat observing a bar-room brawl, Vichy looks out across the river Allier - and yawns politely. Once home of France's darkest recent history, under Marechal Petain's collaborationist government, it has flushed away the embarrassing past, refreshed and expanded its ancient spa roots, and become a convalescent town almost evangelical in its tranquillity.

Vichy's architecture is a pleasantly odd mix of styles, with the Neo- Moorish, art nouveau, Neo-baroque, art deco and ultra-modern all rubbing shoulders under the dappled shadows of the plane trees that line the eerily quiet streets.

The Romans were the first to exploit Vichy's springs. In later years, Napoleon III, a martyr to his digestive tract, claimed himself miraculously cured after a visit. He wasn't alone. In Vichy's heyday, health pilgrims flocked from the most distant corners of Europe to relieve their aches and pains - real or imagined. And a Pullman coach service once disgorged Londoners right at the door of the Grand Etablissement Thermal.

But the town has always had a large and loyal domestic market, too. The French are famous for consuming 10 times more prescription drugs than other Europeans, and in a nation where the local pharmacist has the status of a demigod, it's no surprise that the traditional three-week "cure" is not only taken seriously, but has long been subsidised by the state.

I met Madame Moulin taking the waters at the Halle des Sources. The light, airy Halle houses two springs, Chomel and Grande Grille, but water from the others - Hopital, Lucas, Celestins and Parc is also piped into the big square troughs where, for a franc, the curistes can purchase a little plastic beaker and imbibe medicinal waters to purge skin conditions, digestive problems and arthrosis. Three times a day, Madame and like-minded senior citizens congregate to sip their prescribed doses, then drift out to socialise in the pretty covered walkways of the Parc des Sources outside, just across the road from where Petain ran the Vichy regime.

Amid the gushing of the taps, Madame Moulin informed me in the hushed whisper reserved for that delicate moment when curistes exchange medical histories, that she had travelled 500km from Lorraine, to make peace with her gall bladder. "You have to make sacrifices for your health," she sighed, dutifully downing her 20ml of Grande Grille and wincing. They taste heart- stoppingly foul, these tepid, bubbling Devil's brews, reeking of rotten eggs and a cocktail of minerals, including lithium, potassium, calcium, the pungent sulphur, and even tiny traces of arsenic. ("Drink more than the prescribed dose," a Vichy tobacconist told me wryly, "and you risk turning into a stalagmite.") Her gall bladder appeased, Madame Moulin rinsed out her plastic cup and we moved on to savour Parc, the water her doctor has prescribed for her arthritis. "Beurk!" she proclaimed. Then added defensively: "I know it does me good! I can feel it!" While encouraging results of scientific studies into the effects of Vichy water on arthritis and skin ailments are pinned on to notice-boards by the springs, you sense that for every one part of water, there are two parts faith.

But the curistes actually represent only a part of Vichy's thriving water industry. In recent years, the floodgates of hydrotherapy have opened, and the town has flourished as a Champneys-style Mecca, where exhausted, stressed-out hunter-gatherers can succumb to some heavy-duty pampering. One generally thinks of water as a gentle element, but in Vichy, I was to discover its insidious force.

Beauticians have long championed the cause of mineral water, and recommend that everyone swallow at least two litres per day. So, keen to have a bash at making my body the temple of my mind, I stocked up on Celestins. As well as being the most "diluted" of Vichy's waters, Celestins is the only one to be bottled - and the only one that is recreationally drinkable. Having said that, mineral water doesn't have much going for it as a beverage, taste-wise. How tempting it would be, I thought, to pollute its sparkling purity with a shot of artificial flavouring! Resisting the urge, I glugged as much of it as I could, and as often as I could manage (an exhausting but purifying process, this sluicing-out of the system), and signed up for some pampering in the Celestins beauty lab, a rhapsody in blue and white where clients pad about swathed in towelling gowns and matching slippers, choosing from a menu of treatments from saunas to mudbaths. Having once undergone an involuntary colonic irrigation whilst water-skiing, I had no intention of taking up that particular option, but instead went for an apricot-oil body massage so soothing it sent me to sleep. No worries - my next hydrotherapeutic adventure, a mineral bath with high-pressure jets, woke me up with a vengeance.

I lay half-submerged in a deep tub, water fizzing at me from a thousand directions, in an experience that was probably, it struck me, similar to white-water rafting, but minus the danger and the raft. I emerged to hit the Celestins bottle once more, prune-fingered, minerals water-blasted into my every pore, exfoliated skin tingling with trace elements. That night, feeling internally cleansed but also somehow, well, waterlogged, I dreamed of canals and viaducts and tidal waves, and woke up feeling like a human water feature.

At the end of Casablanca, Captain Renault, the French chief of police, chucks his bottle of Vichy water in the bin. He's had enough. I know how he felt. Two days after leaving Vichy, I discovered my entire navel had become completely silted up with what looked like rock salt. Those minerals, they get everywhere.

VICHY

GETTING THERE

Return tickets to Paris are from pounds 89 return with Eurostar (tel: 0990 186186). There is a regular train service between Paris-Nord and Vichy. Journey time is two hours 50 minutes. A return ticket costs pounds 66. Contact Rail Europe (tel: 0990 848 848).

Liz Jensen was a guest of the Hotel Celestins (tel: 0033 47030 8200), where a single room costs from FFr755 (pounds 79) per night and a double is FFr1,170, not including breakfast, which is FFr75 per person.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Beauty treatments at Les Celestins (tel: 0033 470 30 82 35), using Vichy water, are around FFr500.

Contact the French Tourist Board (tel: 0891 244123; premium rate).

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