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French local history - September 2019

Grand tourists who built Paradise in the Pyrenees - The Connexion's Jane Hanks charts the long history of Vernet-les-Bains, which was known to the Romans – but made by 19th-century Britons

Vernet-les-Bains, in the Pyrénées-Orientales, enjoyed fame and glory in the late 19th and early 20th century, due to wealthy British visitors on the Grand Tour of Europe who went there in the summer to take the waters and turned it into a fashionable destination.

The town was known as the ‘Paradise of the Pyrenees’ and attracted well-known figures such as Rudyard Kipling, who took his wife four times between 1907 and 1911 so she could benefit from the thermal baths, reputed for their healing properties, particularly for respiratory conditions.

Other British visitors also came and bought houses in the area or stayed in luxury hotels and visited the Casino.

“The British started this new kind of tourism,” said Emmanuel Lallemand, who gives guided tours of the town and based his university thesis on the British visiting France in the early 20th century.

“Vernet-les-Bains was typical of the towns transformed by these visitors. It brought wealth and employment; one study showed it created jobs for 1,200 people.

“A famous architect, Gustave Violet, created a memorial to an Entente Cordiale between France and Great Britain, which should have been inaugurated in 1914, but was postponed until after the war – and it still stands today.

“The British presence made the town fashionable and encouraged other wealthy and intellectual visitors from all over Europe and France.”

The thermal springs were first discovered and used by the Romans in 200BC, but fell into disuse after they left and were not reopened until 1835, when interest in medicine was developing.

They came to fame when the son of an Egyptian King, Ibrahim Pasha, was successfully cured of a bronchial condition at Vernet-les-Bains in 1846. The expansion of the railways meant that more and more people were able to go to the three thermal baths that were open at the time.

As well as tourism, Vernet-les-Bains, flourished during the three decades before the First World War known as the Belle Epoque – from the iron ore mines on the Canigou mountain, and from agriculture with its herds of cattle, goats, sheep and fruit trees. It was a golden age.

Times were difficult during the World Wars and then, on October 17, 1940, tragedy struck. After four days of storms in which the amount of rain which fell matched levels usually seen over six months, a natural dam formed by trees across the usually small river of Cady, burst, and a tidal wave swept through the town, dividing it in two. It destroyed 52 buildings, including the thermal baths, and killed 30 people. 

The river swelled from two metres across to, in places, 100m. It was war time and so rebuilding was slow. Eventually a new thermal bath was opened in the Fifties.

Today, the town still welcomes thousands of people every year who come for the cures and for the beauty of the surrounding Pyrenees and it is still a town which attracts British settlers.

The Anglican church, which was consecrated in 1913 and built from money raised by the British living in the area at that time, still holds services today.

Earlier this year it became the first church in France to have a set of bells cast in England and which are capable of English change ringing.

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