For those of us who are drawn to nostalgia and enjoy imagining life in the past, a visit to Belle Epoque Evian is the perfect antidote to high-tech, fast cars and the pace of modern life. Here and there, you might almost feel you’ve escaped the 21st century.
The Belle Epoque is that heady, happy and creative era in France stretching roughly from the 1870s to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and if you had visited in its early years, you probably would have arrived by train. A bit later, and you might have packed up the family car. Even more recently – and for the really wealthy (Evian has seen its share of those) – you could have flown across Lake Geneva. A bit of a scary thought.
One thing I love about Evian is that not so much has actually changed over the years.
Take the town’s thermal baths, one of the main reasons you might want to visit: here’s what they looked like then…
…and here’s what they look like now.
Much of the town’s popularity has revolved around its privileged location on the French side of Lake Geneva, and the clear, fresh spring which brought it fame and fortune.
It all started with a man with a liver ailment who drank from a local water source every day and claimed it cured him. As doctors began prescribing the ‘miraculous water’ the owner of the spring, a certain Mr Cachat, fenced it off and started selling the water. It proved so popular the town actually changed its name from Evian to Evian-les-Bains (bains meaning baths in French) to cement its reputation as a growing spa town.
Tourists flocked to the Source Cachat, where they ‘took the waters’.
These days the original source is closed but the Art Nouveau building hosts exhibitions of Evian water art and products each summer.
Really want to feel like a local? Grab your empty Evian water bottle and cross the street from the old Source Cachat. You can refill your bottle for free with the purest, freshest Evian water, like locals do.
If you were a wealthy curiste (spa guest) visiting Evian-les-Bains a century ago you might have stayed at the imposing Hotel Royal, one of Evian’s mainstays and home to the rich and famous.
The list of treasured guests and crowned heads who stayed here around the Belle Epoque (give or take a few decades) reads like a Gotha’s Almanac of global high society: the Regent of Persia, the Maharajah of Kapurthala, the Emperor of Anam, the Aga Khan, the Queen of Portugal, the Bey of Tunis, the Sultan of Morocco, the Lumière Brothers – and that’s just an abridged list.
It has also played a political role when it hosted the G8 summit in 2003.
A little has changed here, but only a little.
Some of the manicured grounds have been turned over to golfing, facilities have been fully renovated, you can now swim in an infinity pool overlooking Lake Geneva, and the shopping area has been moved and given a facelift. Otherwise, I walk down halls that might well have welcomed me when the hotel first threw open its doors in 1909.
To get to the Source Cachat, especially in bad weather, you might have gathered your skirts and boarded the Neuvecelle funicular tram connecting the hotel to the source. It has been refurbished but hasn’t lost any of its charm and you can still ride up and down, avoiding the steep walk and keeping those aristocratic shoes sparkling clean.
The town of Evian-les-Bains has somehow managed to maintain its personality – sophisticated, stunning and even a bit sedate. It has survived world wars, a lack of interest in wellness that began around the 1960s, and the inevitable expansion that accompanies such a glorious Lake Geneva setting.
Evian has modernized its historic buildings without destroying their soul. The old thermal baths have been renamed Palais Lumière and transformed into an exhibition and cultural center, a major attraction of which is an archive with more than 40,000 historical documents and items. Even modern street art is a throwback to nostalgia.
I’m not exactly the ballroom gown type but if there’s one place I can imagine twirling to the sounds of Strauss and Chopin, Evian would be it. I could relax in one of its luxury spas (I did do that for a glorious morning), ride down and take the waters, and then, filled with newfound energy, I might even try a winter sport or two.
There’s nothing unfashionable about Evian, but there is plenty of nostalgia: it is the perfect place to relive that once-upon-a-time grandeur and experience a type of luxury that is rapidly disappearing, where each flower was painted by hand on wallpaper, each stone corniche fashioned painstakingly by artists, not machines.
In a funny way, that past is like a breath of fresh air.
A note on the photography
The stunning black and white photographs used above are just a few of the nearly 200 stereoscopic photographs (including the ones kindly provided for this article) of Belle Epoque Evian displayed at the Maison Gribaldi, a reconverted renaissance building which houses plenty of historical archives. Stereoscopic photography, in which two photographs are taken from barely different angles but look three-dimensional when viewed together, was fashionable in the early 20th century so a number of photographs have survived, documenting every facet of life in Evian, from festivals to landscape to the most mundane occupations.
Things a Woman on the Road should know
- The town of Evian is one of the most sophisticated resorts in Europe, even the world, and crime is low. As in any place where the wealthy congregate, watch your valuables.
- I stayed at the wonderful Hotel Les Cygnes, on the edge of town (but within walking distance). It is right on Lake Geneva and the views are superb. So is the gastronomic restaurant which is part of the hotel. The hotel has a certain homeyness and character you won’t find in the larger luxury palaces further up the hill.
- Evian is an easy day trip from Geneva. If you have a car, head along the south end of Lake Geneva and follow the Evian signs. If you don’t, your best bet is to take the rapid train to Lausanne and cross by boat. In summer, boats will carry you up and down the lakeshore. For a fun adventure, sail on La Savoie, a wonderful replica of the old sailboats that once plied Lake Geneva. It operates on summer weekends and is run by volunteer sailors, who have spent years restoring this ship.
- Of course Evian is the home of… Evian water, and in case you thought all water tastes the same, think again; I sampled the different ones with a water sommelier during my stay.
- If you’d like a wonderful lunch up on the hill in a romantic rural setting, head for La Verniaz (it’s also a hotel-chalet). It was good enough for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who sought a bit of peace and escape from the glare of the world.
Photo credits: Photo of modern Source Cachat by Anne Sterck; Palais Lumière (former baths) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; historical photos courtesy of Maison Gribaldi; the rest are sadly mine.