In a scorching Parisian heat wave, all one wants to do is chug a bottle of Vittel while hugging another cold one for brief relief. While the iconic water brand sells over a billion bottles a year worldwide today, lesser-known is the Belle Epoque spa town where over a century ago, socialites once gathered on vacation to benefit from both the thriving social scene– and the healing thermal waters, of course.
In 1854, lawyer Louis Bouloumié came to Contrexéville, site of modern-day Vittel, where his health recovered thanks to the benefits of the water source. Shortly after, he purchased the spring and built a pavilion in its place. The site was soon developed into a luxurious resort, a casino and other structures that now characterise the town.
They called it the Vittel Palace, a thermal retreat in the Vosges of northeastern France, and by the looks of arriving guests, there was most definitely something in the water.
The cornerstone of the resort was and still is today, the spring 80-meters below ground where the water is naturally lifted through a geological fault line at the foot of the mountains. The healing powers of the water had been known since the Gallo-Roman times, but the town only gained its reputation as a prestigious French spa at the turn of the 20th century.
The spa experience had become incredibly popular in the nineteenth century as railroads rapidly extended and previously isolated areas became easily accessible. The number of patients visiting spas grew enormously and more than 31 spas appeared in cities like Contrexeville Bourbonne, Bains-les-Bains and all throughout the Pyrenees.
It was in 1882 that the idea of bottling and marketing water began. Already by 1898, one million bottles had been sold. No longer did individuals have to make the trek up to Vittel to get a taste of its water.
The architecture at Vittel was also half the attraction. There was a thermal gallery where the actual bathing took place that echoed the designs of grand Parisian monuments and buildings. In fact, most of Vittel’s most impressive buildings were the work of Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opera Garnier. He transformed the town with a Moorish-inspired style and later in the 20th century, the station adopted a more English style of sleek white façades said to reflect the purity of the water.
Crowds came to Vittel to showcase their Sunday-best in the parks and the Grand Budapest Hotel-like Casino. But an end to the romance of spa-vacationing was looming…
The resort rapidly declined in the postwar era in France when individuals could no longer afford such luxuries, but also because the war had left its mark on many places, including this one. Vittel had served as an internment camp for hundreds of American and British families for two years until the US Army liberated them in 1944. There were also Jewish women interned there, protected by local nuns. Historical records suggest many of them committed suicide when they learned that they were to be deported.
Urbanization took part in the decline of the resort too. No longer was thermal vacationing in the mountains necessary when it could be accessed closer at local spas. Even though the resort still exists after it was taken over by Club Med in 1968, it is seemingly lost in history as a grand destination of the elite.
The forgotten glamour of spa towns is our obsession du jour here at Messy Nessy Chic. The more nostalgic the better. Do you know of an old spa town we should know about?