Seeking a Cure in France’s Waters

Let’s say that you suffer from arthritis, arteritis, bronchitis, bursitis, colitis, diverticulitis, endometriosis, laryngitis, osteoporosis, rhinitis, sinusitis, tendinitis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Raynaud’s disease, multiple sclerosis, angina, asthma, sciatica, kidney stones, sore throat, dizziness, spasms, migraines, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, back pain, earaches, vaginal dryness, menstrual cramps, itching, bloating, swelling, constipation, gout, obesity, gum disease,…

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Let’s say that you suffer from arthritis, arteritis, bronchitis, bursitis, colitis, diverticulitis, endometriosis, laryngitis, osteoporosis, rhinitis, sinusitis, tendinitis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Raynaud’s disease, multiple sclerosis, angina, asthma, sciatica, kidney stones, sore throat, dizziness, spasms, migraines, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, back pain, earaches, vaginal dryness, menstrual cramps, itching, bloating, swelling, constipation, gout, obesity, gum disease, dry mouth, psoriasis, acne, eczema, frostbite, hives, rosacea, scarring, stretch marks, or varicose veins, or that you are depressed, trying to quit smoking, or simply dealing with a lot of stress. You also, crucially, live in France. You go see the doctor. She writes you a prescription for a thermal cure, indicating to which of the country’s hundred and thirteen accredited thermal spas you will be sent. Then you fill out a simple form and submit it, along with the prescription, to the national health-care service. Your application is approved—it almost always is—and you’re off to take the waters.

The French government introduced “social thermalism” for the masses in 1947, proclaiming that “every man, whatever his social condition, has a right to a thermal cure if the state of his health demands it.” The full cure, consisting of treatments that use mineral water, mud, and steam from naturally occurring hot springs, lasts twenty-one days—six days of treatments with Sundays off, over three consecutive weeks. In 2019, around six hundred thousand French people undertook cures, targeting specific pathologies and subsidized by the state at sixty-five per cent. Around three million more visited thermal spas as paying customers. Recently, the government has started covering cures for people suffering from long Covid.

Earlier this year, the French tourism minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne described the country’s thermal stations as “jewels of bleu-blanc-rouge tourism” and “an incomparable asset for inciting the French people to take care of themselves while at the same time rediscovering our country through the riches of the territories.” Most thermal spas are situated in places of natural or man-made beauty: mountain hamlets, lakeside villages, elegant towns with Belle Époque casinos and bandstands and fountains dispensing waters smelling of rotten eggs or, as a character in a 1901 novel put it, “the marquise’s mother’s cabbage soup.” These waters, prized for their health-inducing properties, have inspired some of France’s most famous products: bottled water (at Évian-les-Bains, for example), cosmetics (La Roche-Posay, Uriage, Avène), and even hard candies (the octagonal lozenges known as “pastilles de Vichy” were originally sold in pharmacies to aid digestion).

Chateaubriand, Balzac, and Proust frequented thermal stations. Flaubert’s regimen of tepid baths and five glasses of mineral water a day left him feeling “dumb and empty as a pitcher without beer.” Presidents, too: in the nineteen-twenties, Alexandre Millerand was dispatched to Challes-les-Eaux to “take care of himself and rest from the fatigues of war,” and in the seventies Georges Pompidou took a cure, “under greatest discretion,” at Bagnoles-de-l’Orne. Hamani Diori, the first President of independent Niger, was also a fan. Charles de Gaulle’s son remembered meeting Diori in a hotel dining room, accompanied by “an aide-de-camp who would fetch, at scheduled times, his boss’s mineral water in a large graduated tankard.”

The current French President, Emmanuel Macron, was very close to his maternal grandmother, who lived in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, a thermal station in the Pyrenees. His mother, Françoise Noguès, was a medical adviser in the national health-care service and sat on a board that studied thermalism. Thierry Dubois, the president of the Conseil National des Établissements Thermaux (CNETh), an industry group, suspects that “good information about thermalism passed from mother to son.” Macron has been “very supportive of thermalism,” he said, noting a recent government allocation to the tourist industry which may result in as much as a hundred million euros going to thermalism.

There are two main types of hydrotherapy in France—thermalism and, for those who prefer their water salty rather than sulfurous, thalasso. The latter—short for thalassotherapy—uses water from the ocean. (“Thalasso” is derived from the Greek word for “sea.”) The properties of the seawater are thought to vary by location. According to one thalasso blog, the water near the English Channel is “invigorating,” that on the southern Atlantic coast is “tonic,” and the Mediterranean’s has “relaxing qualities.”

Thalasso was covered by social security until 1998, when the government decided it was more of a wellness practice than a medical one. France’s fifty-three licensed thalassotherapy centers have done fine as private enterprises, retaining a medical aura while embracing a more luxurious, spa-like ambience. Approximately a million and a half people visit one each year. Recently, Clara Luciani, one of France’s biggest pop stars, posted a shot of herself standing on a white-columned balcony in pigtails, sunglasses, and a fluffy white bathrobe. She was at the Grand Hôtel des Thermes, in Saint-Malo, “feeling as fresh as a newborn.”

In the film “Thalasso,” from 2019, Michel Houellebecq and Gérard Depardieu, playing themselves, run into each other at a thalasso spa on the coast of Normandy. Houellebecq is afraid that he’s going to freeze his dick off, literally, in a cryotherapy chamber. Depardieu, an old thalasso hand, invites Houellebecq to his suite to feast on illicit stocks of wine and rillettes. They talk about life and death, go for side-by-side algae wraps, and fall asleep on the therapy tables. Depardieu snores while Houellebecq has a nightmare about wandering the establishment’s halls, mud-smeared, in his tighty-whities.

The rituals of thermalism and thalasso are similar, but, in my conversations, I detected an underlying rivalry. Éléonore Guérard, a third-generation thermal-resort operator—her father is the chef Michel Guérard, the originator of cuisine minceur, or “slimming cuisine”—spoke with pride of the “gentleness” of thermal cures. “But it’s not thalasso—it’s real medicine,” she clarified, adding, “Thalasso sold its soul. It was timeless and essential, and it became leisure, and to me this is a pity.”

For some people, water therapy qualifies as a basic need. In 2020, a judge agreed to allow Patrick and Isabelle Balkany—husband and wife, and, respectively, the longtime mayor and deputy mayor of a Paris suburb—to serve their prison sentences for tax evasion at home, wearing electronic bracelets. The couple have been involved in so many financial scandals that they are known as “the Thénardiers of the French Republic,” after the scheming innkeepers in “Les Misérables.” They were busted for lying about their ownership of a Marrakech riad after officials inspecting the property found a bathrobe embroidered with Patrick’s monogram. Recently, the salle de bain again figured in their legal troubles. Isabelle, pleading before the court, justified seven violations of her house arrest on account of “hydrotherapy sessions obliging her to immerse her electronic bracelet in the bath.”

Water cures are treatments with a sense of terroir, as indivisible from the places of their origin as wine and cheese are. They offer clues about what the French find alluring in their own country, the most visited in the world. “Even a short thalasso stay can be as much of a change of scene as a trip abroad,” Marie Perez Siscar, the president of France Thalasso, the industry’s national syndicate, recently said. The world goes to France to see the Eiffel Tower and the châteaux of the Loire Valley. French people go to thermal spas and thalasso centers to pass regimented days of peaceable idleness punctuated by the taking of meals in panoramic restaurants, the doing of moderate exercise, and the semi-public displaying of nudity. Jean-Laurent Cassely, a co-author of “La France Sous Nos Yeux” (“The France in Front of Our Eyes”), a recent best-seller that explains contemporary France to French people, told me, “Thermalism is the point where vintage provincial France, health issues, and Wes Anderson aesthetics merge into a domestic-tourism phenomenon.”

“You’re not claustrophobic, are you?” Florence Schaeffer, the director of the Vichy Célestins Thermal Spa, asked me, over a welcome lunch of roasted prawns and Condrieu, on the resort’s picturesque terrace. We were discussing a treatment that I was scheduled to undergo that afternoon, involving thermal mud heated to forty-one degrees Celsius and slathered onto one’s back, arms, feet, and joints. The mud is harvested from clay beds in Abrest, a neighboring town. Then it spends a month soaking in water from two of Vichy’s springs, allowing blue algae to develop on its surface. The treatment has been offered at Vichy since 1935, and the idea is that trace elements can pass through the skin and into the body, providing health benefits. Calcium, for example, is said to have anti-inflammatory properties, and sodium may ease digestive ailments. This particular mud treatment promised a “toning effect” and improvements in circulation. Some customers apparently do not love the feeling of being tightly wrapped in a plastic sheet while waiting for these benefits to occur. Schaeffer said, “We tell them to put their arms on the outside!”

A couple of hours later, I reported to the Thermes les Dômes, one of several spa facilities in Vichy. Its baths are housed in a sprawling complex with Byzantine and Art Nouveau influences: a gold-and-blue tiled central dome, ceramic murals depicting mermaids and water nymphs. The spa is connected to a mid-range Mercure hotel by a couloir-peignoir, which means “bathrobe hallway” and is my favorite new word. After checking in, I was directed to a changing room. I donned the requisite bathrobe and headed off to Treatment Cabin 131.

I was slightly nervous, remembering a 1913 postcard I’d come across online in my research. It depicted a treatment called the Vichy shower, with two topknotted women manipulating the flesh of another topknotted woman, in soaking wet bloomers, who lay on a table under a metal apparatus that looked like a giant broiler. (“Postal service / nudity / french / thermal bath / postcard / mail / naked / shower / post / communication / massage / spa / vichy,” the keywords read.) I soon passed a display of antiquated “medical gymnastics” apparatuses, developed in the mid-nineteenth century by a once famous Swedish orthopedist named Zander and used for things like lengthening the arms and stretching the spine. Zander’s system, known as mechanotherapy, even included a stomach massager for alleviating constipation.

Still, the wide, tiled, sun-streaked halls of the Dômes induced an immediate feeling of languid calm. The atmosphere was more Sofia Coppola than Wes Anderson. The windows were open to a spring breeze, and there were considerably more cane armchairs in evidence than there were people who might pass a spell in them.

I was two minutes late for my treatment. “Oh là,” the therapist clucked, looking at her watch. She instructed me to undress—the spa provided a disposable G-string—and to sit on a table covered with a plastic sheet. Without further discussion, she began daubing my back at strategic points with steaming, tawny mud. When she had finished, she eased me into a reclining position and folded the sheet around me, forming a sort of Hot Pocket in which the mud was the cheese and I was the ham.

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