Wednesday 21st September, St. Nectaire, Auverne
We have spent the last two days camping in Vichy. Somehow it had slipped through our net as we trawled the by-ways of France with Modestine. The weather has turned warmer again and the walk along the river bank from Abrest where we camped was tiring, for me at least. It was pleasant though, strolling beside the Allier as it wound through woods and fields until it joined the riverside parks where the gentry would stroll during the Belle Époque at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here Napoleon III had his personal residence and a street of terraced houses built in what was fondly imagined to be the English style to house his imperial guard. The style was very pleasant but did not strike us as English. They had pretty decorated gables and were what we have seen referred to elsewhere as Gingerbread houses.
Our first sight in Vichy was the Source Celéstin. This is the only source from which water is bottled today. Currently 60,000,000 bottles are filled each year! The source is named for the convent that stood on the site above the rock from which the source flows. The building is ornate and was a meeting point in the heyday of the town for people to gather to drink the water. We filled our bottle from the source. It tasted quite pleasant yesterday but after a night in the fridge we found it less so.
Nearby we found the Castel Franc, a 16th century building, home of the King's representative who administered justice on his behalf. Next to it stands the pretty pavillon of Mme de Sévigné, a renowned curist at the spa.
The morning was spent walking the avenues around the various sources and watching the curists taking the waters. Vichy still retains its popularity and treatments are offered for a range of conditions including arthritis of the joints. A petit train winds its way around the streets of the old town taking the less agile to see the sights the easy way. At the spa shopping complex we bought several bags of Vichy tablets which are rather pleasant and an aid to digestion. Useful after a snack lunch of a white French baguette filled with chicken and salad. Why don’t the French get indigestion as we tend to?
Lunch was as described, accompanied by a beer in a sunny courtyard shaded by plane trees. The bar was part of the complex and was suffused with the charm of a bygone age, as was the entire old town. Indeed, the only things in Vichy which can truly be called plain, are the majestic and ubiquitous grey-trunked plane trees!
We spent the day exploring streets of lovely houses where buildings of the Belle Époque stand juxtaposed to Art Nouveau buildings and even a Venetian palace! Vichy is still a delightful town today, exuding charm. There is however, one building that we found quite awful. That is the art nouveau church with its high tower, topped by a glass cross dominating the town viewed from the parks with their glass covered arcades. The French can have such exquisite taste but can also produce buildings that surpass in ugliness anything we have found elsewhere. Horrid as it was we ventured inside and can report that inside at least, while certainly devoid of charm, it is far better that the exterior lead us to expect. Brightly coloured stained glass windows and walls lined with glittering mosaiques in bright primary colours contrasted with the ugly grey exterior.
Late afternoon we returned back to Modestine along beside the Allier river. We stopped for ice creams at the guinguettes where we sat overlooking artificially created sandy beaches and watched the rowing boats passing sleekly up and down river. It was a really enjoyable day despite the long walk into town and back in the hot sunshine. Buses around French towns are nothing like as efficient or comprehensive as in England.