Travel log: February 23, 2017; France
For a city of its size, with a population of only 33,500 at its peak, Vichy has undergone interesting transformations. Famed for its thermal springs, the town has attracted cure-seekers since the Roman times, none of them leaving a larger imprint than Napoleon III. Later, during the Second World War, the city served briefly as the country’s capital. For many French people, its name now unfortunately calls to mind the then government’s collaboration with the Nazi regime.
Today, Vichy exists in other incarnations. There is Vichy Laboratories, the cosmetics and skincare brand, and pastilles de Vichy, a locally produced digestive candy—both a nod to the city’s reputation as a place of healing.
Located in the center of France, Vichy is easily accessible by car or train. Even in winter, visitors can enjoy a walk around the city’s historical districts and admire its impressive array of architectural styles.
In some places you can skip the tourism office, but not here. Their free, informative, downright indispensable map is one of the most well-made I’ve seen. Check out their gorgeous website too, which even offers interactive tours. Most importantly, take your time. Vichy is so small that even at a leisurely pace you can explore it in two hours.
From the tourism office, you can immediately start on the blue trail around the spa district. It’s organized around the Parc des Sources, located in the heart of the city.
Parc des Sources
Frequented by elderly couples and locals walking their dogs, this park commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte makes for a perfect mid-afternoon stroll. Its trees hang bare in late winter, but the grass shines green under the February sunlight. Late in the afternoon, the sky blends into cotton candy shades of pink and blue.
Grand établissement thermal
Built in 1903, this oriental-style bathhouse used to welcome only the well-heeled. Now a spa center, it offers a wider range of services, from the affordable to the less so.
Commissioned by Napoleon III, this sprawling building used to house all sorts of entertainment: music, theater, dances, and games. Once the place to be for French performers, it now leads a more staid existence as a convention center and opera house.
Kiosque à musique
Originally built as an homage to music, this kiosk has unfortunately deteriorated over time.
Boulevard de Russie and Rue de Belgique
Outside the park, the Circuit Azur takes you out onto the architecturally interesting Boulevard de Russie and Rue de Belgique.
Toward the east stands St. Louis’ Church, constructed in the neo-Gothic style.
The gold trail picks up from where the Circuit Azur left off and winds its way around the historical district.
One of the first stops is this charming street lined with houses of different architectural styles.
Église Saint-Blaise et Notre Dame des Malades
At the end of Rue Hubert-Colombier stands St. Blaise’s Church. Don’t be fooled by its austere exterior; inside are colorful stained glass windows.
Source des Célestins
Sheltered by a picturesque pavilion, this free-flowing fountain spouts the most famous of Vichy’s waters. Rich in minerals, the slightly salty water is supposedly good for both health and beauty.
Built in the 15th century and later restored, this former bailiwick stands on the remains of Vichy’s ancient walls.
Hugging the curve of the city, this tributary of the Loire River brought trade to medieval Vichy—but also destructive floods. To protect itself, the city dammed the river and created parks along its eastern bank.
Where to eat
Dining in a chic place like Vichy can seem intimidating to those on a budget—like us. We ended up at the surprisingly affordable La Véranda, which we had initially approached only to gawk at what we’d assumed were exorbitant prices. We spent €27 for two, not bad considering the portions.
For a hotel restaurant, La Véranda has a pleasant, laidback ambience, if you don’t mind the outdated music. After a whole afternoon spent walking, it was just what we needed before the long drive back to Lyon.