A stay in the Pyrénées gave Carolyn Boyd the chance to test the pampering and healing qualities of the mountain spas
As spring comes to the Pyrénées, the snow on the peaks turns to delicate trickles. Seeping into streams and rivers, the water gathers momentum, eventually tumbling down in huge waterfalls into rivers and lakes. In the gigantic natural amphitheatre that is the Cirque de Gavarnie lies France’s highest waterfall, the Grande Cascade de Gavarnie, which is fed from melting snow and glaciers just over the border in Spain and increases in volume over a few months to fill the riverbed in the valley more than 400 metres below.
Elsewhere, the water in the mountains’ thermal springs has taken somewhat longer to reach its destination. It fell as rain water several thousand years ago before filtering down through the mountains to reappear, full of sulphur, out of fault lines in the hillsides. Farmers were the first to exploit its healing properties, when they noticed that their wounded cattle could be healed by the water in the sulphurous pools. When Louis XIV heard of la cure, he sent wounded soldiers to the area for treatment. In the late 1850s, Emperor Napoléon III built a sanatorium in Barèges for war casualties, and his wife Eugénie had a favourite station thermale further up the valley in Luz-Saint-Sauveur, a pretty village surrounded by breathtaking mountain scenery. Its thermal treatments had attracted the Duchesses of Angoulême and Berry in the 1820s; the house in which they stayed is opposite the site chosen for the spa development, which began in 1830.
The original building, with its grey stone pillars on one side and a huge window looking up into the valley on the other, has been extended and now goes by the name of Luzéa. The spa offers therapies to treat a variety of ailments, from poor circulation to gynaecological problems – the reputedly infertile Empress Eugénie is said to have conceived the couple’s only son, the Prince Imperial, shortly after a stay here. These days, French citizens who come to the spa on doctors’ advice can claim back a proportion of the cost of their treatment from the social security system. For those in better health who merely want to relax and rid themselves of a few wrinkles, there are massages and facials as well as a pool, hammam, Jacuzzis, saunas and a plunge pool.
Dozen jets of water
The large atrium over the entrance welcomes me into the building where reception staff hand over a large fluffy robe, some flimsy flip-flops and an itinerary listing my treatments. I’m whisked off to the rooms in the original building and as I hover around, waiting to be called for my massage appointment, I peer into a small room that has been roped off to visitors. A small notice in the floor reveals that this was the bathing room frequented by Empress Eugénie. A tiny stone bath is sunk into the floor at the end, which suggests that, beneath her finery, Napoleon III’s wife was quite petite.
“Madame Boyd?” calls a middle-aged woman in a tracksuit from the next-door room and I am summoned to a cubicle. My itinerary had merely said ‘massage’ and I assume that this lady will be the masseuse. I am told to lie down on the bed and she places a blanket over me before fiddling with some of the switches on the side of the bed. It turns out that the massage will be administered by a dozen jets of water that will pummel me for 15 minutes from beneath the plastic surface of the bed. Things have obviously moved on since Eugénie’s days. Though fairly pleasant, it doesn’t quite rid me of all my knots, and I later discover that I may have been better with the traditional ‘hands-on’ massage.
Next up comes a bath in the thermal waters. Another staff member, again in a tracksuit and flip-flops, hurries me along a narrow corridor where two rotund women, also waiting for treatment, break off from their chat to greet me with a friendly ‘bonjour’. I am led past a succession of rooms, each containing a rather unusual, if not scary, contraption designed to treat various ailments, and reach a small room with a raised bath. I sink into the warm water and for several minutes a succession of bubbles fizzes along my body from the nape of my neck right down to my toes. The noise from the rumbling machine rules out any chance of relaxation, so I content myself with a ten-minute tickle and hope that my cheery co-spagoers don’t hear me giggling.
Later, after a pleasant ‘tribal’ facial in the esthétique part of the spa, I try the Espace Balnéo, or bathing area. The ‘hanging’ Jacuzzi is at the side of the building in an enclosed balcony that sits over a small but dramatic waterfall of the Mensonger gorges. Sitting among the bubbles and watching the waterfall tumbling down next to me, I can’t help but think that the imperial spa-lover Eugénie would have relished all the jets, bubbles and baths.
In contrast to Luzéa’s old-meets-new spa, the Bains du Rocher in Cauterets, in the neighbouring valley, is all about modernity. This new espace thermal, which opened in 2010 next door to the Thermes de César (where medical treatments take place), is the perfect spot to relax after a hard day on the slopes or the hiking trails. A large, round central pool welcomes me at its centre, and I try the various Jacuzzi areas before settling in the middle horseshoe to enjoy the view of the mountains through huge picture windows.
Dark wood panels and fake foliage adorn the walls beneath the great glass atrium and I find it difficult to believe that this is open to the public, rather than being part of an exclusive members-only country club. Outside, fellow bathers sun themselves on loungers, taking the occasional dip in the large outdoor heated lagoon, while others saunter towards the tropical shower area (with shower heads the size of hula hoops). Upstairs you can bask in the mother-of-pearl adorned hammam or sauna, or attend a rendez-vous with a masseuse or beautician.
Cauterets is a fitting location for such boutique baths; as the resort of choice for the well-to-do of the 19th century, its mineral-rich waters attracted the writers Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert and George Sand, and later actress Sarah Bernhardt. They stayed in large, elegant hotels such as the Angleterre and Continental on Boulevard Latapie-Flurin, and even today many of the Belle Époque buildings boast pillars and statues that conjure up an elegant and bygone era. Nearby, the valleys of the Pont d’Espagne are the ideal destination for those wishing to earn their spa visit with skiing or hiking, activities that rescued the town after World War II when the French government of the Fourth Republic stopped financing the public’s spa treatments.
Down the valley, finance, or lack of it, sealed the fate of the spa in Argelès-Gazost, or at least its first incarnation. Back in the 1880s, philanthropic lawyer Hector Sassere saw that the nearby spring cured shepherds’ wounds. He piped the thermal water around 21 kilometres to the site he had chosen for his thermes but ran out of money before the building was complete. Though it had been used on and off since then, the building was only half-finished and didn’t have its intended right wing.
Sassere would be proud, if not amazed, to see the Jardin des Bains spa today. After a major refit the building re-opened in July 2011, having gained its intended symmetry. The traditional red-brick façade hides a modern public spa set next to a wonderful large park that is also home to a casino. A domed atrium features an ‘ancient worlds’ theme, with a huge bubbling pool forming the centrepiece, while other facilities, such as a sauna, hammam and plunge pool, are found through a grand entrance, pillared by Babylonian gods. I half-expect to see Indiana Jones enjoying a rest in a corner before I venture outside where a sun-drenched Jacuzzi awaits.
Yet for all the global themes and frivolous pampering found at the public spa (an esthétique section will open in summer 2013), a very French operation takes place in the other wing where citizens can be treated for such ailments as poor circulation and lymphedema (fluid retention), paid for in part by the French welfare system.
The spa’s director, Maïté Degremont, invites me to try a few treatments undertaken by those attending on doctors’ instructions. First up is a kind of massage; a staff member leads me into a tiny room where a massage bench awaits under a long and narrow metal pipe from which a series of small showers will soon sprinkle my body. While the jets administer a steady shower of lukewarm water, the masseuse rubs down my legs with arnica oil, the heady scent gently circulating in the room. The experience is lovely and as I relax, my mind wanders to those who may have received la cure in the days of Hector Sassere when these same rooms would have welcomed patients from the surrounding area.
Somewhat less relaxing, but certainly invigorating, is a jet massage. I am told to stand against the wall and to hold on while being pummelled with a strong jet of water. After striking a variety of poses so the water can massage different parts of my body, the muscles tingle and I feel great. It’s the perfect antidote for all those post-hike aches.
The final treatment is also for my legs, though it turns out to be a rather intriguing and laborious process. A member of staff leads me past a pretty glass cupola underneath which a few patients are receiving treatment for sinus trouble at small basins surrounded by a huge spider-like metal frame that looks as if it could have been here since the 1880s. Next to it is a large area of individual cubicles, each housing two floor-level tanks filled with water; one hot, one cold. Sitting on a stool next to the tanks, I must move my legs from one tank to the other every 30 seconds for 15 minutes. It’s designed to help with circulation, but it turns out to be quite labour-intensive. What it proves to me, however, is that in France such spas play a very different role in society to those in the UK. While we pamper and preen in our attempts to relieve stress or halt the ageing process, patients in l’Hexagone have deeper concerns about healing themselves of more serious ailments, thus continuing a tradition that has been alive in France for centuries.
As I leave the Jardin des Bains and emerge into the bright spring sunshine, the majestic mountains are visible beyond the beautiful Parc Thermal. As their snow-caps melt and the water seeps into the rivers and lakes high up in those peaks, I can’t help thinking that just being here in the Pyrénées – whatever your concern – is therapy in itself.
By road/ferry: Argelès-Gazost is a nine-hour drive from Saint-Malo, and a four-hour drive from Santander (both Brittany Ferries ports).
By rail: The nearest railway station is at Lourdes, which can be reached via Toulouse.
By air: Fly to Toulouse, Lourdes, Pau or Biarritz. See our holiday planner on page 89 for details.
WHERE TO STAY
Carolyn and family stayed at the Airotel Pyrénées campsite in Luz-Saint-Sauveur courtesy of Eurocamp and self-catered. The campsite offers a small indoor swimming pool, an outdoor pool and children’s playpark. A seven-night break from 4 May 2013 at Eurocamp’s Airotel Pyrénées parc, staying in a two-bedroom Horizon mobile home (sleeps seven, maximum four adults), costs from £275 accommodation only.
Tel: 0844 406 0552 or visit www.eurocamp.co.uk
WHERE TO VISIT
Les Thermes Luzéa
31 Avenue de l’Impératrice Eugénie
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 92 81 58
Les Bains du Rocher
Avenue du Dr Domer
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 92 14 20
Le Jardin des Bains
Rue Adrien Hébrard
Tel: (Fr) 5 62 97 03 24