Healing Waters in the Shadow of the Alps

New York Times | December 4, 2005

"TAKING the waters" has such an anachronistic ring that it's hard to believe anyone does it anymore. The practice dates back to Roman times, but in Europe plenty of people seek out the healing properties of mineral water with great gusto and gravity. The area around Lake Leman in Geneva is particularly welcoming to les curistes, as the seekers are known.

On both the French and Swiss sides of the lake, entire villages have devoted themselves since the 19th century to the fine art of healthful restoration. One such spa town is Divonne-les-Bains, a French town of about 6,000 residents just two miles from the Swiss border. A 30's-vintage poster advertising the charms of Divonne claims it as a station de repos, a rest stop, which is exactly what it is - a place for a caesura, a brief and pleasant timeout from life.

When you say "spa" to an American, thoughts turn to a self-contained, isolated place à la Canyon Ranch or the Golden Door. But mineral water resorts in Europe tend to encompass the whole town. In Divonne, the water that is its reason for being occupies quite literally a central place: the mineral springs bubble up into picturesque pools in three separate spots, and the surprisingly swift Divonne River flows through the town's heart, surrounded by pretty blue railings and stone walkways and benches that invite a picnic.

Valvital, an up-to-date and somewhat antiseptic-looking facility, overlooks the town. For those more interested in an adrenaline rush than a rest-and-recharge session, there is a casino (favored, in the summer, by the numerous Middle Eastern visitors to the Geneva area). Like many contemporary spa towns, Divonne strives to offer something for everyone: guided walks organized by the tourist office, from March to mid-November, that range from workout-level Alpine hikes to leisurely strolls through the historic town center, concerts in the central square, a gargantuan outdoor swimming pool with a breathtakingly high and twisting slide, a handsome golf course with views of Mont Blanc on a clear day, and two grand hotels - Domaine de Divonne and Château de Divonne - that date back to the town's Belle Époque heyday.

Situated north of Lake Leman on a plain between the Alps and the lower-altitude Jura Mountains, Divonne had its golden age in the 19th century as the merchant princes of the Industrial Revolution, along with aristocrats and literary types, sought refuge from the encroachments of modernity. Curistes included Jérôme Bonaparte (Napoleon's youngest brother) and the writers Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Guy de Maupassant. Maupassant installed his family in town for the season, took the waters during the day, then stayed up at night writing, burning candle after candle in his room in the Hôtel de la Truite, which still stands.

Present-day visitors divide into two groups: those who come for the waters and those who choose Divonne for its proximity to Geneva and Lausanne, and for its lovely setting in the foothills of the Jura. And of those who are drawn by the waters, they subdivide yet again: those who come for the cure - the true curistes - have a doctor's prescription and, since the 1970's, have been partly reimbursed by the French national health system.

The choice of spa town is based on a particular ailment, which is matched with the particular quality of each center's water; Divonne's specialty is psychological problems, although the people on the streets do not look especially depressed. The second group of bathers come for reasons of bien-être, or well-being, and they most closely resemble patrons of American spas.

Valvital's offerings reflect both clienteles, with treatments ranging from those focused on the mineral waters (underwater massage, in which the recipient is simultaneously massaged by human hands and pounded by jets of the healing water, or individual baths, in which you sit in a bathtub of bubbling mineral water) to newer-age reflexology, shiatsu and yoga classes to more frivolous pastimes, like leg waxing, cellulite treatment and facials. The swimming pool is tiny and won't do much for Americans used to larger pools for lap swimming, but the adjacent hydrotherapy pool with its arcing jets of water will be a novel means of relaxation, and the hammam (Turkish bath) is spacious, with excellent heat. Valvital, (33-4) 50.20.27.70, www.valvital.fr, charges from 19 euros (about $22.80, at $1.20 to the euro) for a 15-minute under-mineral-water massage to 54 euros for a regular 45-minute dry massage to 15 euros for a half-hour in a bubbling baths.

Many visitors do their treatments in the morning, followed by lunch and then an afternoon hike. Divonne follows the traditional rhythms of a small French town, and so everything is shut between noon and 2 p.m. There is no choice but to eat. The linchpin of the town, Les Quatre Vents, Place des Quatre-Vents (33-4) 50.20.00.08, is an excellent place for a sandwich of ham and cheese or smoked salmon on baguette, or a salad with a delightfully mustardy dressing, (or, if you want to undo the morning's salutary effects, a thick slice of pâté en croute). If you want to forestall temptation, try not to look at the pastry case, where the mille-feuilles and éclairs ooze rich custard. Most items range from 2 to 5 euros.

Divonne is a lively town, with shops geared to both residents and tourists, so an after-lunch meander will take you past everything from Couleur Nature, a decidedly upscale shop full of handsomely designed tableware and kitchenware to an even more upscale lingerie shop to an impossibly cute children's clothing store. Since the town is in the middle of a building boom, the number of storefronts taken up by real estate agents is rivaled only by the number of "instituts de beauté," offering endless varieties of manicures and facials.

A more energetic ramble will take you away from the commercial center and into the countryside. Stop in at the Divonne Tourism Office, Rue des Bains, 99.20.01.22, www.divonne-les-bains.com, for their extremely well-done package of folders detailing 38 walks and sites in the region. One beginner-level walk takes you about five minutes on foot out of town toward a pleasantly downscale amusement park called Forestland. Opposite the entrance are a couple of picnic tables and some almost too discreet signs, showing the way along the Canal de Cran. The "canal" is hardly more than a stream, but it's an extremely pleasant walk. Informative signs (in French only) tell of the auroch, a species of wild cattle with long, curving horns that live in the fenced-off area alongside the path.

Another, more rigorous hike takes you out of town in the opposite direction, past the golf course, and up Mont Mussy, the highest point in the nearby vicinity. Although this is no Mont Blanc, the path here is rougher than along the canal and the terrain is steeper. If you choose to go through the village of Mourex, you will see an interesting counterpoint to Divonne. There is no commercial center whatsoever (not even a stray boulangerie), only rustic homes and barns and gorgeous views of Lake Leman.

Runners or inline skaters may want to join the local residents who flock each weekend to the spacious path around the Lac de Divonne, the town's own lake, artificial but beautiful.

After all this exercise, sustenance is again required. For such a small town, Divonne presents a surprising variety of choices - from Thai food to Indian to a croque monsieur (3.20 euros) at the Charlys Pub, 167, avenue de Génève, which despite its anglophone name is the archetypal French village gathering spot.

Both of the remaining grand hotels, Domaine de Divonne, Avenue des Thermes, 50.40.34.34, www.domaine-de-divonne.com, doubles from 225 euros, and Château de Divonne, 115, rue Bains, 50.20.00.32, www.chateau-divonne.com, doubles from 145 euros, have Michelin one-star restaurants, offering traditional cuisine and meals that can easily approach $300 for two if served à la carte. But both also offer set menus at a range of prices, which makes the whole enterprise more affordable. The terrace at the Château offers stunning views, making it a good choice for a cocktail at dusk.

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