On June 22, 1940, a somber caravan of cars and trucks arrived in Vichy, a spa town in the deep heart of France. They brought with them the principal political luminaries and the mechanics of bureaucracy for what remained of the French government after the Nazi army occupied Paris. Eight decades later, the town still struggles to restore its image as one of Europe’s most historic luxury resorts.
"Monsieur, Vichy is not a regime!"
Karen and I have spent a lot of time in Vichy over the years, but I’ve hesitated to write about it because it’s still hard for me to understand all the real complexities that make up the character of the place. On the one hand, it’s the lovely and luxurious spa city you can visit today; on the other hand, it’s a town that even now struggles to escape its bitter identification with the Nazi Occupation of France in the early 1940s.
Just last summer, French Prime Minister Jean Castex made an off-hand reference comparing social networks on the internet to “the regime of Vichy” – and the town’s mayor was quick to jump on Twitter with his response:
“Mr. Prime Minister, Guyana is not an island, and Vichy is not a regime. Vichy is a city with 2,000 years of extraordinary history which cannot be reduced to 4 years in which the French state foundered. Please be vigilant in your speech so as not to humiliate us more.”
M. Le 1er Ministre, La Guyane n’est pas une île et VICHY n’est pas un régime. VICHY est une ville avec 2000 ans d’une histoire hors-norme qui ne peuvent être résumées aux 4 années où l’État français a sombré. Merci d’être vigilant dans vos interventions à ne plus nous humilier. pic.twitter.com/kWVu5ktZfC
— AGUILERA Frédéric (@Aguilera_Fred) July 16, 2020
So…it’s still a sensitive subject to many French people, even 80 years after the event. I’ve taken an informal poll of my French friends asking how they feel about Vichy, and it’s fair to say many of them (especially those of my generation) still harbor some very negative impressions. But how did this beautiful city in the deep heart of France acquire its lingering reputation? What will it take for the town – and the whole country – to move on from that association? And why might you want to go there today?
Come to “take the waters” in a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Vichy is known as “the Queen of Waters”, and it has just been named (along with Baden-Baden in Germany and Bath in England) to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites as one of 11 “great spa cities” in Europe.
In the rather dry words of the UNESCO citation, these towns fostered “an important interchange of innovative ideas that influenced the development of medicine, balneology [the science of therapeutic bathing] and leisure activities from around 1700 to the 1930s”. In more literal terms, that means Vichy and its sister cities among the “Great Spas of Europe” developed a whole culture combing physical therapy, recreation, and luxurious living based almost entirely on their access to hot volcanic springs.
(Check out this video, beginning around 0:50, to see one of Vichy's thermal “sources” in action. )
If you just want a quick sip (and you aren’t put off by the mineral smell), take a cup to the Halle des Sources, where all of the major varieties of water are on tap; if you need something more serious, you can get a doctor’s prescription that will admit you to programs ranging from treatment for digestive ailments to mud baths that are reputed to heal rheumatism.
Come to absorb the history
Without “the waters”, Vichy might have been an ordinary small town in central France. But WITH its abundant thermal sources, the city has attracted the rich, the famous, and the merely noble from every corner of Europe for centuries. The Roman army stopped here in 52 B.C.E., still smarting from its defeat at the hands of Vercingetorix and his army of Gauls. By the late 1500s C.E. , Vichy’s reputation had spread around the continent. Two of Louis XV’s daughters came here in 1761 and 1785; when they found the facilities too dirty and too difficult to use, they asked their nephew, Louis XVI, to build more luxurious facilities.
The great French letter-writer Madame de Sévigné came here to treat her arthritis in the 1760s; she left behind an elegant mansion near the banks of the Allier and several of her most evocative letters describing life in a spa town. Napoleon Bonaparte’s mother came here in 1799 and brought his brother with her. But it wasn’t until the Emperor Napoleon III showed up in town that Vichy’s reputation as a deluxe resort destination was transformed into something grander and more global. He came here often between 1861 and 1866, and you can see his imprint everywhere in the city’s great public parks along the banks of the Allier River (the Esplanade), in the Grand Casino, and in several of the grand houses concentrated in the center of town.
Come for the Belle Epoque architecture
Those houses are the reason Vichy is also known as a “city of palaces”. Napoleon III and his Empress Eugenie built superb pavillons for themselves, and their courtly hangers-on did the same, leaving behind an impressive sampler of some of the best of Belle Epoque architecture in France. This boom in luxury building continued into the early 1900s, when the Opera House was added onto the emperor’s Grand Casino, and the baroque “neo-Moorish” Centre Thermal des Domes, still one of Vichy’s primary bathhouses, was constructed. Covered walkways in the Belle Epoque style still circle the town’s central parks and lend an antique air to any walk among the different thermal sources.
In fact, it’s all this grand architecture that likely sealed Vichy’s fate during World War II. When the advancing German armies occupied Paris, the French government moved to Bordeaux, and then on to Clermont-Ferrand; after the country signed an armistice with Hitler, the collaborationist government needed a place with enough hotel rooms to house whole ministries and buildings that could be converted to administrative offices. Vichy’s legacy as a high-end resort met the requirement – the legislature could meet in the Opera House’s main theater, and Marshall Philippe Pétain and his ministers could set up offices in some of the old “palaces”. (The Marshall himself took rooms on the third floor of the Hotel du Parc, but he also lived in the aforementioned mansion of Madame de Sévigné during the summers.)
Come to enjoy ‘the good life’ in the deep heart of France
But in the century before the war, Vichy had long enjoyed a reputation as a resort destination for the rich and famous. And where there were people like that with time on their hands after a few hours in the thermal baths…there had to be suitable diversions. Many of them persist, even now, and several of them are compelling enough as reasons to visit on their own:
- The river walks and the great park along the banks of the Allier make up the green heart of the city, and they provide all kinds of opportunities for walking, running, picnicking, swimming, and enjoying the outdoors.
- While most stores across France are closed on Sunday, you can shop in Vichy all day long. Many of the stores sell high-end fashions befitting the town’s luxe reputation, and you’ll also find several places selling the line of skin-care products that bear the city’s name.
- If you’re there in season, you can see a concert, a play, or an opera at the famous Opera House. (Click here to take a virtual tour of the theater.) Last time I was there I saw a performance of Carmina Burana by the Russian State Orchestra, but the summer programs usually include a mix of lighter fare alongside the more serious stuff.
- There’s a Michelin 1-star restaurant (Maison Decoret), and a few others are called out as worthy of mention in the Michelin Red Guide – but there are also plenty of other comfortable places serving everything from sushi to Moroccan cuisine.
- If you like horse racing, you’ll find one of France’s most prestigious tracks for flat racing and trotters at Vichy’s Hippodrome, just across the Allier from the centre ville. (And it’s the only one in France with lighting adequate to support flat racing at night!)
- There’s also a fine golf club – the “Golf Sporting Club Vichy” – just across the river; I don’t play myself, but I’m told the course, opened in 1908, has hosted a number of French national championship tournaments.
So there are plenty of reasons to consider Vichy as a diverting, interesting destination for a long weekend. But why haven’t most people – even people living in France – heard of it in that context? Put simply, the association of the town’s name with the Pétain regime during World War II lingers on. That stain on Vichy’s reputation – and what might be done to remove it -- is the subject of next week’s post from the deep heart of France…
What have you heard about Vichy as a place to visit? Does the name still hold negative associations for you? Please share your experiences in the comments section below – and while you’re here, please take a second to share this post with someone else who might be interested in the people, history, places, and culture of central France.