What is a spa?
If you want to find a spa in France look for the words “les Thermes” or “les Bains” after the name of the town or village. The French have been “taking the waters” for every crise de foi (liver problem) or crise de nerfs (anxiety attack) certainly since Roman times and probably back to the days when they were painting pictures of aurochs on the cave walls at Lascaux. The French also invented Thalassotherapy – the use of sea water in medical treatments.
Will it do me any good?
Drinking natural mineral waters became all the rage again in the 18th century, and French spa resorts proliferated in the 19th century, when they began to get official scientific recognition. Many of these are still operational and French doctors will send patients suffering from obesity, arthritis, rheumatism, allergies and other chronic illnesses for a cure. The spa chosen depends on the properties of the waters and the treatments offered.
The 105 spas operating in France deliver 9 million days of care a year to about half a million curistes (patients) who stay an average of 18 days each, though such is the French obsession with health that these visits account for only 0.28 per cent of annual health spending. Many French spas have capitalised on 21st-century recognition of their health benefits by renovating their facilities and have become newly fashionable in the process. You can find a full list, a map, and more information on the official website for La médecine thermale.
Is there a spa in Paris?
Paris is full of beauty salons and steam-massage-and-sauna places that call themselves spas – and many of them are excellent – but the nearest “proper” spa to the French capital, one that uses natural mineral water for medical treatments, is at Enghien-les-Bains. This lakeside spa town, a 10-minute train ride from the Gare du Nord, is now a well-to-do suburb, much visited for its casino and racecourse. Les Thermes d’Enghien-les-Bains is run by the the Lucien Barrière restaurant and leisure group and is also being renovated. If you are seeking an afternoon’s relaxation rather than a six-day “cure,” try one of the nearby beauty and well-being resorts such as Spark, run by the same company.
But I’m in a hurry…
Today there are some 1,200 sources of natural mineral water recognised by the French Academy of Medicine. Saint-Amand, Saint-Galmier (the source for Badoit brand water) and Vergèze (the source for Perrier) were first documented 2,000 years ago.
You’ll recognise some of the names because during the 19th-century spa boom, some sources began to bottle their waters so people could enjoy their benefits at home. The first was at Saint-Galmier, known for its digestive properties, and bottled and marketed by Auguste Saturnin Badoit in 1838. La Salvetat (1848), Vittel (1855) and the water from Contrexéville (1861) soon followed, while it was Napoleon III himself who signed the decree recognising the source at Bouillens, which gave the world the Eau la! la! of Perrier. Evian was a relative late-comer in 1878.
Today, these waters are owned and marketed by big corporations, but this does mean you can go into any supermarket and find a wide range of bottled natural French mineral waters. Every French person has their favourite. Being a tourist is thirsty work so try out some different ones – you’re likely to find several you haven’t seen on sale at home. By the way, it’s OK to split open the plastic wraps of six-bottle packs to take just one litre.
Is Paris tap water that bad?
Not at all. It is perfectly safe to drink and quite full of minerals itself. See this chart produced by the municipal authority that produces the capital’s drinking water. In a restaurant, just ask for un carafe d’eau if you want (free) tap water rather than mineral water.