Thermal Delights in Rural France: Part 1
With the Mediterranean to the east, Spain to the south and a warm sunny climate, the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France is renowned as one of the world’s oldest and most prolific wine producing areas. It is home to Blanquette de Limoux – believed to be France’s first sparkling white wine and the inspiration for Champagne.
But for spa aficionados, Languedoc-Roussillon is best known for its myriad of hot springs created by geological activity under the nearby Pyrenees heating the subterranean water. Rich in healing minerals, the springs have been used for centuries with towns and treatment centres developed around them. While these ‘natural’ spas lack the luxury element of their modern counterparts, but are more affordable and have their own fascinating ambience and healing tradition.
The hot sulphuric springs of the small town of Amélie les Bains (60°C at source) have been easing aches and pains since 200 AD. Named after Queen Amelia, wife of Louis Philippe), the town is a 45-minute drive from the airport at Perpignan. French citizens entitled to free thermal ‘cures’ for their rheumatic and respiratory disorders flock to the town for daily immersions and other treatments. The warm waters are increasingly being used for wellness and relaxation with packages and individual treatments at very reasonable prices.
Amélie les Bains is defined by the French tourist board as a ‘station verte de vacances,’ – a tourist destination with ‘outstanding natural beauty and a natural attraction.’ The thermal springs are the ‘natural attraction’ and were once thought to have magical curative properties. With two thermal spa centres – the busy Mondony baths, which cater for up to 2,500 visitors a day and the quieter Roman baths, built on the ancient site of the old Roman baths – the hot springs continue to be an integral part of the life and culture of the town.
We stayed at the Hotel La Pinéde, a pleasant three-star establishment and one of the Chaine Thermale du Soleil’s group of thermal spa hotels located throughout France. These spa hotels offer healthy gourmet menus, specially devised in collaboration with Michel Guérard, one of France’s most acclaimed chefs and founder of la Cuisine Minceur (lighter healthier cuisine). We spent a pleasant first evening drinking local wines and sampling his Cuisine Santé Nature, which was delicious and satisfying.
Before visiting the thermal spa the following afternoon, we drove into nearby Ceret – a picturesque small town famous for its cherry festival and a magnet for artists. Towering plane trees line the streets creating dappled shade and small shops are juxtaposed with outdoor cafes and an impressive church. In the 1900s, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse lived and painted in the area and the outstanding modern art museum contains many examples of their work, including some of Picasso’s lesser-known colourful ceramics.
It was fun exploring the little town, which has a large church and many quaint shops including several tempting patisseries. We met up for lunch on the outside terrace of the Hotel Vidal, under vines laden with bunches of tiny black grapes, which we were invited us to sample. The grapes were deliciously sweet and tasted of strawberries!
Back in Amélie les Bains, we whiled away a couple of hours in the Roman baths, enjoying Vichy showers and water bed massages in between dips in the circular thermal pool and having our shoulders and necks pummelled by powerful water jets. As a final treat, we were led to the thermal circuit’s pièce de résistance – a warm mud pool, where the combination of 25 per cent kaolin (a type of white clay sourced from central France) and 75 per cent thermal water creates such a buoyant chalky liquid that it was impossible to remain upright! Floating in that warm silky water was a relaxing finish to our first visit to Amélie les Bains.
For more information on Languedoc-Roussillon please visit www.sunfrance.com and www.tourisme-pyreneesorientales.com
For rates and information about the spas and hotels featured visit www.chainethermale.fr