The Mountain Resort of Aix-Le-Bains
Established by the Romans, Aix-Le-Bains became the most famous of the French ‘cure’ towns and made the most fashionable mountain resort by European society in the 1920s.
One of three Aixes in France, Aix-le-Bains of Savoy in the lower ranges of the French Alps is perched on the banks of the beautiful Lac du Bourget, which is eleven miles long and therefore the longest lake in France. It is surrounded by rugged crags hovering over deep and richly wooded valleys with aromatic fir, pine and balsam growth and was, and still is, delightful and picturesque.
In the 1920s the 524 kilometres distance from Paris could be accomplished through a ten-hour train journey. There were two trunk lines – the Paris-Rome and the Bordeaux-Milan – that gave a splendid train service. PLM accommodations for example, included comfortable sleeping cars and de luxe buffets. The accessibility of Aix from Paris, Switzerland and Italy drew people from all over Europe. However, it particularly favoured by the British and increasingly as the 1920s progressed Americans.
The Romans founded this health resort because of the spa and the natural powers of the waters in 122B.C. More recently, the King of Sardinia laid the foundations for another thermal spa in 1776. Since the Spa was so important the Brits called Aix-Le-Bains affectionately ‘Aches and Pains.’ Relics of the Roman’s occupancy are numerous and impressive. Most noticeably in the centre of the town opposite the Mairie (the town hall of Hotel de Ville) stands the arch of Campanus, commemorating the illustrious general’s sojourn. And, in the underground natural grottoes that constitute the ancient traces of the roman baths can be seen deep subterranean passages, pools and springs used by the Romans.
The thermal establishment, which is a veritable palace, was appropriately designed with a classic Roman façade but fitted with every modern up-to-date device to aid the natural powers of the waters. The new structure was created in 1857. Over a million gallons of water pour from Aix’s springs every day, hitting the surface at nearly 115 degrees. These warm sulphur springs supply the foundation for all treatments which vary according to the condition being treated from gout, nervous disorders, rheumatism, faulty blood circulation or arthritis. The climate also has a good deal to do with the effectiveness of the cures too. There are two altitude clinics far up on the mountain overlooking the lake and intensive cases sent there for a few days after their initial bathing and drinking treatment.
Of course all the ‘cure towns’ including Evian and Vichy have been made so luxurious, expensive and fashionable that many think ‘How can I be chic though sick?’ Those of a cynically disposition remarked that one had to have the right kind of ‘chic’ malady of course. Overeating, over-drinking, insufficient use of the legs and too much wear and tear of the grey matter were chic. All the hotels are filled during the season with more or less perfect cases of overindulgence.
The town itself was full of pretty streets, scenic views and alpine rooflines. Aix was at the time, fortunate in retaining a good deal of the rather quaint Victorian flavour left over from the days when Queen Victoria visited the town but it kept pace with the times and had all that was needed for modern luxury and comfort. Clustered around the sources, the park and the fountains were numerous hotels including the Astoria, the Louvre, the Savoy, the Europe, the Villa Victoria, the Grand and the Albion. Beyond, are the delightful gardens and terraces associated with the entertainment centres of Le Grand Cercle and the Villa des Fleurs. Le Grand Cercle (also called the Casino) was built in 1824 and is a large comfortable, rambling building with a multitude of rooms inside. The Villa de Fleurs is an equally sumptuous building. Both have excellent restaurants, a theatre, ballrooms and salons and form the centre of nightlife. Each staged elaborate fetes or galas each week during the summer season.
With the coming of Continental society to Aix an era of vigorous competition sprung up and the de luxe hotels were run with great energy and efficiency. Of these, the Splendid Royal and the Excelsior were the more salubrious first-class hotels and occupied commanding ledges giving sweeping views and fresh mountain breezes that came down from the pine covered peaks above. Nearby were the BeauSite and the Pavilion. All had just the right touch of isolation.
The Splendid-Royal on the Rue Georges, just up above the main centre of the town was a model of architectural perfection and was usually occupied by Aix’s smart summer crowd. It had a richly carpeted lobby, lined with heavy, blue marble columns, showcases from the best Paris shops and double-sized elevators, originally built to accommodate handicapped guests. The hotel became a particular favorite with Americans, because they found the usual match-box French elevators claustrophobic. Some of the rooms were vast with big windows and a balcony, roomy enough for a cozy breakfast in the morning and opened onto a white alabaster terrace with a fabulous view. The splendid dining room had impeccable service on metropolitan standards, which was always full and lively and rather like being in a fashionable Parisian café. It was perfect mix of elegance and correct company. From the Splendid-Royal it was a short stroll down into the town.
Exercise was predominant among a good many of the people vacationing in Aix. Mountain climbers filed through the town each morning not long after sunrise with their knapsacks, spiked canes and alpensocks. While others played tennis or went for quiet hours boating on the lake or motor rambles though the historic sites and scenes of the countryside. Many of the excursions from Aix had a café or restaurant as a point of reference. At the Grand Port, the fishing village on the borders of Lac du Bourget, was a pleasant café called Beaurivage with a garden and a marvellous view. There were also lovely little cafes at Chambotte, Marloiz and Lanzard and a trip to Allevard les Bains usually led to a wonderful restaurant called Les Quartes Bouledogues. After a morning of sport people withdraw to the Casino for daily concerts or boule played during the quiet afternoons.
Not only is it a cure town but also Aix offers the most amazing array of entertainment since there are always many notable quests staying here. Of course Aix had many royal connections. Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor as was Victor Emmanuel II, Napoleon III, Wilhelmina, George of Greece and Leopold of Belgium. Throughout the season there were fetes and galas and there were always dances every night at the hotels or the Casino and at fashionable places like La Polonaire and the Castel Bisolet. Champagne, sumptuous evening gowns, jewels, baccarat and post midnight excitement were essential evening activities. It was a joke that that one half of Aix-les-Bains goes to bed about the time that the other half is being carried in rough sedan chairs to be parboiled and massaged.
At the end of the 1924 season it was announced that Aix was expecting to establish a winter season and that the natural resources of the lake and the mountain sides would make an admirable background for a series of winter sports facilities.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Take a look at the page about the Grand Cercle or Casino
Take a look at the page about the Villa Des Fleurs
Chicago Tribune and The Dancing Times
The Gourmet’s Guide to Europe by L.Col Newnham-Davies (1908)
Footloose in France by Horace Sutton
From Deauville to Monte Carlo by Basil Woon
Visions de France: Aix-Le-Bains
Guides Practiques Aix-Le-Bains