Carnet de Voyage: Volcanoes and Vichy in the Auvergne 

Carnet de Voyage: Volcanoes and Vichy in the Auvergne 

Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.

What do you think of when you hear the name Vichy? You may think of naturally sparkling mineral water, or perhaps skin care products? Me too, until I visited this elegant city while on holiday in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in the centre of France.

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is the former volcanic region of the country. The dormant Chaîne des Puys volcanoes have moulded the landscape into angular, Jurassic peaks and lush, deep valleys, giving the area an untamed primitive beauty. Being one of the most sparsely populated regions, and also one of the least visited by foreign tourists, it is possible to drive for an hour or more, hardly passing another vehicle. Making it the ideal location for a ‘get-away-from-it-all’ holiday, and the perfect place to break a journey if travelling further south. 

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes also has its fair share of tranquil lakes and picturesque villages, many with houses built from the distinctive granite-grey volcanic stone unique to the area. It also offers some gastronomic delights: particularly tender beef from the local Salers cattle, mild blue Auvergne cheese, and of course, Puy lentils grown in the rich volcanic soil, giving them their distinctive earthy flavour and added vitamins and minerals.  

Vichy’s thermal spas © Lindy Viandier

Vichy however, is the jewel of the region. Sitting on the banks of the river Allier, where once stood a Roman settlement, Vichy is a UNESCO World Heritage site, notably for its famous thermal baths and distinct architectural styles, mirroring those of European spa towns of the early 1800s. The thermal waters and spas have been attracting people for centuries. In fact, it was the Romans who established the first spa here in 52 BC, on discovering a hot mineral spring beside the river.

The renowned Parisien letter writer, the marquise de Sévigné, popularised the thermal baths after being a patient there in 1676. Stating in her correspondence that the waters had cured the paralysis in her hands, enabling her to resume her writing. Facilities at this time were basic however, and it was not until two aunts of the fated Louis XVI stayed here and persuaded their nephew to make conditions more fitting for genteel ladies, that he funded the building of a bigger, more luxurious baths.  

The town itself, is a cool, green oasis with parks and fountains. The streets are shaded by tall trees and covered arcades, no doubt designed to protect the delicate complexions of the celebrity ladies of the day – Napoleon’s own mother, Letizia, is said to have taken the waters here. There are also some architectural surprises. While strolling along the Boulevard des Etas-Unis in the Napoleon III quarter (1852 -1870), you could be forgiven for imagining you were in the Deep-South of the USA. The colonial style mansions with wooden valances beneath their eves, open front porches and ornate balconies surrounding their upper floors, resembling more Louisiana than France.

Louisiana-style house in Vichy © Lindy Viandier

Vichy is the capital of the region, but during the second World War, from 10th July 1940 until 9th August 1944, it was the seat of government of ‘Vichy France’, the unoccupied sector that covered the south and east of the country, governed by Marshal Phillipe Pétain. Although known as a free state, this was far from the reality, as the regime collaborated with the Nazis, and concessions had to be made, including sending young French men and women to work in factories in Germany. Many young people hid in the surrounding countryside – the ‘maquis’- becoming known as ‘maquisards’, who banded together to form the French Resistance. So, as you can see, the town has plenty to offer that is of historical interest also.  

But it is the thermal baths that continue to be the major attraction, with many people coming to benefit from their healing properties. Even if you don’t stay at a spa, you can still drink the waters for free; but a word of caution…They have a powerful cleansing effect on the liver and kidneys, so don’t do as I did and guzzle down a large glass only to be desperately seeking a toilet 30 minutes later… 

The French government is at the moment aiming to discourage visitors from areas suffering from over tourism, and encourage them to visit places such as Vichy, the perfect base from which to explore this fascinating forgotten region of France.  

Read our other Carnet de Voyage entries here

You can read all about Lindy’s Life at Les Libellules in her books Damson Skies and Dragonfliesand Mellow Mists and Walnut Wine each charting a year in the Burgundy countryside and containing 18 seasonal recipes. Follow her “belle vie in Burgundy” on Instagram!

Lead photo credit : The Chaîne des Puys dormant volcanoes © Lindy Viandier

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