If you follow the “Route des Villes d’Eaux” you’ll come across the town of Volvic, known for its water, sold all over the world. It’s just eleven kilometres from Clermont-Ferrand, home of “Michelin”, and the same distance from the “Puy de Dome”, one of the youngest volcanoes in the central Massif area of central France. And, at 1.465m, the tallest.
Eighty volcanic formations form part of the 70km “Chaine des Puys”. Basically, a “puy” is a rounded hilltop. Or, to be more geological: a domed protrusion of the earth’s surface caused by the gradual extrusion of viscous lava.
I arrived at midday, and the sun being out, headed out for lunch. At the Tilt Bar the Mayor of Volvic was on the beer, not the famous local water. I asked him when the last eruption was around here. He consulted his watch and said, “Six thousand years ago”.
Where the waters fleau…
Auvergne has the largest regional park in France. It is a unique landscape of grassy lava domes, cinder cones and low-level vents or explosion craters. Through it passes the “Route des Villes d’Eaux” beneath which, the world’s best quality natural mineral water has been naturally filtered. Since the Miocene age (roughly 23.03 to 5.333 million years ago).
The 17-station “Water Route” takes you and your overworked kidneys through four departments to France’s most famous spa towns to enjoy their much-sung curative waters at source. The Auvergne leg takes two days. Mainly because of the frequent comfort stops.
En route are the ancient thermal spring towns of La Bourboule, the 28-spring Chatel-Gyon and its “Les Gargouilloux” (gurgling waters), the 100,000 litres an hour, 32.5C degree “Eugenie” spa at Royat-Charmales and silica-rich “Le Mont-Dore”. Facilities and services on offer include hamman, mobility pools, sub-cutaneous gas injections, mud applications and “pharyngal nose showers” as well as “humage” in which you inhale hydrogen sulphide through a fighter pilot’s mask.
Most bottling plants offer degustations. At Volvic, after visiting the bubbling source in a dark wet grotto by a loading bay, I had a volcanic hydrology lesson along with a visiting Belgian family. We drank peach and pineapple flavoured “Volvic” and heard how the unique geology of the “Puy de Dome” and ” Volcano de Nugere” gives “Volvic” its distinctive taste. In the “cave”, we heard from a professional H2O sommelier how it takes fifteen years for rainwater to percolate and seep through the porous rocks around us.
The “Calivic” spring was discovered in 1927 and “Volvic ” first bottled in 1938. More than one billion bottles are now produced every year.
With 1200 known springs, France is the world’s leading mineral water producer with around 200 different brands.
Hannibal was the first discover “Perrier”. He is reputed to have taken the waters at Les Bouillens at Vergeze in the vineyards of the Languedoc (around 25km from Nimes), before he attacked Rome in 218BC.
In 1894, Dr Louis Perrier of Nimes leased the spring to sell the health-giving water commercially. The distinctive green “Perrier” bottle was invented by Sir John Harmsworth, the brother of Lord Northcliffe who founded “The Daily Mail” newspaper. He got the idea from the shape of a pair of old Indian exercise clubs he used for exercise. Perrier is now owned by Nestle and is one of the top selling sparkling waters of the world.
“Evian”, first discovered in 1789, is France’s best-selling still water with 1.3 billion bottles being sold worldwide every year. “Badoit” is the gourmet water. It is the country’s oldest, being first bottled commercially in 1837. It was available only from chemists until 1954. Naturally carbonated after passing through subterranean gas deposits, it bubbles up from the granite hills of Saint-Galmier near Lyon.
Following the mineral Water Route must be the healthiest holiday ever. You can feel the toxins fleeing your abused body and all your vital, maltreated organs thanking you. For some, sinus clearance and nasal irrigation is more important than a tan.
Vichy is still the best known spa. “Curistes” taking “la medicine douce” every day at the fountains in the grandly colonnaded “Halles des Sources”. Here the beau monde of the nineteenth century went to sip off their excesses and French colonials were sent to cure themselves of the tropics.
The town on the Allier river once boasted thirteen cinemas, eight dance halls and three theatres. The thermal baths were built as a toy for the daughters of Louis XV. The town was known to the Romans as “Vucus Calidud”, the hot town.
There are six “Vichy” waters available – three hot (“Hopital!, “Chomel” and Grande Grille) and three cold “Celestines, Parc” and Lucas”). The only bottled water is “Vichy Celestines” which emerges from the ground at a temperature of 17.3 C.
In the Valley of Chaudefour with its pretty waterfall, I cupped my hands under a rock and tasted the pungent “St Anne” water straight from a spigot in the rockface.
During my tour along the “Water Route” I learned a lot about water. That we elimi-nate 2.5 litres of it every day and we renew our body water every ten days, a tenth of it through swallowing our own saliva. It helps prevent dental cavities, blood coagulation, creates radiant skin tone and the production of important bone cartilage.
I have become a water bore…
Useful websites: www.villesdeaux.com; www.vichy-tourisme.com; www.auvergne-tourisme.info
Kevin Pilley is a former professional cricketer and former chief staff writer for Punch Magazine. He has written for more than 600 titles and his travel writing reflects his dry British wit!