The Spa Route in the Massif Central
The Spa Route in the Massif Central runs through 17 spa towns spread across four regions and eight departments in central France. The landscapes range from the hedge-row valleys of the Bourbonnais area to the gorges of Ardèche and Cévennes, and from the green hills of Creuse to the volcanoes of Auvergne and the plateau of Aubrac.
First leg : Morvan (Burgundy)
The only spa town in the department of Nièvre boasts majestic ‘1900-style’ baths set in the heart of a spa park, as well as countless villas in delightfully varied architectural styles that make Saint-Honoré-les-Bains a model Belle-Époque spa.
Everything about Bourbon-Lancy in southern Burgundy evokes a trip back in time, from its medieval neighbourhood to its 18th century château to its 19th century spas.
Second leg : Bourbonnais (Auvergne)
The modest city of Bourbon-l’Archambault was the capital of the dukes of Burgundy in the Middle Ages and has retained the atmosphere of one of the richest periods in French history. Indeed, Bourbon-l’Archambault has one of the most handsome spa buildings in Europe, and is listed as a historical monument.
Vichy - The “queen of French spa towns”
Vichy is highly indebted to Emperor Napoleon III, who encouraged the emergence of one of the most remarkable spa centres in the Massif Central by coming to take the waters five times between 1861 and 1865. Vichy boasts having not only its baths, but also an Opera House/Convention Centre, eclectic villas, grand hotels, two casinos, a racetrack, two golf courses, and an impressive 350 acres of park linking the emperor’s chalets to the pavilion which houses the famous Céléstin Springs.
Spa activity in Néris dates back to Roman times, as indicated by numerous remains scattered throughout the town, yet today it is particularly proud of its ‘Belle-Époque’ heritage and charm. Indeed, this small spa town in the department of Allier has preserved its 19th century baths, parks, Italian-style theatre, casino, and even an emblematic train station (now converted into a convention centre).
Third leg : Les Combrailles
Evaux-les-Bains is well-known for its abbey of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul. The spa tradition here dates back to Roman times. A few vestiges of the period have survived, which include a round bath. More recently, the Grand Hotel Thermal (built in 1831) was linked to a modern spa centre that was completely rebuilt in 2001.
In the remote area of Les Combrailles to the west of the Massif Central, Châteauneuf-les-Bains sits on the banks of the Sioule River upstream from the historic Menat Bridge. Known for its bottled mineral water, the area boasts a series of springs which can be successively visited by following a sign-posted itinerary.
Fourth leg : Gateway to the Volcanoes
As the ‘gateway to the volcano region,’ Châtel-Guyon is known for its many villas and grand hotels, which host visitors to its various spas and casino. The ‘Belle-Époque’ town is centred around the spa park. Châtel-Guyon is where Maupassant wrote his novel Mont Oriol, which describes the building of a spa resort!
At the foot of the mountain known as Puy de Dôme, Royat-Chamalières is a spa town with its own ‘Belle-Époque’ quarter. It has successfully valorised a resort heritage that extends from the park to the snack bar via the spa centre, train station, and Saint-Mart Pavilion. The original spa building has since been converted into a museum devoted to the history of spa resorts.
Fifth leg : Le Sancy (Auvergne)
Saint-Nectaire is well-known for its cheese and its 12th century Romanesque church, yet it also has many natural springs. This is what enabled it to become a spa town from 1820 onward, with its own grand hotels, villas and spa centre, which has now been converted into the tourist office.
Built in the 19th century just below the original village of Muratle-Quaire, La Bourboule’s ‘Belle-Époque’ architecture is delightfully homogeneous. Here, the Grands Thermes spa looks like an Oriental palace, and it’s now the town hall that occupies the premises of the resort’s original casino.
Le Mont-Doré’s spa activity dates back to antiquity, the spirit of which is still felt in its magnificent spa building that is now listed as a historical monument. The town, with its numerous large hotels, may seem a little solemn, but that is just merely a façade.
Sixth leg : Cantal and Aubrac (Auvergne)
As the only spa town in the Cantal area, the ‘hot’ (Chaudes) and ‘waters’ (aquae – Aigues) in the name of Chaudes-Aigues come from its hot springs (the source of the Par River) which are reputed to be the hottest in Europe at 82° C (180° F). Here, there is no ‘Belle-Époque’ image, but rather stone-roofed dwellings that give the spa a picture-postcard feel.
Seventh leg : Cévennes and Ardèche (Rhône-Alpes)
Just a stone’s throw from La Lozère, Saint-Laurent-les-Bains is a small resort perched in a wonderful setting in the hills of Ardèche. Built on the ancient Roman road to Aubenas, the village has a large spa building that was renovated in 1997.
Meyras / Nérac-les-Bains
The historic village of Meyras has earned the ‘Village with Character’ label for its little medieval town, but it also administrates the spa resort of Néyrac-les-Bains that is located in the crater of a nearby volcano.
An archetypal ‘Belle-Époque’ spa town, Vals-les-Bains offers a resort neighbourhood that boasts hotels and other establishments from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here you can watch the hot springs periodically spout in a geyser, take a stroll through the parks, or admire the façade of the original spa building which has now been incorporated into the contemporary architecture of the modern centre.
Last leg : La Loire (Rhône-Alpes)
Located between the Monts du Forez and the Monts du Lyonnais, what had long been called the ‘round mount’ (where a fortress had stood since the 11th century) was in facts rechristened ‘Round-Mount the Baths’ (Montrond-les-Bains) in the late 19th century after mine exploration uncovered an underwater hot spring.
The little city has continued to evolve ever since, capped by the recent construction of an ultra-modern thermo-ludique (‘fun springs’) centre.
In order to draw high society to their new centres, the builders of spa towns outdid one another in constructing establishments that reflected the changing fashions highlighted in their Universal Exhibitions and Colonial Fairs.
The architecture of these spas, ranging from ‘exotic’ styles (Moorish, Byzantine Revival, Japanese, Oriental, etc.) to local ones (influenced by local Romanesque or regional architecture during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements) embody eclectic approaches and materials that take visitors on a trip through time and space.