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A spa too far in southern France

Standing naked in a sterile white-tiled room with my arms wrapped around me and my knees turned in, I held my breath and waited as the spa attendant clutched what looked like a pressure hose. “Breathe deeply,” I told myself. “Relax.”  This was the last of the three treatments I had willingly signed up for at the spa, “Les Thermes,” in Bagnoles de l’Orne, France. I wanted to benefit from this treatment, the “douche general au jet,” but was I ready for this “hose-down?” How had I ended up in such an unknown part of France?

The summer teaching assignment at the University of Angers, just two hours southwest of Paris, was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. France is deep in my heart and soul. I embrace the culture, lifestyle and language. I cherish any time I can spend there. In my persistent state of longing to explore undiscovered corners of my beloved country, I can handle unfamiliar circumstances and discomforts.   But now France was smack-dab in the middle of a “canicule,” the worst heat wave gripping the country in many years. Not one of the buildings where I was teaching was air-conditioned, not even the computer lab. And certainly not the dorm room that I had called home for three weeks.

My colleague and friend, Debra, insisted we needed relief from the oppressive heat in Angers.  She suggested a week-end trip into the countryside, to the small spa town of Bagnoles de l’Orne.  She had scoured a regional guidebook, Le Petit Futé, looking for deals (we were on a budget, according to her) and something different to do. She came across a hotel package for $200 per person, including meals, an air-conditioned room for two nights and three “soins thermaux,” water treatments, at a center for “bien être,” well-being. 

“What a deal! We’ll rent an air-conditioned car,” she pressed. “It will be a nice break and we’ll feel really great after our treatments.” 

How could I refuse?  I tried to imagine a massage in the coolness of air-conditioning.  I pictured myself relaxing poolside, drink in hand, after a relaxing day at the spa.  My bags were packed!   

On Friday afternoon, we zipped down the back roads of Western France in our shiny red rented Renault Clio for the hour and a half drive to Bagnoles de l’Orne, the only spa town located in the region. For centuries, the mineral water has been purported to ease tired, aching muscles with its special effects.  The lush, verdant Andaines Forests a protected natural preserve,  is  like a secret part of France where history, legend, mystery and myths seem to percolate in the atmosphere. This was the stomping grounds of that handsome medieval heart-throb, Sir Lancelot du Lac, so many years ago. While roaming through the forest, he stopped along the Vee River to enjoy the cure of the mineral water gushing from deep underneath the ground.

The crystal clear mineral water of the Vee River has special, medically verified healing powers because it’s radioactive. Yes, that’s right—radioactive. French doctors at “Les Thermes,” the spa, prescribe hydrotherapy treatments for their patients who suffer from circulatory problems. We didn’t have any specific medical problems. We were looking for relief—relief from the heat and relief for our tight, achy muscles. Radioactive water?  Would we glow after our treatments?  Neither one of us cared. We were psyched for some relief. We were headed to the spa in our air-conditioned car.

Appearing out of nowhere, a small pristine lake sparkled in front of us. We couldn’t find a mention of a lake in the Petit Futé.  And, we didn’t expect to see a large, white limestone building bordering the lake with a discreet sign that said “casino.”  We had arrived in the small, lakeside town of Bagnoles de l’Orne.

We pulled in front of the Nouvel Hotel, the small hotel not far from the lake that had advertised the package deal with a visit to “Les Thermes de Bagnoles.” We weren’t disappointed.  As we stepped from the car, we found ourselves in front of a beautifully carved wooden staircase that beckoned us to enter the belle époque-style 19th century hotel. As we entered the intimate, orchid-filled lobby, a brocaded loveseat seemed to invite illicit conversation from another time. I started to day-dream about Sir Lancelot when I heard a  hearty “Bonjour!” Madame Chancerel, a round, robust lady who owns the hotel with her husband the chef, signed us in with a smile (not always the case in France) and gave us our week-end vouchers. She led us up another wooden staircase to a comfortably furnished air-conditioned room with two big, downy beds plumped with pillows. What a treat. A pleasant relief from the stifling dorm room at the university.

After a cool restful night’s sleep,  we left our  hotel and strolled the six blocks to the spa compound. The path wound through the forest. The ground, carpeted with pine needles, was soft and gentle on our feet. A faint scent of eucalyptus wafted from our surroundings. We began to wonder, hoped even, if we had stepped back in time. Maybe we would see Lancelot speeding through the forest on his white horse?

Debra spotted the Office of Tourism (she always does) on a narrow street through the thick pine trees.  We dashed in for some quick info before our designated “treatments.  We learned that, in addition to its medieval myths,  during the turn of the 19th century this  town was a crowded hot spot for the elite, who loved to gamble at the lakefront Casino and indulge themselves with treatments from the healing water. We were intrigued by the so-called powers of the healing water. We headed toward the spa.

We reached the compound, which includes a hotel that specializes in housing the elderly and infirm. Another building, close to the mineral water source with its bubbling large limestone fountain, is  a medical office. Doctors and nurses are on staff to suggest treatments if needed. Our vouchers for treatments didn’t mention a visit with a doctor, so we headed on to the next building.

The main building where the treatments take place looms large and institutional-like among the other buildings. Unfortunately, construction had just begun on the  “centre de beauté.” So much for any beauty treatments this time.  Unlike the majority of spas in the United States,  French spas concentrate on  taking care of the body and spirit first, the well-being part of “bien être.”  This spa was no exception. The brochure we had just picked up at the Office of Tourism said Les Thermes specialized in circulatory and joint problems. Beauty treatments weren’t even mentioned. (They have recently finished the beauty center.)

Once inside, we were given plain white slippers, a shower cap, a white terrycloth robe to cover our naked bodies and one towel. We undressed, were separated and taken in different directions to enjoy our “soins thermaux,” our three water treatments with the strange-sounding French names.

Our treatment package included l’hydromassage, la douche regionale à colonne, and finally,  la douche general au jet.  Loosely translated into English that means a jacuzzi tub, a multi-jet, multi-level hot and cold shower, and a hose-down.

 I started with the Jacuzzi. A female (thank goodness) attendant waited as I handed her the only thing covering my naked body—the towel– to the floor.   I’ll admit when I first stepped in, I wasn’t convinced that this bath was anything special. After about five minutes of the nine-minute treatment I began to relax  Much too soon the attendant came in and reached out her hand to guide me (did I mention I was naked?) out of the tub. She handed me the robe and I walked down the hall for the second treatment.

For the “douche regional à colonne,” hot and cold shower, I was wedged naked into a tiny shower stall. The door slammed shut, almost hitting my nose.  Cold water drummed against my legs and warm water pulsated on my upper body. I couldn’t move and felt claustrophobic. The water bounced off my plastic shower cap and just as I was plotting my escape, the shower stopped. I was released.  Surprisingly I felt energized and relaxed at the same time, rejuvenated even. I put on my robe and walked to the next attendant.

Now  here I was waiting for my third “soin,” the “douche general au jet,” naked against a tile wall waiting for the hose-down.  The force of the warm “special” water pulsated from the black, coiled hose. The attendant aimed at every muscle group in my body. The hose worked its magic, it massaged my tense, tight muscles into a state of relaxation. In just eight minutes I went from uneasy to unwound.  Renewal and rejuvenation were at last mine here in this medieval lakeside spa town.   My state of relaxation would continue but my treatments were over.

I met Debra in the hallway. “Is that what you expected?”

“No, not at all. But I feel great—refreshed even.”

We were both glowing. As we dressed to go back to the hotel, we agreed that we were renewed and energized from that radio-active water. We realized we had barely experienced the many treatments and cures Les Thermes de Bagnoles de l’Orne has to offer. 

The spa, the lake and the forest make Bagnoles de l’Orne the perfect spot for walking, bicycling, vacationing and, of course, horseback riding. (Who started that craze, wasn’t it Sir Lancelot?)  The lakeside casino is lively year round with gambling, a restaurant and dance club. Yes, we went to the casino that night.. No, we didn’t gamble, but we did dance to a few tunes from the 30’s. It was retro night and we were relaxed and cool.

Rested, renewed and rejuvenated, we made a pact that we would go back and spend several days in this town that is charged with energy from another time. Maybe then we could see our knight on a white horse, Sir Lancelot of the Andaines Forest.

I was energized enough to go back to work. Was I glowing? You bet. Inside and out.

Kathryn Morton edits All About France.

Where to stay:

Nouvel Hotel Bagnoles
8 avenue du Docteur Noal
Phone :  02 33 30 75 13
Fax :  02 33 30 75 13

The Spa:
Les Thermes de Bagnoles de L’Orne
Rue du Professeur Louvel
BP 33
61140 Bagnoles de l’Orne
011 33 02 33 30 38 00
[email protected]
closed Sunday.

Want to know more about spas in France?

Office of tourisme:

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