Last week, we headed east, five hours inland, away from the beach and our gentle undulating coastline, to the rugged landscape of the Auvergne-Rhone Alpes, a dramatic region of thick forests, mountains, dormant and extinct volcanoes. Our initial destination was the genteel spa town of Vichy.
I have to admit I had not done my homework and I was completely unprepared, I had no idea what to expect. I knew nothing about the town except for its dark recent history during World War II when it was home to Maréchal Pétain’s collaborationist government, Vichy France. It has however put aside its embarrassing past and refreshed and revived its ancient spa roots.
Vichy sits like a grand old dame on the banks of the river Allier. There is nothing hurried or pretentious about the town, despite its lavish architecture, everything seems to move at a more leisurely pace once one crosses the river.
There is an enormous sense of tranquility, almost as if one steps back in time to the late 1800s. If I closed my eyes I could quite imagine horse drawn carriages replacing the cars and ladies in fine long dresses and layers and layers of petticoats.
In the old part of Vichy, the architecture is pre 19th century but there are very few remnants of the medieval period.
When Vichy became famous as a thermal spa resort in the 1800s the town’s architecture was modernised but the splendour of Vichy remains its Art Deco architecture (1925-1935), tall buildings and balconies with ornate railings overlook the dappled shadows of the plane trees that line the incredibly quiet streets.
It felt a lot like Paris, but without the bustle, this overall feeling of calm and peace was quite astounding. In the 19th century Vichy was the stylish place to be, attended by many celebrities. Between 1861 and 1866 Napoléon III visited many times and just like in Paris and other large French cities, Vichy underwent a profound transformation.
By building dikes along the river, 13 hectares of marshland were transformed into landscaped gardens and in the town centre chalets and pavilions were built for the Emperor and his court. Today these house small boutique shops and restaurants.
After the Second French Empire, the Belle Époque marked another large construction campaign in Vichy. In 1900 the Parc des Sources was enclosed by a metal walkway which came from the World Fair of 1889. 700 metres long, it is decorated by a frise de chardons and was completed by the ironworker Emile Robert.
Aside from the War, one generally thinks of water when one hears the name Vichy. Beauticians have long championed the cause of mineral water, and recommend that everyone swallow at least two litres per day. Here you can drink the locally sourced and bottled mineral water, and indulge in every thermal and spa treatment imaginable. You can eat the local Vichy mints and buy the world renowned Vichy skincare range inside shops that yet again made us feel as if we were stepping into a bygone era.
La vie thermale had its heyday in the 1930s. The Art Nouveau-style Opéra, inaugurated in 1903, accommodated all the great names on the international scene. Vichy became the summertime music capital of France, but the war of 1914 would put a brutal end to this development.
It was in the Opera building that the parliament of the French Third Republic decided to grant full powers to Maréchal Philippe Pétain, thereby terminating the republican regime and inaugurating Vichy France on July 10th, 1940.
Today there is a vibrant café life
and numerous restaurants offer a range of culinary delights
and summertime alfresco dining on warm balmy summer evenings.
One tip, if you are visiting France, we nearly always select the Plat du jour, the dish of the day, it will be fresh and the choice of virtually every French person. In this case, brochettes de dinde, grilled turkey on a skewer which was marinated with spices and utterly delicious.
Although when visiting Vichy today one cannot forget its wartime past, it is the architecture and the pleasure of walking around its small, restful and soothing centre with eyes wide open, be they those of a ten year old or an adult, that makes any stay memorable. There is so much detail to fascinate and captivate.
We came across a show of vintage cars
and despite blistering heat we strolled on, unable to resist the urge to look around the next corner, knowing for sure that there would be another incredible sight. For that is what Vichy does, it captivates without trying, and like that grand old dame, it doesn’t need to shout or be loud or brash, instead it sits quietly oozing a calm confidence.