Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 16 April 2011 12:00 UK

French embrace spa water cures

By Kathy Flower
BBC News, French Pyrenees

The spa town of Amelie-les-Bains boasts several sulphur springs

French spa towns are once again in vogue and locals are pouring water on government plans to cut spending on natural medicines.

The snows are melting and the rivers swirl down from the mountains, bearing their loot of uprooted trees and huge boulders.

Spring in the French Pyrenees roars in on the fierce gusts of the Tramontane, sweeping the sky clean of clouds and turning it deep blue.

Vivid yellow flowers appear on thousands of mimosa trees.

In the vineyards, tractors ancient and modern are working the rocky soil and clearing away fallen trees.

In the leafless treetops overhead, red squirrels wake and perform aerial ballets.

In spa towns like Amelie-les-Bains, plump creatures covered in white fur move purposefully through the elegant streets.

On closer examination, the fur turns out to be white dressing gowns, worn by "curistes" (hydrotherapy patients), who come to bathe in the hot thermal springs.

The Pyrenees are particularly rich in spa towns. For centuries, tourists flocked to them, but then taking the waters fell out of favour and local factories which had sold bottled spring waters across the French speaking world, closed down (declared unsafe by the European Union).

Now the spas have reinvented themselves.

As the brochures proclaim, they "no longer reek of sulphur and the pleasures of another age".

Spa at Les Thermes, Le Boulou

The spas are set in beautiful gardens and staffed by doctors, physiotherapists and dieticians

Instead they offer a holistic approach to alleviating chronic conditions such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

As well as bathing, curistes drink 10 tiny glasses a day of the mineral rich water. To me, the water tasted rather salty. One man I spoke to said it kept him awake at night.

But most feel it helps, as do the massage, gymnastics and lessons in cooking healthy food that are also on offer.

Between now and October, thousands of curistes - drawn mostly from France's retired population - will spend up to three weeks floating and gossiping in the hot pools.

The spas are set in beautiful gardens and staffed by doctors, physiotherapists and dieticians... all of which comes at a hefty price.

Most can only afford it because the bill is footed by the state.

One satisfied customer is Alain, a 65-year-old fond of hunting wild boar and riding his mountain bike down vertiginous hillsides.

He doesn't come across as someone who needs a "cure", but he insisted it had helped his blood pressure and he planned to return.

When I asked why the state should pay for a glorified holiday, he looked hurt and pointed out that he paid his own food and hotel bills, although, if your income is low enough, medical insurance will foot that bill too and even pay the train fare.

So when the government talked of cutting back spending on cures, there was an outcry.

Money from visitors is virtually the only income spa towns have. The idea was quietly dropped.

Pharmacy in Pyrenees
Pharmacists and locals joined forces to stop supermarkets selling medicines

Government in France meddles with healthcare at its peril.

Our pharmacy employs five pharmacists for a village of under 3,000 people, the norm for a village this size.

It is always busy, with villagers describing their own and their families' ills at length.

The staff are endlessly patient and the cost of most medicine they recommend is refunded.

As well as dispensing drugs and sympathy, pharmacists can identify the many kinds of fungi found on the wooded slopes of the Pyrenees, tell you which are safe to eat and how to cook them.

So when another health policy was floated recently, it did not stand a chance.

The government wanted supermarkets to sell everyday products such as aspirin.

Pharmacies feared they would lose business and fought back, customers stopped describing their symptoms long enough to sign petitions and the government retreated.

After all, expecting supermarkets to care about your arthritis, or explain which wild mushrooms would go nicely with an omelette, was never going to work.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4:
A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 1130.
Second 30-minute programme on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only).
Listen online or Download the podcast

BBC World Service:
Hear daily 10-minute editions Monday to Friday, repeated through the day, also available to listen online.

Read more or explore the archive at the programme website .

France country profile
12 Feb 12 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific