GO FOR A STROLL
This stylish spa town on the shores of Lake Geneva boasts stunning belle-époque architecture and a fascinating history, as Emma Rawle discovers
Take the waters and enjoy the views in the elegant spa town of Évian-les-bains.
The chic spa town of Évian-les-bains is located on the shores of Lake Geneva – or Lac Léman as the French call it. Although the town itself is not that well known outside of France, the chances are that you have heard of, and sampled, its most famous export, Évian water.
The story goes that the therapeutic benefits were discovered in 1790 by the Marquis de Lessert, who found that drinking the water cured his kidney problems. Scientific tests have since confirmed that Évian water has a distinctive mineral balance, and as well as quenching the thirst of people worldwide, it is the basis for medical and spa treatments that are available in the town’s thermal centre.
Évian mineral water begins as rain or snow high in the Alps and filters through layers of mineral rock for decades before emerging at one of four sources in the town. The most famous, and easiest to see, is the Cachat source, where the Marquis made his discovery. It is just north of the historic centre, along the appropriately named Avenue des Sources.
During the town’s heyday in the early 20th century, wealthy visitors gathered here and at the Cachat pump rooms opposite to ‘take the cure’. While I stood there admiring the mosaics, a resident arrived with some empty bottles which he proceeded to fill up. I followed suit and drank the water straight from the spring; given my previous experiences with warm thermal spa water, I was pleasantly surprised to find it cool and refreshing. I later learnt that Evian water flows from the source at a constant temperature of 11°C all year.
My visit coincided with a market day – these are held on Tuesday and Friday mornings – so my next port of call was Place de Charles de Gaulle, where stalls overflowed with fresh produce. A French market is a treat for all the senses and Évian market was no exception, with stalls selling fish caught in the lake that morning, Alpine cheeses, charcuterie, garlic, fruit and vegetables.
The town’s importance as a spa during the belle époque led to a spate of building along the waterfront: the casino, theatre, town hall and Palais Lumière are all stunning examples of the era’s
I drank the water straight from the spring and was pleasantly surprised to find it cool and refreshing
grandiose style and transport you back to an age of parasols, promenades and genteel living. What is lovely about Évian-les-bains is that these buildings have been carefully preserved and restored, and are still part of town life.
The casino was built in 1911 and is still enticing those who enjoy a flutter. Next door is the renovated Théâtre Antoine Riboud, which has reopened as an entertainment venue. The town hall is located in the Villa Lumière, which was once the summer residence of Antoine Lumière, father of the famous brothers who are considered the founders of modern cinema.
The final major building along the Quai CharlesAlbert Besson is probably the most impressive of them all. The Palais Lumière was once a thermal spa and is now the Cultural and Congress Centre. The entrance hall is open to the public, and the beautiful stained-glass windows, tiled floor and statues representing the four water sources took my breath away.
The reason these buildings have been preserved and restored is that the town council takes a percentage of every bottle of water sold, making them one of the wealthiest local authorities in France. It is rather nice to think that every time I buy a bottle, I am helping to preserve this charming spa town on the shores of Lac Léman.
Évian-les-bains is in the perfect location for outdoor activities. If you visit in the winter, you are in a great position to try a variety of Alpine ski resorts. The closest slopes are at the family-friendly ski resort of Thollon-les-mémises, a 15-minute drive away. Thollon has 14 pistes, a mixture of blue, green and red runs as well as one black run (thollonlesmemises.com).
If you are prepared to travel further afield, the resorts of Avoriaz, Morzine and Les Gets in the Portes du Soleil ski area are within an hour’s drive. With 650 kilometres of pistes, there is more than enough skiing to keep you busy (en.portesdusoleil. com/winter.html).
In the summer, grasp the opportunity to explore the mountains on foot. For spectacular views of the town and lake, start at Le Relais de la Chevrette in Bernex, a 25-minute drive from Évian-lesBains, and climb up Mont Bénand. Lac Léman offers opportunities for waterskiing and other watersports or, for the less energetic, go for a sedate boat ride on the placid lake.
A short boat ride or drive from Évian-les-bains is the Plus Beau Village of Yvoire. This carefully preserved medieval village boasts a 14th-century château on the lakeshore that has retained its original ramparts and gate (www.yvoire-france.com).
A boat ride in the opposite direction takes you to the Château de Chillon, across the border in Switzerland. The castle is thought to have been built in the 12th century and was one of the strongholds of the Dukes of Savoy, who ruled much of this area of Europe. It is familiar to English speakers as the setting for Byron’s 1816 poem The Prisoner of Chillon (chillon.ch/ en/index.cfm). The Sports and Culture department at the Évian Resort can organise all of these activities for guests and provide equipment, including hiking boots and ski equipment, as well as transport.
MAIN PICTURE: The spa town of Évian-les-bains from Lac Léman; INSET: Place de Charles de Gaulle
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Évian-les-bains and Lac Léman from the Évian Resort hotel complex; Emma tests the waters at the Cachat source; The Théâtre Antoine Riboud and the casino; A cheese stall in the market in Place de Charles de Gaulle
ABOVE: The castle in the village of Yvoire; BELOW: Pastures near the village of Bénand