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Hot water springs in France beckon

In hot water

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OLD HERITAGE: The dermatological centre (right) traditionally dispatches its curative waters to crisis-affected sites globally as a goodwill gesture;legend has it that stones from the castle of Avene's old aristocracy were reused in some of the town's houses (below)

The south of France is rich in hot natural springs that bubble out of the ground filled with healing silicates. TOI-Crest tries some water therapy.

France may be the wellspring of wine, but at this end of L'Hexagone, the talk is all about water. Eh? Or as the French say, eau! We were in the south of France, though not east enough for the Riviera. While most folk were winging it to the Cote d'Azur this summer for a side - or centre-view of Cannes Film Festival, some of us were removed from the mobs, in what appeared to be Middle Earth - a region the maps call Languedoc-Roussillon, one of the 27 regions of France. Here, several mountain ranges, coniferous covers, garrigue scrubland, vineyards, olive orchards, and medieval stone villages cohabit to produce a sort of ancient dark beauty that makes you want to drown your Lonely Planet-edition Paris in the river Orb (which is not recommended).

Which brings us back to the water. Languedoc-Roussillon may collectively be France's largest vineyard - accounting for three times the wine-growing area of the Bordeaux - but it's the water from several feted springs that makes the region sparkle. Here's where your greenbottled Perrier originates, as also La Salvetat, France's winner in the sparkling water category last year. We've however hoofed it to a certain mountain spring made famous not so much by man as by his horse.

It was 1736, and the Marquis of Rocozels cut his beloved beast loose on the slopes of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain), a granite Prometheus of the Cevennes range, in upper Languedoc. The horse was apparently stricken with an 'incurable' skin disease - incurable, that is, until it made its way to the Saint Odile thermal spring in the village of Avne, which is fed by the 90 mile-long river Orb. Here, it presumably drank and bathed in the water (curative because it is low in minerals, and high in silicones and silicates), and returned days later with a sleek, healthy coat to demonstrate to the Marquis the miracle of Saint Odile. Convinced of the water's therapeutic qualities, particularly its anti-irritant and antiinflammatory properties, the Marquis built the first thermal spring facility in the village for people suffering from burns and skin problems that were later identified as atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis and so on. Talk about early animal testing.

Cut to the present. The rudimentary baths built by the Marquis have risen from the ground as a glass phoenix called the Avne Dermatological Hydrotherapy Centre, with modern facilities like filiform showers and hydromassage bathtubs for both adults and children. The water temperature, at 25. 6 degrees centigrade, is perfect for a soak. The facility treats around 2, 500 patients annually, including many from France itself, as treatment here is covered by national health insurance. The building and its outlying bodies, which include a water laboratory and hotel, are owned now by the French pharmaceutical company, Pierre Fabre Laboratories. Interestingly, the hydrotherapy centre continues its tradition of dispatching its curative waters to crisis-affected sites around the world in a gesture of goodwill: in 1871 barrels were shipped to Chicago to treat burns victims of the Great Fire, and last year Avene's water was also sent out to Japan to heal burns and skin inflammations caused by the nuclear accident in Fukushima.

While the pull of the spring might extend, in the main, to those in need of healing, or balneologists (those who study the therapeutic effects of baths), the village rue or one-street village of Avene and its surrounds have much to engage the garden variety tourist - quite literally, travellers who prefer the bush. Such specimens could be spotted hiking up forest paths of the Massif Central range (of which the Cevennes is part), pedalling down the plateau on the Green Network, or driving their motorhomes to campsites by the Orb, which presumably got its name from specks of gold on its riverbed.

Avene's the kind of host that will offer a tourist a room but won't throw a cabaret for it. Hospitable, but not solicitous of company. (The local tourism department organises dance afternoons and community dinners for all. ) While you can rent out a garret in the village or a self-contained apartment at easy rates (starting at 45 euro a night for double occupancy, contingent to season), there's not much by way of urban entertainment. It's understood that the kind of tourist coming up these hills will want to nose about the natural terrain. And there's no dearth of that.

The village is situated at an altitude of 350 m on the northern end of the Upper Languedoc Regional Natural Park, a 1, 004 square mile-reserve packed with freshwater lakes, forest trails, terraced fields and ancient hamlets called circulades (concentric villages built around a central castle or church). Avene itself is a kind of semi-circulade. The circularity of the layout was, for practical purposes, intended to defend the castle or church from assailants - a precaution that didn't plan for 21st century travellers who would intrude into Avene's hilltop church of St Martin and make noises about how, post-Revolution, the front pews were reserved for the new aristocracy - municipal officers.

The old aristocracy - the Marquis of Rocozels - though long dead, is still around in spirit. The story goes that stones from his castle were redeployed in the construction of some of the houses in Avene. "This used to be a former mining town, " says Alexandre Berthier, owner of La Boutique d'Avene, a souvenir shop with a small, ancient well inside it, and a wine cellar that tunnels into the hill. Many houses here are embedded in the hills and connected by winding cobbled paths that pass under low stone arches. With a population of scarcely 70 residents, Avene's the sort of place you can reliably lose yourself. And when you're ready to resurface and natter with the neighbours, you could walk down to the local school for a free sampling of Languedoc wines on the school's day off. It's probably the only time talk of water turns to wine.

IN AND AROUND


Roquefort |

Take a tour of the Combalou caves at Roquefort-sur-Soulzon and believe if you will the apocryphal story of the boy who left his ewe's milk cheese behind in a cave and returned to find it processed into the now famously mouldy Roquefort

Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare |


Maison Cevenole, the folk museum in this medieval 'city', has machines and artefacts that tell how the old folks did it - made nails, hoops, bells, mined, and so on

Millau et son viaduct |


The longest (8, 071 ft) and tallest (1, 130 ft) vehicular bridge in the world, completed in 2004, is probably an anomaly in this list of antiquities, but it's as moving as the rest of them

Pazenas |


For the door museum, which exhibits a variety of types from the 15th century onward. There's also a memorial and museum dedicated to Moliere, who stayed and worked in this town

Faugeres |


One of the restored 16th century windmills in this place actually grinds flour. Also prominent in this region are the distinct dry-stone cabins called carabelleswhich once housed shepherds and wine-growers

MELTING POT


Languedoc-Roussillon

has two distinct cultures and temperaments, the larger French-dominated upper and middle regions of Languedoc, and the smaller Catalonian portions of the south, by the Mediterranean. While sightseers typically go down to the coast, it's the relatively lesser known upper reaches that have serious Arcadian appeal. You'll see it all here - Neolithic dolmens and menhirs, Roman aqueducts and watchtowersturned-windmills, the famous 17th century Canal Midi said to connect the Atlantic with the Mediterranean, cooperative wineries of the 20th century, opulent wine chateaux and dry stone cabins called capitellesat the edges of vinyards, Visigoth forts, and scores of medieval churches and castles.

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