The Spa Town of Aix-les-Bains in the 1700s and 1800s

The spa town of Aix-les-Bains is situated about ten miles from Chambery, about three quarters of a mile from the lake of Bourget, and between two spectacular mountains: Revard and the Mont du Chat. Even though the medicinal waters became popular in Roman times, beginning in the 17th century people became more fully aware of the value of the hot springs and identified them as “thermal hydrosulphurous waters, or simply warm and hot sulphurous springs.”[1] Because of the health value of the springs, projects were undertaken to prevent seepage in 1737. However, because the source of the springs was poorly housed, the Duke of Chablais, son of King Victor Amadeus III (King of Sardinia from 1773 to 1796), suggested constructing a thermal establishment to his father in June 1776.

Spa Town of Aix-les-Bains

Watercolor of Lac du Bourget, near the spa town of Aix-les-Bains by Alfred East. Courtesy of V&A Museum.

The project was undertaken by royal appointment with an architect drawing up plans for a bathing establishment, a granite building of classical architecture with two projecting wings on a hill above town and described as “composed of a ground floor … and a first and second floor. Patients who walk with difficulty reach the first floor by means of an easy incline without ascending the staircase.”[2] Moreover, to build it, the old town center was demolished, and houses were cleared.

Spa Town of Aix-les-Bains

Thermal Establishment. Author’s collection.

After the Thermal Establishment was built and until the Revolution, the town hosted about 600 patients each year. Patients found that the desirability of the area was not just the springs. The mountains protected it from winds resulting in a mild climate that was ideal for about four months of the year. The temperature also encouraged the growth of lush Mediterranean vegetation that was far superior to adjacent countries and included palm trees, olive trees, lavender, and groves of sycamore, fir, walnut, poplar, and ash trees. This in turn encouraged more sick visitors, and in 1783, to enhance the lives of these visitors, the council of the municipality also built a landscaped public promenade called le Gigot based on plans by architect Louis Lampro, who lined it with chestnut trees and located it outside the walls of the city.

Once the French Revolution began, the area underwent further changes. For instance, in 1792 when the French revolutionary troops were stationed in Savoy, civilian use of the spa was halted because the baths were requisitioned by the armies of the Republic, which sent their wounded soldiers there for convalescence. It was during this time that opportunities to publicize the spa began and before long Aix became known as Aix-les-Bains.

The Revolution also meant that the privileges the local nobility had enjoyed were suddenly abolished and this resulted in the town being freed from paying the Lord Marquess of Aix the large sum of money for the redemption of his seigneurial rights. Furthermore, freedom of established trade gave new impetus to the creation of an economy based on the exploitation of the springs once peace was declared and that is when the development of Aix-les-Bains began in earnest and boarding houses, hotels, cabarets, and restaurants were built.

The Revolution also affected church property in the area. There was the abandonment of the collegiate church, destruction of the bell tower, and the demolishment of church furniture. In addition, the small harbor that had been built under the Ancien Régime became a real port called the Port of Puer and development and improvement of the avenue du lac (avenue of the lake) resulted in the creation of buildings along the avenue. Thus, many of these buildings and others in the area had an Italian flavor because Aix-les-Bains, located in the province of Savoie, was in the Italian world until 1860 when Savoy passed back into the hand of the French.

As to the Thermal Establishment of Aix-les-Bains, besides the sulphurous spring there was also an alum spring (called the gracieuse). Its waters were primarily for internal use, although both the sulphurous and alum waters were claimed to be easily “digested” and produced “neither sickness or irritation, but only at first a feeling of aversion, which soon passes.”[3] As to the amount of waters taken internally, it often depended on the illness. Furthermore, the Thermal Establishment was reported to have two immense cold swimming baths, two old swimming baths, two family swimming baths, forty-one single baths, numerous and varied douches, six vapor baths, two inhaling rooms, four foot baths, and a few other treatment rooms.

Of the various treatments available, one interesting one was the douche, described in the late nineteenth century as being accomplished by patients who sat on wooden chairs with their feet in the hot water as one or two doucheurs or doucheuses propelled jets of water all over their bodies targeting the hottest water at their feet and legs. The douche treatment then continued in the following manner:

“Simultaneously, for several minutes, the doucheurs shampoo, rub, and knead every part of the body, thus stimulating the capillary and general circulation: the temperature, strength, and duration of the douches and shampooing [having been] previously indicated by the doctor. … When the bath is over, the patient is rapidly dried, wrapped in flannel sheets and blankets, and is carried back to his hotel in the curious sedan chair. Having reached his apartment, he is lifted into bed, still swathed like a mummy, is covered with additional blankets and a quilt and left to perspire for a … period. After twenty minutes or half an hour, he is carefully rubbed down by an attendant.”[4]

To accommodate the increasing number of patients, foreigners, and bathers, several new buildings were constructed in the early nineteenth century, which included lodging establishments and hotels. In addition, around this same time, the spa town of Aix-les-Bains became a holiday resort where anyone who was anybody could be found. Guests to the area included Madame de Staël, Madame Récamier, Benjamin Constant, the Sardinian royal family, and the imperial family of Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, so many royal personages were in Aix-les-Bains in 1813 that when Pauline Bonaparte stayed, the Duchess d’Abrantès mentioned it in her Mémoires:

“At Aix there were not only many persons of the imperial family, but also all the people who used to follow them about. About twenty of us, as I have said, had agreed to meet at a resort which is nearly always amusing, but this year seemed likely to be very tedious on account of the princesses and queens who were there in such numbers that one could not walk up the street without meeting one of them.

There was every kind of royalty: reigning queens like the Queen of Spain; queens presumptive like the Princess of Sweden; ex-royalties like the Empress Josephine, and a King of the Theatre in the person of Talma, who came to Aix to drink hot water for the benefit of his health, and nearly contracted a fatal illness there.”[5]

Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefèvre, 1803. Courtesy of Anthenaeum.

When Josephine visited the spa town of Aix-les-Bains in 1810, her days were casual and relaxing. French historian Frederic Masson described her daily routine stating:

“Josephine, on getting out of bed, takes conscientiously her baths and douches, then, as usual, lies down again until dejeuner, 11 A.M., for which the whole of the little Court are assembled at The Palace wherever she lives, and however squalid the dwelling-place, her abode always bears this name. Afterwards she and her women-folk ply their interminable tapestry, while the latest novel or play (sent by Barbier from Paris) is read aloud. And so the day passes till five, when they dress for dinner at six; after dinner a ride. At nine the Empress’s friends assemble in her room, Mile, de Mackau sings; at eleven every one goes to bed.’ This programme, however, varies with the weather.”[6]

Empress Josephine in 1804. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Empress Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, was also attracted to the spa town of Aix-les-Bains and began staying there regularly from 1810 onward. Unfortunately, a tragic incident happened in 1813 while Hortense was in the area. She and her childhood friend and companion, Baroness Adele de Broc, went to visit the waterfall of Grésy-sur-Aix. On reaching it a plank was thrown between two rocks over the falls. The Queen passed first followed by the Baroness. A miller stretched out his hand to assist the Baroness, but she pushed his hand away and stepped onto the fragile bridge. Hortense relates what happened next:

“I passed first on an unsteady plank. I turned around: great God! What a terrible sight. My friend, dragged by the current, disappeared before my eyes. … Her lifeless body was retrieved … [and] I persisted in hoping … [but] she no longer existed. What despair! Once again I found myself alone and without the friend who helped me bear all my sufferings!”[7]

Apparently, the Baroness’ foot slipped on the wet plank, and she fell into the churning water and was drowned in front of Hortense and her party. A search was conducted and initially it was thought the Baroness’ body had been carried away but several hours later it was retrieved from a deep hole. When news of this tragedy was related in Aix-les-Bains, everyone wanted to see the spot. So, shortly thereafter, the grief-stricken Hortense immortalized the spot by erecting a monument that contained the following inscription:

“Here Madame Le Baronee de Broc age 25 years perished, under the eyes of her friend on 10 June 1813. Oh you who visit this place proceed with precaution. Think of those you love!”[8]

Spa Town of Aix-les-Bains

Monument raised to Adele de Broc by Hortense. Author’s collection.

The Empress Josephine was also affected by the Baroness’ tragic death and endowed a hospital in the Baroness’ name. Although the hospital was initially insufficient in size, it grew and expanded over the years. It may have also dealt with some of the same health issues that the local Aix-les-Bains spas were addressing. In the 1870s, these conditions included impotency, incontinency, wounds from firearms, seminal discharge, bone diseases, fistula, caries, skin diseases, ulcers, and syphilitic complaints. Nonetheless, despite the many diseases allegedly successfully treated some conditions were claimed to be made worse by taking the Aix-les-Bains waters, which included any type of cancer, torpid phthisis, and certain heart afflictions.

By the 1890s among the popular treatments found at the Establishment were those for rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, neuralgia, respiratory related diseases (rhinitis, pharyngitis, gouty sore throat, laryngitis, and bronchitis), phthisis, syphilitic diseases, scrofula, various skin diseases, various female diseases, hysteria, anemia, chlorosis, paralysis that included hemiplegia and paraplegia, and disease of the joints and bones. Moreover, there were many patients undergoing treatments at the Establishment with the maximum number of patients on any given day in the 1890s ranging from 2,000 to 2,300 people.

Spa Town of Aix-les-Bains

Aix-les-Bains. Author’s collection.

Besides the healing waters, there were other attractions at the spa town of Aix-les-Bains. Among them was a casino built around the late 1840s and early 1850s called Casino Ancien Cercle and termed at the time as “the ball, the concert, the music, the conversation, the wit, the gaiety of Aix … [and] if the royal establishment and its good reputation attract the sick, the casino attracts the travelers and the idlers.”[9] The casino was built by subscription and its profits were used to improve the casino so that within five years an elegant theatre and a spacious hall were also constructed.

After France annexed the area, gambling was discontinued, and the casino was converted into a sort of club. By the late 1800s, twice daily bands played in the club’s gardens and once a week fireworks and ball with an occasional special play were performed by Parisian artists. In addition, thirty or so years after it was first established, a representative of the London Charivari visited and reported:

“I write this to you from . . . . a Casino! No, Sir, Your Representative has not gone wrong, and yet he spends his days and nights at … the Casino d’Aix-les-Bains (Savoie) … This is a Casino, pur et simple, and includes billiard-rooms, cercle, café, salons for music and dancing, and a prettily laid-out garden, where we walk, smoke, and read; and where, when we’ve been very good for a week or so, the Director treats us to fireworks, and the National (English) Anthem.

Once a week there is a ball; and later on, when the more serious have finished their course, and returned to their several native lands, there will be balls on a more festive scale, and a second Casino open, called the Villa des Fleurs, where there will be theatrical performance, Concerts, and tables de jeu — the “jeu” en question being baccarat. Such is the prospect for the Parisian Season at Aix-les-Bains; and, no doubt, judging from the commencement, it will be very gay, very brilliant, very hot, and chalkily dusty, enchanting, delightful, magnifique, pyramidal, and, in fact, worthy of any other laudatory epithets. … It is impossible to be dull at Aix. There are excursion for every day in the year; endless beauties in every direction; and the more you see, the more you would wish to see, and the longer you would like to remain.”[10]

Spa Town of Aix-les-Bains

Gardens at the Casino d’Aix. Author’s collection.

Besides the casino, the first big hotel in the spa town of Aix-les-Bains was the Grand Hotel d’Aix. It was completed in 1857. Other fabulous hotels would follow. For instance, the Hôtel Splendide was built in 1884. It was situated high on a high, filled with elevators, and catered to nobility, royalty, and the ultra-rich. Wealthy vacationers to the area also built stately mansion, such as the Villa Nirvana constructed in 1897 for Chapin Chester William, a wealthy American businessman and U.S. Representative from Massachusetts who vacationed there.

Chapin Chester William. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Visitors could take various excursions either by foot or in any variety of carriages, pulled by one or two horses. These carriages could be hired for an hour, a day, or a month and could be used to visit local sites such as the ancient ruins of Roman baths or the Temple of Diana, a ruin with a sixteenth-century staircase that led to the Temple and had a museum on the first floor. In addition, caves or caverns were also discovered in the mountains behind the spa town, and after the mineral water was drained to increase the existent spa waters brave explorers visited them. Of these sites one visitor reported in 1867:

“Thence we came into a series of other caverns, some similar to the last, others like vast Gothic churches, with pointed roofs, supported on limestone columns, and many others, in which the limestone, eaten away by the action of the hot sulphurous water for successive centuries, had assumed all kinds of fantastic shapes and resemblances. The exploration itself into the remoter caverns would be no easy task for an invalid or a lady. In some places we had to crawl … the damp, close air, and the water constantly dropping from the stalactites overhead, are calculated to injure valetudinarians, and should prevent his class of travellers from visiting these caverns.”[11]

There was also of course the site of the Baroness’ death, which continued to be a draw for Aix-les-Bains visitors in the late 1800s. For instance, the Emperor and Empress of France, Napoleon III and Eugénie, visited the site while taking an Imperial Tour in 1860:

“The Emperor] stopped his carriage that he might visit the celebrated cascade where the Barrone de Broc … perished so unfortunately in 1813. Their Majesties, accompanied by the Generals and the ladies of the suite, the Prefect of Chambéry, and the Mayors of Aix and of Grésy, descended to the edge of the torrent to read the inscription on the tomb which Queen Hortense caused to be erected on the spot where the melancholy event occurred. One of the old men employed at the sawmills adjoining, who had witnessed the accident came forward to give their Majesties any information they might wish on the subject.”[12]

However, it wasn’t just the French who visited the tragic spot. Another twenty-five years later, in 1885, English newspapers reported that Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Beatrice, attended by Major Edwards, stopped to pay homage to the dead Baroness. In addition, by this time there were also excursion trains and carriages that left from Aix to visit the Grésy waterfall and see the monument Hortense built.

Princess Beatrice. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The La Belle Époque period was the heyday for high society and royalty visiting the spa town of Aix-les-Bains. Visitors included England’s Queen Victoria, who spoke fluent French. She visited several times and like other famous travelers, she traveled incognito and did so under the name of the Countess of Balmoral. She loved Aix-les-Bains so much that her first continental land purchase happened there, and her visits resulted in it acquiring the nickname of the “English spa town” in the early twentieth century.

Another interesting tidbit about the Queen’s visits to the spa town of Aix-les-Bains involves the donkey she named Jacquot. Because she had difficulty walking, she purchased Jacquot for 200 francs from a local farmer to help her get around. He was used to pull her in a donkey chair or when she traveled abroad. He also returned with her to Buckingham Palace where he aided her and where his duties also included distributing gifts to her royal grandchildren at Christmastime.

Queen Victoria was not the only royal person staying in Aix-les-Bains in the late 1800s. The Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser reported that another illustrious guest was visiting the area in 1888:

“The Emperor of Brazil, who is residing at the Splendide Hôtel, Aix-les-Bains, has made a wonderful cure. He arrived there a few weeks ago apparently a dying man. He now daily takes a drive, walks about the gardens, and generally plays a game of billiards in the public room. He and his suite have 42 rooms in the hotel. The Emperor’s dislike of etiquette and his affability have rendered him extremely popular.”[13]

Advertisement for Aix-les-Bains in 1894. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Today, the spa town of Aix-les-Bains does not attract the famous royalty that it did in the 1800s. One Rough Guide to France published in 2011 notes of the area:

“These days, Aix-les-Bains is a sedate and genteel place, with thousands of French pensioners descending on the town throughout the year for state-funded thermal treatments. They are also some parks to amble though and plenty of cafés where you can sit back with a pastis and watch the world go slowly by.”[14]

References:

  • [1] J. D. Godman and I. Hays, The Philadelphia Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences v. 9 (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1824), 96
  • [2] L. Brachet, Aix-les-Bains in Savoy: The Medical Treatment and General Indications (London: Renshaw, 1891), 6
  • [3] L. Brachet. 1891, 11
  • [4] L. Brachet. 1891, 12, 14
  • [5] F. H. Gribble, Romances of the French theatre (New York: D. Appleton, 1913), 269–70
  • [6] H. F. Hall, Napoleon’s Letters to Josephine, 1796-1812: For the First Time Collected and Translated, with Notes Social, Historical, and Chronological, from Contemporary Sources (London: J. M. Dent & Company, 1901), 307
  • [7] Mémoires de la reine Hortense publiés par le prince Napoléon (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1927), 166
  • [8] A. Achard, Une saison à Aix-les-Bains par Amédée Achard: Illustrée par Eugène Ginain (Paris: Ernest Bourdin, 1850), 224
  • [9] A. Achard. 1850, 101–2
  • [10] London Charivari v. 78-79 (London: Punch Publications Limited, 1880), 277
  • [11] T. M. Madden, The Spas of Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy: A Hand-book of the Principal Watering Places on the Continent : Descriptive of Their Nature and Uses in the Treatment of Chronic Diseases, Especially Gout, Rheumatism, and Dyspepsia : with Notices of Spa Life, and Incidents in Travel (London: T.C. Newby, 1867), 293–94
  • [12] Evening Mail, “The Imperial Tour,” September 5, 1860, 6
  • [13] Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, “Society Gossip,” July 13, 1888, 3
  • [14] The Rough Guide to France (Boston: Rough Guides, 2011), 779

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