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The Pyrenees village where Napoléon III and Victor Hugo went to bathe

The thermal spa village of Cauterets has a long history of welcoming France’s famous names, who came to relax and enjoy its stunning scenery

The village, 30kms from Lourdes, has sulfurized sodium thermal water, rich in trace elements and silica, which comes out of the ground at between 53 and 60°C Pic: oksmit / Shutterstock

Cauterets in the Hautes-Pyrénées, is famous for its thermal spas. 

They were appreciated as long ago as the Roman occupation, as the vestiges of Roman baths show, and it is recorded they were used by Gaston III, a local Lord in the Middle Ages, and by Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of François I, during the Renaissance.

Then, when taking a cure became fashionable in the late 19th century, and the arrival of the train made it easier to move around the country, the healing waters attracted the stars of the cultural and political world, and Cauterets became the place to be, and the place to be seen in:

“Among the visitors were actors and writers such as George Sands, Victor Hugo, François-René de Chateaubriand and Sarah Bernhardt,” says Anaïs Aguillon, responsible for communication at the local tourist office. “Politician Léon Blum came here and so did Emperor Napoléon III himself. There were other spas, but Cauterets was particularly prized because it also has stunning scenery and other places to visit nearby like Lac des Gaves with its emerald waters. It was also very popular with English visitors.”

The village, 30kms from Lourdes, has sulfurized sodium thermal water, rich in trace elements and silica, which comes out of the ground at between 53 and 60°C. The waters are known for their ability to relieve rheumatic pains and respiratory conditions. 

Read more: Exploring mountain refuges and cabins in France

“The rich and famous would come here for a cure lasting three weeks. Grandiose hotels were built to accommodate them as were private villas. They would come back year after year. It means Cauterets is no longer a typical mountain village, but owes its grand architecture to its golden age in the 19th century.”

The two most imposing hotels were both built by the same architect, Lucien Cottet. First was the Grand Hôtel d’Angleterre, built between 1875 and 1878. 

It is similar in style to the Haussmann architecture in Paris, in vogue at the time. In 1881, the Grand Hôtel Continental was built. 

It had 250 bedrooms, four restaurants and modern luxuries such as electricity. Its façade is decorated in carved stone garlands of fruits and flowers, mythological creatures and a sculpture on each side of the entrance. Both hotels are now Historic Monuments, and both have been converted into flats.

The wooden ‘Western style’ station is another remarkable building, put up in 1898 when the train line was extended from Pierrefitte-Nestalas, on a direct line from Paris, 11 kms away. 

Read more: The French hills are just the tonic after a bustling summer

It was made by a Bordeaux company and transported flat-pack to be constructed on site, which took just two months. 

Trains stopped coming here in 1949, but the original station clock is still ticking 124 years later and the building has been transformed into a theatre. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, as skiing became a new tourist attraction, the town developed as a winter resort:

“We have visitors all year round for the spa, for snow sports in the winter and for walking and enjoying nature in the summer. It is no longer just for the rich. You can come for a thermal cure for free with a prescription from your doctor. 

“And though it has grown, we like to think we are still a village, with just under a thousand inhabitants living here all year round.”

Related stories:

How reimbursed health stays at thermal spa centres in France work

Doctors in France can prescribe a thermal spa break

Vernet-les-Bains: Unique village is living arboretum

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