This stylish spa town on the shores of Lake Geneva boasts stun­ning belle-époque architecture and a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory, as Emma Rawle dis­cov­ers

France - - Contents -

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

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