France: Vichy

Visitors fill their cups at the Celestins tap inside Vichy’s Hall des Sources.

Wanderlust was moved onto the hard in Saint Jean de Losne at the end of March 2018. We lived on board as much as we could as work was being done. It was helpful to be around to monitor progress but living on the hard had some downsides.

After a few weeks Wanderlust’s black water sewage tank filled to the brim. There was no practical way to empty it and consequentially we couldn’t use her toilets. Living without functional toilet facilities is a drag for sure, particularly when the nearest accessible toilet was a half-kilometer away.

Wanderlust in the paint shed in Saint Jean de Losne: There’s no chance to live on board.

Thus we had plenty of motivation to get away from Saint Jean de Losne. But other than for weekends we couldn’t leave. It was critically important for us be around as work was being performed, both for planning purposes and to check what was done. Monitoring the progress was mostly about minor tweaks. But like Wanderlust’s build we caught major mistakes too. Some of these would have had dire consequences later if undiscovered. Effectively we were tied to the boat while the work was done.

As much as we would like to have gone on an extended road trip to escape the boatyard, there was too much at stake while work was ongoing. No matter how uncomfortable it was living on the hard without a toilet, we needed to stay in Saint Jean de Losne.

With that we did have one opportunity to leave. After the plates cut from Wanderlust’s hull to access the inside of the fuel tank were welded back into place she headed into the paint shed for grit blasting and paint application. Wanderlust would be tented to keep the dust out at the time and would be uninhabitable. We could stay around Saint Jean de Losne to monitor the work but given the nature of what was being done there didn’t seem to be a strong reason to do so. This was our opportunity to get away. Even then we planned on a return visit to Saint Jean de Losne midway in our road trip to check on progress.

Vichy’s Parc des Sources, the town’s oldest park dates to the mid-18th Century. The park is lined with chestnut and plane trees and encircled by 700m of wrought-iron-canopied colonnade, which was added in the 19th century.

Source des Célestins

With little advanced planning we decided to head out on the road. There were no preconceived notions of where we go. We looked at a map and picked a place with a familiar name and made plans to visit. Thus we found ourselves heading to Vichy France.

The name “Vichy” is recognizable to us for both good and bad reasons.

Historically Vichy France has been known for its water and spas. Organized exploitation of the hot springs in this area started with the arrival of the Romans in 52 BC. Over the centuries Vichy continued as a popular spa destination and a belief developed that its waters have curative powers. The popularity of Vichy’s springs surged in the middle of the 19th Century during the Second Empire. During this era France’s Emperor Napoleon III took the cure in Vichy on five occasions.

By 1900 Vichy welcomed 40,000 curistes each year, a number that increased to 100,000 in the years just prior to the advent of World War I. The Belle Époque, the years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, was a high point for Vichy.

Taps for the Chomel source inside the Hall des Sources

Inside the 18th Century church, l’Église Saint-Blaise de Vichy

Taking the waters in Vichy is less popular these days. The commune’s aging Belle Époque structures and facades, though still appealing, have seen better days. Gone are the horse drawn carriages and the parasol-clutching women. The streets are now full of cars and fast walking pedestrians. Modern inhabitants are mostly oblivious to the promises of relaxation issued by the town’s spas.

Despite the decline, Vichy’s waters today reach more people now than they did during the Belle Époque. Water collected from Vichy’s Célestins spring is sold in bottles in supermarkets across France. Curistes no longer need to travel to Vichy for Célestins water: They can buy it in their local supermarchés.

Though you pay to buy Vichy’s water throughout much of France, it can be had for free in Vichy. Several buildings in Vichy hold taps where visitors can drink the water or fill bottles to take home. With that not all of Vichy’s nine sources are openly accessible to the general public: Some require a doctor’s prescription.

Source des Célestins

Situated in the center of Vichy’s spa district is the Hall des Sources, a shrine of sorts to the commune’s famous water. Built in 1903 this metal-framed structure with a glass-covered atrium houses taps that dispense water from six springs, including Célestins, Lucas, Hôpital, Chomel and Grande Grille. Blue and green-tiled islands inside the hall have spigots labeled with the names of the sources of the water being dispensed.

Of the several mineral spring options at Hall des Sources the most popular with the visitors when we visited is the water from the Celestins source. Indeed, we rarely saw anyone taking water from any other tap. Celestins’ water is said to be the least mineralized, possibly making it most appealing as drinking water. It is also mildly naturally carbonated. Celestins is the source of the supermarket water perhaps for good reason.

Vichy’s water brand has survived negative connotations associated with the commune’s name. During World War II Vichy was infamous as the seat of French power, a time in which the French government was effectively held hostage by Nazi Germany.

Taps from the Chomel source inside Vichy’s Hall des Sources

When Germany occupied northern France in the summer of 1940 the French government fled south and established Vichy as its base. Vichy France had nominal sovereignty over the German-occupied French territory in the north. Though it had closer to full sovereignty over the unoccupied areas of southern France, the zone libre or “free zone”, it was always subject to the whims of its German masters. Particularly towards the end of the war, Vichy France can at best be charitably described as closely supervised puppet state or less generously as a full-fledged and willing Nazi collaborator. The time of the Vichy Government has tainted the brand of the otherwise pleasant town.

Vichy has another claim to fame, though it perhaps shouldn’t. Vichyssoise, a thick soup traditionally served cold and made of boiled and puréed leeks, onions, potatoes, cream, and chicken stock, takes its name from the town. The dish is attributed to Frenchman Louis Diat. Diat invented (or reinvented, some say) the soup in 1917, in New York City. Diat was born in Vichy where hot potato and leek soup is a traditional dish. Though he may not have invented Vichyssoise, Diat could well have invented its American name.

Palais des Congrès de Vichy

The soup, it seems, has not suffered from negative associations with Vichy’s uncomfortable role in World War II. It is still popular today. Indeed our visit to Vichy will undoubtedly inspire the cooking of batches of Vichyssoise when we are on Wanderlust.

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We stopped in Vichy France in May of 2018 on the way from Saint Jean de Losne to Saint-Émilion France.

2 thoughts on “France: Vichy

  1. Very interesting post. Just one point – you mention the German Occupation of northern France in 1949 – it was 1940. Thank you. I enjoyed reading this while I’m researching various French towns.

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