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Vichy France

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Vichy is a spa town that retains its fin de siècle charm in spite of the knock its reputation took during WWII when Pétain's puppet government was based here and its ageing population.

Currently there is a move to attracting a younger audience by encouraging fitness enthusiasts to spend their vacations here, but as yet the spas and sulphurous springs attract an older audience of curistes who comes in droves to be dowsed in and drink the water. This means that a refined and affluent crowd of tourists flock here in the summer, and have done so since Napoléon III first put Vichy on the map in the 19th century.

The Parc des Sources thus dominates the centre of town as it is here that you can get a cupful of one of the waters at the Hall des Sources on the northern end of the park. The Célestins water is alone in being bottled and is the least foul tasting of the six waters, each more sulphurous than the last until the Source de l'Hopital (at the southern end of the park), which is quite repulsively bitter. The saying goes that the waters must be drunk at the particular source in order to unleash their curative powers, except the Célestins water which is sold throughout France, which may or may not just be a ploy by the tourist trade.

The Grand Établissement Thermal, behind the Hall des Sources on the Esplanade Napoléon III, is where the thermal baths used to be. Now all that remains of the interior is the entrance hall as the other rooms have been converted into chic boutiques. Still, the Byzantine style building is impressive and Osberd's 1903 murals La Bain and La Source contribute to a decorative scheme that comprises arches, domes tiled in gold and blue, and mermaid motifs. These days you have to go to one of the modern baths for treatments including illutation (body mud mask) and hydromassage (water jet massage) that cost from €35 upwards.

What Vichy lacks in alternatives to the spa it makes up for in choice of hotels, of which there are many, which is one of the reasons it was chosen for Pétain's government. The rue de l'Intendance is a good place to look and has establishments such as the Midland, number 4, with rooms from €40 55 and a decent restaurant with €11 23 menus. The main concentration of eateries is around rue Clemenceau and rue de Paris, for cafés and brasseries, or the upmarket Brasserie de la Casino (04 70 98 23 06) has €14 23 menus for those with the foresight to book ahead and bring smart clothes.