When we historically evoke the city of Vichy, we think above all of his "government", Marshal Pétain and collaboration. When we talk about it on an economic and tourist level, the city becomes synonymous with spa and treatment, beauty products or digestive lozenges. In other words, this charming little town, which we often imagine lost somewhere in Auvergne, does not necessarily enjoy the most attractive tourist reputation. Nevertheless, Vichy has an important and interesting cultural and historical heritage, a heritage dating mainly from the Second Empire, the beginning of the golden age of Vichy, which then became the "queen of the spa towns".
Vichy: from its origins to the 18th centurye century
The origins of the city of Vichy, now under the Allier prefecture with some 27,000 inhabitants, remain uncertain. In antiquity, the city, responding to the name ofaquis calidis (hot water), was already known for the quality and therapeutic virtues of its mineral waters. Numerous remains thus attest to the exploitation of its waters from the Gallo-Roman period. The small city gradually abandoned with the end of the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, Vichy was no more than a simple stronghold because of its strategic position at the entrance to Auvergne and a crossing point to cross the Allier. Possession of the Dukes of Bourbon, the city was surrounded by ramparts in the 14the century when in 1410 the Celestial Convent was founded just above the famous spring.
However, thermal activity was only reborn from modern times, notably thanks to King Henry IV, who had a water superintendent installed in the city. Some famous people make it possible to speak about Vichy, among which the Marquise de Sévigné, accomplished great spa therapist or the daughters of Louis XV, Victoire and Adélaïde. The Duchess of Angoulême's enthusiasm for the city enabled the development of a large spa establishment. The real revolution nevertheless remains to come with the First Empire and especially the Second Empire.
Napoleon III the benefactor of Vichy
Napoleon III suffered among other things from kidney stones. In order to heal himself, he decides to make Vichy his ideal spa resort. A major development and improvement project for the city was conceived in 1856, including the construction of access roads, the creation of parks and buildings such as a town hall or a church. Following the Emperor's first visit in 1861, the project was launched. In barely a year, the architect Darcy built the Vichy station and the month following its inauguration, Napoleon III was back in the city. Apart from the year, 1865, he will return every year until 1866 in the spa.
In 1865, a neo-renaissance style casino was created. It is a place of entertainment with shows, ballrooms, games, reading for men or sewing for women. Because if you come to Vichy to be treated, you come to have just as much fun. In the XIXe century, an annex was added to accommodate the ever-increasing number of spa guests. Today, it serves as both a convention center and an opera house where many events are organized throughout the summer.
From settlers to collaborators
With Napoleon III, the entire Parisian bourgeoisie went down to Vichy in order to rub shoulders with the big boys. However, it was not until 1870 and the end of the work initiated by the Emperor that swimmers flocked in large numbers far from the Haussmann construction sites in Paris. Hydrotherapy continues to gain in scale under IIIe Republic. Let us keep in mind, moreover, that one does not necessarily go to a spa - whether it is Vichy or other European cities such as Karlsbad, Baden-Baden or Marienbad - because of a poor state of health, but quite simply because it was appropriate to show oneself and to display one's social status. But the urban bourgeoisie is not the only one to come and recharge its batteries in the sweet and quiet little town, the colonists also constitute a new clientele of choice. The latter arrive from all the colonies for treatment, including liver disease, damaged by tropical climates and alcohol. In 1903, Vichy had the largest thermal spa in Europe. On the eve of the Second World War, some 2 million annual visitors came in summer to the spa town whose Vichy regime was to spell the end.
Due to its communication and rail network, close to the demarcation line and above all because of its immense hotel infrastructure then one of the most important in France after Nice, Vichy becomes a suitable city for the installation of the new French government, seeking to avoid the overworking Clermont Ferrand. It is a brutal stop for the development of the city as hotels and palaces are denatured to accommodate the French administration. The end of the conflict gave Vichy hope for a return to normalcy in the 1950s. Alas, the Algerian war and decolonization deprived it of the majority of its customers. The golden age of the "Queen of the Waters" is well past, but she still leaves an interesting and original cultural heritage.
An unsuspected architectural wealth
At the beginning of XXe a second major construction campaign, following on from that of Napoleon III, has been initiated and today bears witness to the extraordinary past hotel wealth of the city and its innumerable villas. To walk in Vichy is to take a historical stroll in the heart of the architecture of the Belle Époque marked by an undeniable eclecticism with residences ranging from the neo-Gothic style to the neo-Flemish or Venetian style via Art. new. These villas were generally rented to curists or owned by doctors who, alongside bankers and traders, were the main sponsors. Pass rue de Belgique to admire the Flemish castle and the Venetian villa, a stone's throw from the boulevard de Russie where the Gothic castle is located, or even Doctor Blancher's villa, this time in classic style. And you will always find nearby a hotel also dating from the early twentiethe century or a palace from the Second Empire like the Aletti, the last palace in the city still in operation. In any case, whether it is a villa or a hotel, you will discover at every turn of the street a surprising architecture with monumental entrances, ornate balconies and a profusion of decorative elements such as stained glass windows, glazed domes, etc.
Naturally, hydrotherapy has also left its mark with its spa establishments, its refreshments and kiosks. Avenue Eisenhower, the large Romano-Byzantine style spa establishment and the hall of the Dômes spa center with its large murals are impressive. And if the need to quench your thirst is felt, just go in front of the Hall of Sources to taste a glass of Vichy Célestin, straight from the source or other mineral waters with various properties, which should be made. be careful when consuming them.
Other essential steps, the magnificent Opera House mentioned above as well as the churches of Saint Louis and Saint Blaise. In the first, commissioned by Napoleon III, do not miss the stained glass windows depicting Saint Napoleon. In the second, dive into a world worthy of Tim Burton with his Art Deco style. However, this is only a quick and non-exhaustive overview of all the architectural richness of Vichy. And the best way to discover it is still a stroll, a stroll that involves passing through the abundant and lush parks of the city.
Bucolic walks and museums
More than a spa town, Vichy is above all a green town, 1/5 of its area of which is made up of parks and gardens. The very first were arranged by religious congregations: the Capuchins and Celestines, follow walks imagined in the 18th century.e century, creations initiated under Napoleon Ier and Napoleon III until recent complexes such as the exotic garden of the forecourt of the station inaugurated in 2009. The opportunity also to discover on the edge of the Napoleon III park, the various chalets of the Emperor built for his comfort and that of his entourage. You cannot go around the various green spaces of the city there either, but they are really worth the detour and fully contribute to the charm of Vichy, just like these small museums.
Do not wait for the rain to appear before entering it. Discover the Opera museum, which collects the funds from the Opera: programs, costume posters, set projects, photographs, etc. or the Museum of African and Asian Arts which presents interesting and quality temporary exhibitions every year from May to October. Currently, these exhibitions are devoted to African ornaments as well as objects from cabinets of curiosities, originality and eclecticism required.
If you are looking to bring back a little souvenir from the region, we recommend that you first stop at the Vichy market. And to taste the typical cheeses of the region, do not hesitate to come and taste some Auvergne wines from the cellar store, including the attractive Saint Pourçaint who was in the 14th century.e century served alongside Burgundy wines at the Court of the Papacy of Avignon.
For lovers of sweets, stop by the chocolate confectioner "Aux Marocains" whose name refers to the many colonists from North Africa who came to Vichy for a cure and which has kept its period interior. You will find some historical sweets such as Alma, a hazelnut and almond praline coated with royal ice cream whose recipe dates from 1854 and named in honor of the eponymous battle won in the Crimean War.
A city looking to the future
If the memory of the Vichy regime is still present and poorly lived in memories, the city resolutely seeks to look to the future. With sport taking on an increasingly important dimension, the establishment of a university center bringing youth and dynamism, all combined with a surprising cultural and historical richness and without forgetting the beneficial thermal centers, Vichy constitutes an ideal destination to come. rejuvenate both physically and culturally.
- Vichy, invitation to walk, Éditions Lieux Dits, Lyon, 2010.
- Vichy tourist office: 04.70.98.71.94 / www.vichy-tourisme.com