Bagnères de Luchon, nicknamed “the Queen of the Pyrenees,” has been quietly ruling over the Lys valley in the center of the mountains between France and Spain for at least 2,000 years. And for all that time it has been a spa of some renown. In 76BC – or so the story goes – the Roman consul Pompey was returning from an inspection tour of territories in Spain (founding the city of Pamplona as he passed). While stopping at Luchon, one of his soldiers who suffered from a skin complaint immersed himself in the waters in one of the natural springs. After 21 days, he emerged completely cured.
Twenty-one days is still the standard length of a water cure in France, and the spa still dominates Luchon, an impressive, concrete 20th-century facility, over which the sulphurous, rotten-egg smell of the healing waters faintly hangs. Spa waters in France are regulated by the state – you can take a cure paid for by social security – and the dining rooms in many of the hotels still offer a menu des curistes, which presumably is a little healthier than the foie gras, confit duck legs, punchy red wine and cheese that are the regional specialties of this corner of southwestern France. Strolling around, one gets a sense that the town’s best days are behind it, but there is a distinct patina of charm along its worn edges.
Luchon was once frequented by Princess Eugenie, wife of the French Emperor Napoleon III, starting a fashion among the nobility for taking the waters, and the town is still strewn with the statues and fountains they erected, and the shady parks in which they once strolled. Swans may still paddle the ornamental lakes, but the tree-lined Allée d’Étigny, the street named for one of the town’s aristocratic patrons, now has a lived-in look. Catholic mass is still held on Saturday evenings, the sound of singing floats gently through the evening air.
The old grandeur suits Luchon. If the Alps became famous thanks to the extreme endeavors of rock climbers, the Pyrenees became known for a gentler, more cultured, romantic feeling for the mountains. The French even have words for it: Alpinisme vs. Pyrenéisme. And it would be fair to say that the Pyrenees have always been the soul of the Tour de France. In 1910, the Tour discovered the high mountains for the first time, in a grueling 326-kilometer (204-mile) stage that started in Luchon and took in the Peyresourde, Aspin, Aubisque and Tourmalet passes – names that are now iconic to cyclists across the world. Since then the race has visited almost every other year, and though Stage 12 this year will not stop. It will travel along the Allée d’Étigny en route to one of the famous passes in the surrounding mountains. Ironically, it might have been the Tour that hastened Luchon’s decline. In its early years, cycling was working class, modernist, for the masses – and incompatible with the genteel, decadent, aristocratic life of spas and hotels.
Today, rather than taking the waters, crowds flock to Bagnères de Luchon for trail races or hikes, for downhill mountain biking or to ski at Super Bagnères, the resort linked by cable car to the center of town.
But sit outside a café with a drink as the sun goes down, and the spirit of Pyrenéisme still remains.