VICHY SPA: Losing Weight the French Way
Received this article from Jacqueline Swartz who had just returned from Vichy, France. I am familiar with the Vichy shower but have never been to Vichy. Since she has done such a great job of describing her experience there, I thought I would include it for you to enjoy as well. She promised another installment of her adventure….and in it I would love for her to tell us more about how the horizontal Vichy Shower bar, with its multiple shower heads, was born.
Thanks Jacqueline…and please tell us also how much weight you lost!
VICHY SPA: Losing Weight the French Way
By Jacqueline Swartz
A quartet of hands massage my travel-knotted limbs as I lie face-down on the table. Then a monsoon of water pours from a shower bar above. In the spa world it is known as a Vichy shower. It’s found in many places, but this is in fact the town of Vichy, where seven different curative waters emerge from ancient local springs. I am in a light-filled three story spa called Vichy Celestins, named after the naturally carbonated water. It’s the only Vichy water that is bottled. It tastes good – the others have that sulphur smell. In the Halle des Sources, (hall of springs) people come with plastic glasses and their doctors’ prescriptions. But in France, mineral water is free to all, so anyone can turn on the taps where the springs have been diverted.
The spa has a full menu of treatments, but I’m here for the new program called Maigrir a Vichy, or lose weight in Vichy. Its goal is nothing less than to make the town the weight-loss center of Europe. Involving nine hotels, various restaurants and three large spas, this is an all out assault against overweight. The fronts are diet, exercise, psychology – and a six-month follow up. Carefully designed by doctors, dietitians, a star spa cuisine chef, and psychologists, it is not a fat farm but a place of pleasure and learning about staying slim the French way.
I arr rive in late afternoon, after a pleasant three hour train ride from Paris. (I booked my ticket through Rail Europe in the US, and avoided the dreaded line in front of the wicket). Too late for the obligatory meeting with the dietitian, I decide to get off to a good start by ordering off the the Maigrir Menu in the chic, airy restaurant of the Vichy Celestins Hotel, where I am staying. When crusty breads come around, how can I refuse, on my first night in France how could I resist ordering a glass of wine. Make that two.
Across the room from me, in this first floor restaurant where I would eat all my meals, save breakfast, for the entire week, is a woman, obviously French, who sits next to a bottle of wine in an ice bucket. Ever time I see her at dinner, she is at the same table, always with a bottle of wine.
There are other single women, and some women in twos. Later in the week I would meet an American woman who lives in Paris. She was staying at Vichy for a month, with time off on the weekends.
But most people, as in most hotels, are in couples. They eat as people do in fine restaurants in France, with the entree first, then the main course, then….the most tempting thing around me is the clatter of the cheese cart, with it’s succulent inventory.
I am staying at the most luxurious hotel in town, the Vichy Celestins, which is connected to the spa by an indoor walkway, so I can trundle over in my robe and slippers. My fifth floor room overlooks a park, with a duck pond and little paths. The restaurant, where I take lunch and dinner, also looks out onto the park. There is a lot of green space here, with meticulously designed parks, imported trees and plants, fountains and a long walkway decorated in Art Nouveau wrought iron, designed by the famous Emil Robert. Much of the fanciful architecture and green space comes courtesy of Napoleon III, who in the mid 1800’s, was so pleased with the curative effects of the waters that he built himself not only a summer home but a town. By the turn of the century, Vichy had become one of the great spas of Europe, a chic place to vacation and France’s summer music capital. The splendid 1900 art-nouveau Opera House, now restored, holds over four thousand people. The Casino, another Belle Epoque treasure, hosts conventions; gambling takes place in a modern building.
The next morning, I receive my program. First thing is the meeting with the dietitian. It’s a kind of tell and show. She asks you what you eat, then she asks you to point to it in a thick book of photos. You eat a piece of bread and butter for breakfast? The book shows different kinds of bread, different sizes, and different portions of butter. (There’s a jumbo baguette half, slathered in butter). You put a little oil in a pan? How much is a little? How much is a small bowl of pasta – this one or that one? This is a la francaise, not gimmicky, or even as carb averse as one would find in North America.
Of course there’s the weighing and measuring, the assessment of my BMI and fat content, and then the verdict: lose at least 15 pounds to get to a healthy weight. Frankly, I find diets humiliating, and weighing and measuring food infuriating. But with a celebrated chef like Pierre-Yves Largeaux doing all the creative work – and counting the calories – I feel less like a dieter and more like Oprah with her private cook. My first meal on the regime starts with an artichoke heart with whipped goat cheese. Then turbot in a light sauce of green pepper on a caviar of celery. Dessert is an apple flan. Total calories: 449. Hmm… I think I can do this.
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