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Splash! Spas of the Southwest
Twenty-five years before Christ, the Roman Emperor, Agrippa, created and constructed the first Roman spas called "thermae." They proved to be so popular he had them built all across the Roman Empire. Anthropologists have found mosaic fragments of Roman spa cultures and vestiges of their worship of water from England to Africa.
In Europe spas thrived around natural hot springs. Until the plague swept across the continent in the Middle Ages, spas were considered to have amazing healing properties. Unfortunately, the water-health connection was lost to ignorance and spas were summarily closed to prevent the spread of the disease. And in 1538, France dismantled all public bathhouses in an effort to curb a syphilis epidemic. The use of spas slowly regained favor by first hopping across the Atlantic to Sarasota Springs, in upstate New York. Once their benefits were recognized as valuable, preventative treatments in the United States, they returned to popularity inEurope.
Spa villages dot the southwestern landscape of France. Some of the most well known are Ax-les-Thermes, Bagnère de Bigorre, Barbazan and Cauterets. Each spa has its own particular medical specialty and are also open to the public for simple relaxation and spiritual rejuvenation. The village of Ax-les-Thermes recognized the curative power of water well before the Romans. Today, in the town center is the Bassin de Ladres, where all are welcomed to take off their shoes and soak their feet in the hot sulphurous water that bubbles forth. Originally built for the Crusaders to combat leprosy brought back from the Holy Lands, the spa now treats rheumatism and respiratory ailments. Bagnères de Bigorre has for centuries, from the Romans, to the Goths to Napoleon III, been a charming spa village on the banks of the Adour River. Its "Etablissement Thermes", specializes in rheumatoid arthritis, psychosomatic and respiratory issues. The waters at Barbazan treated malaria during the colonial period and currently deals with stress related problems. Cauterets, the most well known spa center in the Pyrenees, can be said to be charming to a fault, if it weren't just so picturesque. When going for the "cure" was de rigeur for tuberculosis and rheumatism hundreds of years ago, Baudelaire, Debussy, Tennyson and many other celebrities of their day were frequent patrons. Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, who both suffered from poor health, sought comfort there. So impressed were they by the health benefits of Cauterets, he has roads built for easy access and she created gardens which are still breathtaking and contemplative to stroll through.
Two of my favorite spas to visit while in Gascony are Eugénie-les-Bains and Barbotan-les-Thermes. Eugenie-les-Bains began as an oasis in a natural basin at the rim of the Landes department. After reputedly receiving shelter from a storm, the Empress Eugénie offered her patronage to the commune. This is a premier spa and gastronomic experience. In 1975, the starred chef, Michel Guérard and his wife, Christine, began what is considered by some to be the most romantic, small hotel compounds in France, leading with Les Pres d'Eugénie and La Maison Rose which sit amidst 30 acres of wooded parkland. Amenities include a gymnasium, tennis courts, a heated swimming pool, beauty center and Michel's pioneering nouvelle cuisine, "cuisine minceur", simply translated as calorie controlled dieting. Its' restaurants boast a wine list from some of the best vineyards in the southwest. Barbotan-les-Thermes, is a more unassuming spa experience, but nonetheless satisfying.With an abundance of vegetal mineral mud, this retreat will help everything from varicose veins to gout. It, too, is surrounded by parkland and ponds, one of whose lotus flower displays in early July is a sight for sore eyes. La Bastide, at Barbotan-les-Thermes, is a charming, 18th century, recently renovated Carthusian monastery that houses a relais (inn) and one of the best restaurants in the area. There is also a fabulous farmer's market every Wednesday, rain or shine.
If you're seeking a healthier lifestyle or simply want a day of pampering, a spa visit to any of these centers is well worth the time. It's best to book early because these destinations fill quickly, especially over the summer months.
Photos 1 and 4 © Alain Baschenis
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