City Focus: Bagnères-de-Luchon
Big names and grand dreams saw the ‘Queen of the Pyrenees’ become a fashionable getaway, where ski and spa breaks remain de rigueur, writes Justin Postlethwaite.
A cynic might deem the ancient motto attributed to Bagnères-de-Luchon to be damnation by faint praise. “Balneum Lixonense post Neapolitense primum” translates as “The Luchon baths are the best after those of Naples”. This slogan stems from the Gallo-Roman era – the first of three epochs that came to define and shape the Haute-Garonne spa town’s fortunes (the others being the mid-18th and 19th centuries).
In 76BC, returning from Spain, a soldier under Roman General Pompey (after whom Pamplona is named) was pleased to find himself cured of a skin disease after three weeks spent bathing in Luchon’s spring waters. Half a century later, Emperor Tiberius Claudius created three water pools, and formalised thermal baths were developed. To this day, 21 days remains the common duration of a ‘cure’ at France’s health spas – treatments which can still be prescribed by French doctors to those with skin and mobility issues.
I much prefer the town’s other, far more confident nickname, ‘Queen of the Pyrenees’, given to Bagnères-de-Luchon – the prefix comes from balnearia (baths) but it’s now more commonly called simply Luchon – by Vincent de Chausenque in his 1834 book, Les Pyrénées ou voyages pédestres. Today a visit to this the pretty and welcoming spa town and epicentre for outdoor enthusiasts will certainly leave you feeling like you’ve had a fleeting brush with grandiosity, even if the sense of majesty has been a little diluted over time. For me, this rough-edged regality is where its great appeal lies.
The Allées d’Étigny, which bisects the city centre northwest to southeast, has become one of my favourite thoroughfares in all of France. With its wide pavements flanked by stylish homeware and fashion boutiques, ski rental shops and restaurants, as well as my hotel (the splendid four-star Le Castel d’Alti), it has a great calmness and is a perfect spot for some sundown flânerie. It is also from here that you take the ski lift up to the 32km of pistes at Luchon Superbagnères in just eight minutes, and where you find the tourist office for maps and tours (in English), which come highly recommended.
Fashioning a Resort
Les Allées d’Étigny was named after Baron Antoine Mégret d’Étigny, an administrator (intendant of the Gascony province) and general go-getter who got to work in 1759 and coaxed Luchon out of obscurity. He improved road access and developed the town as a hip spa resort in the 1760s – thermalisme (hydrotherapy) was born, and the great and good made their way here. In 1763, prominent statesman the Duke of Richelieu (whose godfather was Louis XIV) jollied here too, then promoted it to dignitaries at the court of Versailles.
In the Detail
One of the great joys of visiting any French city, town or village for the first time is taking up a guided tour with a knowledgeable local. You hear quirky yarns and historical insights that would only otherwise reach you via a deep-dive into a specialist book.
Thus, my visit on a crisp February morning starts in this manner – just beyond the Allées d’Étigny at Avenue Carnot, on the cute Place Mengue, which is dominated by two impressive structures. The first is the First World War Monument aux Morts and an accompanying sculpture depicting a departing soldier being blown a final kiss by his beloved. It is an unusual and moving work created by Luchon’s own reputed sculptor, Jean-Marie Mengue (1855-1939). I returned later to sit in peaceful reflection with a sandwich and cake (from the excellent Pâtisserie-Boulangerie Pène next door), with the late winter sun glowing up the snow-capped mountains at the Allées’ far end.
The second eye-catcher, right opposite, is Notre-Dame-del’Assomption de Bagnères-de-Luchon, a church worth stepping inside if only to marvel at its gorgeous oak organ, which was created in 1870 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and which was fully restored in the 1990s.
More riveting architectural titbits reveal the extent of Luchon’s flourishing tourism market. Halfway along the Allées d’Étigny there is a fine chalet-style building with a frontage date plaque, which reads “1855”. This is considered to be the town’s first ever investment property – a pioneering forerunner of the buy-to-let market which is now so prevalent across France.
Meanwhile, head down Avenue du Docteur Lambron opposite the baths and you will spot the dazzling Villa Pyrène. This Historic Monument built in 1850 was a guest house for those taking the waters, and its metal architecture, ceramics, mural painting and sculpture would have caught the eye of those strolling from the baths to the casino. The latter, located due west of the Allées d’Étigny, was built between 1878 and 1880 in brick and stone in a classic historicist style, then enlarged in 1929 with the addition of the Art Deco elements. The gorgeous park in which it sits features a serpentine water feature with an artificial grotto. The casino’s main salle is notably used for the prestigious annual Luchon Television Festival, while last summer, Prince Albert II of Monaco was in town to inaugurate a retrospective exhibition on the close ties between Luchon and his great-great-grandfather – the mountain fauna and flora expert Prince Albert I of Monaco (1848- 1922). Little wonder that the Queen of the Pyrenees should attract princes with her charms; anyone from any walk of life – royal or commoner, skier or spa lover – will find themselves unable to resist bathing in her many glories.
5 Must-Do Luchon Experiences
Whizzing down the ski slopes, relaxing in the spa, tasting authentic, locally made chocolate… here’s how to make the most of your trip to Luchon.
1. Hit the Slopes
From the centre of Luchon, your cable car reaches Luchon Superbagnères in just 8 minutes. Choose from three ski sectors: Téchous (gentle, sunny slopes), Lac (a tranquil descent in a forest) or Céciré (best panoramic views). 13 summits in total, at 3,000m. Other resorts nearby are Bourg-d’Oueil, Le Mourtis and Peyragudes. luchon.eliberty.fr
2. Take the Waters in Style
Make like a Roman and ease your weary bones at Luchon’s famed thermal spa; for those with health issues there are bespoke treatments giving respiratory and rheumatology benefits. Major upgrades are coming in 2023. Don’t miss the exotic underground vaporarium. Enjoy exhibitions at the Maison du Curiste cultural centre opposite the entrance. www.thermes-luchon.fr; www.mairieluchon.fr
3. Feel the Power
A visit to Luchon’s hydroelectric power station (Espace EDF) brings energy creation to life in a playful and interactive way – learn all about the water’s journey, its transformation and its use, with your visit ending at the impressive machine room. English spoken; free entry. www.edf.fr
4. Meet Thy Chocolate Maker
Created by Ludovic Dardenne, a young pharmacist turned master chocolatier (in 1897), Dardenne today tempts sweet-toothed visitors with a wide range of products made in a traditional way. 100% organic and fair trade chocolates, as well as agave or vegan, 100% vegetable with almond milk and coconut sugar. Visit the factory-shop just out of town at Salles-et-Pratviel. chocolatdardenne.com
5. Go Statue Spotting
Complete the tick-list of local notables and regular visitors from yesteryear, including Cyrano de Bergerac author Edmond de Rostand and Baron Étigny, whose vision for an elegant thermal destination is at the root of what Luchon has become today. By the lake next to the baths, spot the sculpture of a bear – emblematic of the Pyrenees – by Georges Lucien Guyot.
Luchon is just 90 minutes from Toulouse, which has excellent flight connections with the UK and Paris.
Where to Stay and Eat
The supremely comfortable and central Hotel Le Castel d’Alti features fully-preserved 18th-century architecture, indoor and outdoor pools and wellness facilities, plus beautiful rooms. It is also just 200m from the cable car to take you to the slopes.
In winter, hearty après-ski mountain fare such as fondue, raclette and tartiflette is available in plenty of restaurants along the Allées d’Étigny. L’Arbesquens (47 Allées d’Étigny) is highly recommended but book ahead: 05 61 79 33 69.
For full information on enjoying the delights of Luchon, head to Haute-Garonne Tourisme:
Lead photo credit : Whatever time of year you visit, it’s easy to see why Luchon is known as the ‘Queen of the Pyrenees’ © Alamy
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