Amanda's Circus

Vichy – a cultural cocktail with a hint of taboo

images-9Vichy is an interesting little town, slightly off the beaten track near the Massif Central in France, but it encompasses an extraordinary range of cultural taboos. Plenty of writing potential there, I thought as I clickety-clicked through the internet, so I stopped over for one night in the old city centre on a drive back from the Mediterranean coast. I’m so glad I did.

 

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I focused my activities on the triangular Parc des Sources. It’s a quiet, dusty place with an air of neglect. It boasts a lot of tall plane trees; a few shrubs grow in the dust, and a couple of flowerbeds display the usual lines of begonias and dahlias. Not an especially remarkable park except for the elegant covered walkways that lead from the Halles des Sources at one end to the Casino and Opera House at the other, and hardly anyone was about!

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Vichy is a spa town so I decided to take the waters in the Halle Des Sources, at the point of the triangular park. It’s free to enter this beautiful Beaux-Art glass temple to wellness. Built in 1902, it is filled with the sound of gushing water and reminded me of the old echoey, glass-topped, fern-filled shopping malls of my youth in Bournemouth and Boscombe. I wandered inside to find dozens of elderly people, also reminiscent of Bournemouth except that these were curistes, who come from all over France to take the waters. I purchased my little plastic beaker and wandered between the troughs. The hall houses two springs, Chomel and Grand Grille but water from Hopital, Lucas, Celestins and Parc is also piped in. images-7There are over ten springs in the town of Vichy some of which are thermal and others, e.g. Celestins, cold water springs. The waters in the hall  consist of a cocktail of chemicals and, it has to be said, tasted absolutely foul, and the place reeked of rotten eggs. The most drinkable was Celestins. You may have seen Vichy Celestins in your local Co-op chiller. It is sold all over the world in a blue-tinted plastic bottle with a picture of the Halle des Sources on its label. What I didn’t know was that it’s supposed to be good for cramps, depression, headaches and digestive issues. People travel here with all sorts of complaints: skin problems, digestive disorders, arthritis, you name it- there were plenty of adverts around claiming cures. Everyone was terribly pleasant, discreetly discussing their ailments with each other. It was the most genteel of places and it cost a euro for your beaker. Value for money.

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Sauntering the few hundred metres total distance between the Halles des Sources, the opera house and the casino was probably sufficient exercise for your average crinolined curiste, and keeping dry or shaded was the main purpose of the covered walkway. So, feeling rather enlivened after my mixture of waters, I followed the walkway up to the impressive Belle Époque opera house built by Napoleon III in the 1850s.

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I wandered around outside the buildings, with their ornate bulbous scrolls, urns, cartouches, statuary and cupolas. Joyous and ostentatious, the architecture screamed and yet the site was hauntingly silent, deserted and so peculiarly white. This Belle Époque retreat into a frivolous, fairy-tale world was built by and for the very rich, people who determinedly ignored the grim reality of modern life. Perhaps the Walkie Talkie or the Gherkin are equally escapist or does their stark jokiness imply that contemporary society has come to terms with reality and offers irony as a solution? I can’t imagine that’s true. As I read the adverts for the opera, the guy taking deliveries offered to let me have a look inside, at least I think that’s what he said. To be honest, I was only fairly interested because I didn’t have time to actually attend a performance but it seemed rude not to show an interest so I wandered in.

Like most people, I was aware of the Vichy France Government in WWII but a plaque inside the opera house put a confusingly positive twist on the situation. The inscription read that 80 members of the National Assembly voted to ‘affirm their attachment to the Republic, their love for freedom, and their faith in victory’ ie. 649 voted to go with the Nazis. Odd way to use language. The dark history, if you’re interested, goes like this: On July 10th 1940 the National Assembly voted full power to Field Marshal Pétain, thus ending France’s Third Republic and replacing it with the Vichy France Government, a semi-fascist regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany. It’s a long time in the past and it is unfortunate for the town of Vichy that ‘Vichy France’ remains its main tag. But somehow you need to set aside those dreadful 649 votes before you can consider the water, let alone the skincare products, the health treatments, the soup and the carrots and the bizarre architectural marvels of the town. I’m not certain what happened to the 80 people who voted against the Vichy France government but I can only admire their courage.

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Having stumbled upon the plaque, which obviously set me thinking, I was then dunked into the steaming golden swamp of opulence that is the swirling Art Nouveau interior. Such a contrast. And the casino, adjacent to the opera house, now a conference centre, combines the elaborate Belle Époque features with an Art Nouveau canopy that reminds me of gossamer wings. It’s not a little surreal.

images-8Having endured such sensory assault, I was obviously in need of some sustenance. Luckily there were a few almost empty cafes with lots of iron chairs and tables under the trees. Waiters in the full white apron, white waistcoat and bow tie, held trays aloft. A Croque Monsiuer wouldn’t go amiss and ok go on, why not, a glass of Kronenbourg. As I was waiting for all this to arrive, I took a look around. There were none of the usual tourist types – myself excepted, odd in itself, but actually I don’t think I’d seen a single tourist in the time I’d spent in the park. It was an uncomfortable feeling. It felt a bit like I’d stumbled in the set of a French version of The Prisoner. What was noticeable was the late afternoon proliferation of very elderly ladies. Impressive ladies wearing expensive jewellery, beautiful clothing, elaborate hair-dos, shiny handbags, much maquillage, I even saw a fur coat and this was August. Hmm. I also noticed that several seemed to be accompanied by their grandsons. How nice.

It was getting towards dusk, and the waiter looked upwards to the trees and the sky and announced that he would be closing soon. People began to kiss each other, and say their goodbyes. I slurped my beer and hurried my Croque Monsieur and went to look at the shops.Vichy-3wb

 

My wanderings took me to the now defunct Thermes de Domes with its wonderful, golden, Moorish er dome. If you were rich and in need of a cure this would have been where you turned up in the early twentieth century. Nowadays Vichy is apparently one huge commercial centre of wellness. Forget the old one euro  cures in the Halles des Sources, in Vichy one can spend a packet on all one’s wellness needs. If you were to venture out of the park, you’d find lush and fabulous hotels in every architectural genre, you’d discover therapies and treatments that batter the bounds of reason, your energy could be boosted or your joints soothed, you might endure the Vichy equivalent to a stoning where a shower blasts off your dead cells, or if you hanker after the mud-pie days of your youth, a kaolin body wrap enriched by local blue algae might suit your pores; astoundingly you could take anti-aging as well as the spa and thermal cures. You would also come across bizarre shopping that you will have only ever dreamt of in your most surreal nightmares.

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I hurried back to the park to which I was now becoming rather attached in a worrying Schulzian way, and sat on a bench by the now closed Halles des Sources. The glamorous old ladies who had before walked sedately along the dusty paths that crossed, like lines of desire, between the covered walkways, were now almost scampering. They stopped for only the briefest of chats with each other, their body language showing great urgency: a hurried kiss, faces turning away as words were spoken on the hoof, a flash of a smile, and heads down they trotted to the sanctuary of the covered walkway. What was all the rush about? The sky was darkening, the sun had gone down, but it wasn’t raining. A woman rushed past me holding a newspaper over her head. Another looked up to the sky, and darted to the covered walkway. A whole family made a dash between covered walkways.images-6

I ambled slowly between the trees, the sole wanderer amongst the shrubs of that darkening park. It was as I headed between the walkways back to the hotel, that the sky filled with twittering birds making their way to roost in the plane trees of the park. Twenty minutes it took for the birds to flutter and flap, as those residents of Vichy, who had, through bad judgment or poor timing, chosen dusk to journey on foot through the Parc des Sources, dashed to the safety of the covered walkways, handkerchiefs at the ready to wipe shoulders and hair as the dusty earth was splattered white. Finally the lamps in the walkways were lit and the din ceased. Isn’t a little splatter supposed to be good luck, or was that just my mother trying to stop me fussing?

Go to Vichy, it’s not far from Paris, perhaps wear a hat.

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About writing, trickery and a little music