Thermal Delights in Rural France: Part 2
Situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees overlooking a deep wooded gorge, Molitg-les-Bains has the most remote and romantic setting imaginable. Despite its apparent isolation, Molitg is just 45-minutes by road or rail from Perpignan, an exhilarating journey that encapsulates the many flavors of this glorious part of southern France – pretty hilltop villages, winding mountain roads and sweeping panoramas.
Molitg-les-Bains was the first spa acquired by the Chaîne Thermale du Soleil, Adrian Barthélémy’s group of French therapeutic spas and today consists of the thermal baths with an adjoining 34-room Grand Hotel, a separate small beauty salon, residential apartments and the exclusive Château de Riell, a small castle hotel.
After a scenic drive from Amélie-les-Bains, we were welcomed by friendly hotel manager Pascal Daube and settled into our charming rooms for our two-night stay. After dinner, over coffee and locally produced tipples Monsieur Daube related the fascinating history of Molitg-les-Bains.
The thermal waters were first written about in the 11th and 12th centuries, but their healing properties were not analyzed until the 18th century. In 1785, the Marquis de Llupia, owner of the hot springs constructed the first baths and allowed poor locals free access. The De Massia family took over the spa in 1846, modernizing and extending the facilities. After the Second World War in 1946, a company headed by Adrian Barthélémy bought the spa and undertook a full renovation of the property. A hotel was built using local granite and pink marble and Molitg became the Chaîne Thermale du Soleil’s first property.
Molitg’s thermal waters are rich in sulphur, sodium, magnesium and fresh water plankton found only in the deep gorge of the Castellane river. About 20 to 40 litres of plankton are carefully harvested every nine days from a container placed in the river flow for use in the spa. The live gel-like plankton contains algae and friendly bacteria that secrete anti-inflammatory substances to heal, moisturise and restore. The plankton is applied in compresses or poultices to treat burns, deep skin tissues and to soothe eczema and psoriasis. It also restores the mucous membrane in respiratory disorders and relieves pain and improves flexibility in rheumatic and musculoskeletal conditions.
After visiting Molitg-les-Bains in 1950, biochemist Jeannine Marissal, developed and patented a method of using the plankton in beauty products under the brand name of Biotherm (now part of beauty giant L’Oréal). Extracts of thermal plankton are still used in Biotherm products, though the plankton is now produced in a laboratory.
My facial in the Salon de Beauté next morning used Decléor products and finished with a plankton mask. As I relaxed under the gauze while the aesthetician gave my hands a gentle massage, I may have imagined it, but my skin seemed to be tingling. When the mask was removed, my complexion looked fresher – as though I’d had eight hours sleep instead of the usual five! Energised, I walked down to the lake in the bright sunshine, strolling beside the cascading Castellane river and into the deeply wooded gorge. The whole area was ablaze with autumnal colours that contrasted perfectly with the vivid blue sky. As I savored the beautiful scene, my spirits soared with a sudden surge of joie de vivre – Molitg’s magic was obviously working!
Later that afternoon, we changed into swimsuits and bathrobes to visit the spa for our individual treatment programmes. The thermal baths are accessed directly from the hotel and the modern facilities include 45 treatment cabins, 12 beautiful marble cabins with private bath tubs, a large thermal pool with massage jets that seems perched in the trees and a smaller pool where you float weightlessly in warm white mud, similar to the one at Amélie-les-Bains.
Molitg-les-Bains and other Chaîne Thermale du Soleil spas welcome guests seeking rest and relaxation, but their main focus is helping guests improve their health problems. The efficacy of thermal hydrotherapy is clinically recognized and unlike drug therapy, has no harmful side effects. French citizens are entitled to medically prescribed state funded programmes lasting three weeks with treatments carried out six days a week.
My hydrotherapy programme consisted of fine showers and steam for inhalation, a hydro-massage bath, an under water massage and a Vichy shower with body massage. Therapists escort guests to all their treatments, which are relatively short – around 15 to 30 minutes each. My programme complete, I returned to the warm spa pool for an invigorating water jet massage before slipping into the milky waters of the mud pool for an indulgent float.
On our last evening we dined at Le Château de Riell – the spa’s small castle hotel located up the hillside behind the Grand Hotel and surrounded by magnificent oak, sequoia, larch and pine trees. The château’s owner Biche Barthélémy, has styled the castle to reflect her travels; baroque interiors, an ‘Out of Africa’ safari bar and a charming Russian dacha where breakfast is served, built from the estate’s trees by local craftsmen.
Before dinner, we had a short tour of the property, climbing a narrow spiral staircase to view two of the château’s 12 elegant and elaborately decorated bedrooms. A small lift then took us to the giddy heights at the top of a tower, with access to a sunbathing terrace and a panoramic swimming pool set on the ramparts overlooking Le Canigou, the highest mountain in the area. We also toured the castle dungeons, a popular venue for Halloween parties and other events.
After all the excitement, we sat down to dinner in the château’s Catalan-styled dining room, with its extensive hacienda, unusual curved walls and large open fireplace, sadly unlit because of the unseasonably warm weather.
Dinner was a magnificent concoction of beautifully presented gourmet dishes including tender roast lamb, local delicacies and fine wines. Every dish was a work of art. Afterwards, young Catalan head chef Andreu Coma Roca came to the table so we could thank him for the meal. We were amazed that someone so young (Andreu is in his early 20s) could create and cook such a sophisticated menu. Undoubtedly, a celebrity chef in the making!
Molitg-les-Bains is open from the beginning of April to the end of November.
The spa is closed on Sundays.
For rates and further information visit www.chainethermale.fr
For more information on Languedoc-Roussillon please visit www.sunfrance.com and www.tourisme-pyreneesorientales.com
Photography by Rama Knight and Chaîne Thermale du Soleil