Taking the waters at Vichy. Where fitness was not the only end in view.
The thermal spa at Vichy and its warm springs had a very slow rise to international fame. The patronage of Rabelais and generations of consumptive Britons in the sixteenth century was not enough to put the place on the map. To rid his bladder of painful stones, Montaigne preferred the waters of Plombieres, and his example was followed in the eighteenth century by Voltaire and in the early nineteenth by the empress Josephine. The romantics- Chateaubriand, George Sand, Alfred de Musset, Heinrich Heine, and Stendhal- preferred Cauterets, in the Pyrenees; there, between steaming baths, they could muse and pine, brood and swoon, in the shadow of intoxicating peaks.
It was thus left to another kind of romantic, Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Napoleon, to “discover” Vichy in 1861. The village by this time had outgrown the modest watering hole Madame de Sevigne had known.Medicine was no longer in its infancy, and a number of lab-equipped physicians had subjected the hot, warm, and cool springwaters of Vichy to rigorous chemical analysis. Armed with a formidable arsenal of statistics demonstrating the sodium, bicarbonate, and potassium content of the waters, the proponents of the “drink moderately” school had finally routed the “drink all you can” enthusiasts, thus bringing order out of pharmaceutical chaos.
Duchesses, prefects, architects, and several cabinet ministers had decided to embellish the little town, with the result that the former Maison de Roi had been replaced by a “thermal establishment” boasting no fewer than seventeen south facing arcades. Though the iron railing that had once kept drinkers from tumbling into the waters had long since disappeared, the name had stuck, and La Grande Grille, now handsomely encompassed by a circular marble wall reached by eight descending steps, continued to attract persons suffering from swollen livers and borborygmic belches.
The changes to Vichy, though substantial, did not suffice to prepare Vichy for its sovereign guest, Napoleon III- nor for its subsequent imperial prominence. Napoleon’s first visit, followed by others in succeeding summers, turned the little watering hole into a major international spa almost overnight. ( to be continued)…