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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/August 1886/Mineral Springs of Eastern France

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 29‎ | August 1886


THE terræ incognitæ are not always the most distant lands. The greater part of France, outside of Paris, is an unknown country to the greater number even of traveled Americans; and of the little-known features of that pleasant land its abundant mineral springs are among the least known. No country in Europe is so rich in mineral springs: six hundred and fifty are enumerated in a single treatise (Le Pileur's), and designated as "among the best-known springs"; while the number of different establishments, probably about two hundred, is greater than that of any other country.

Ask, now, the first neighbor you meet, this question, which I have sometimes asked, "What French mineral springs do you know by name?" Unless he is an old traveler in Europe, and sometimes even if he be an old traveler, you will not get a very long answer—"Vichy, of course; and—and—yes, Aix-les-Bains." "And any others?" you continue. The usual answer will be either "No," or "Plombières." Of course, persons who have traveled for the sake of their health will know the springs of the Pyrenees and of Auvergne, and will have heard of those of Central France and of the Vosges. A brief description of the leading springs in this latter group may have a practical interest for some of my readers; and at least the interest of curiosity for those to whom these healing waters are but the shadow of a name.

1. Plombières.—These springs are of very ancient fame, though they have become popular only of recent years. They have been known and used since the Roman time, and in the masonry around the deepest spring you are shown mason-work which dates back to the earliest Christian centuries. In 1859 a bronze water-cock and its key, of the Roman time, were unearthed in fairly good order; on turning the key, the water rushed out in a full stream. The masonry of the sub-works is probably older than this; and it is probable that bathers were disporting themselves in these vapor-chambers, now far below the level of the ground, at least two thousand years ago.

A reminder of the ancient liberty of the latter survived, until very recently, at Plombières, in the custom of men and women bathing together; this was practiced so lately as 1881, of course under suitable restrictions as to decorum. A sufficient marble partition in the baths separated the men from the women, and strict regulations as to bathing-dresses were in force. But the bathers were numerous, and the baths were greatly crowded. In one of the bathing-rooms I was shown four marble bathing-tanks—piscines they call them—each a circle of about ten feet in diameter, with a dozen single bath-tubs standing near by; and in these rather narrow receptacles no less than a hundred men and women sometimes bathed at a time. Naturally, they complained of the situation. Rules and bathing-dresses are very well, but such propinquity has its inconveniences in spite of rules and bathing-dresses; and it was finally found desirable to allot separate hours for bathing to the two "sects" (in Georgia phrase) of bathers. The only other place in Eastern France where men and women bathe together is at Vittel; but at these charming baths, which we shall study a little later, the crowd is not too great, and people can discuss evolution, or the dual nature of the soul, across the marble fender which separates the tanks, with the most perfect sang-froid, especially in the cooler baths. The absolute leisure and unoccupation of the bath, the unconventionality of the costumes, and the interest felt in meeting strangers under such peculiar circumstances, all invite to the consolations of talk; and many a pleasant acquaintance has had its beginning in the tanks of Plombières or Vittel, which lend themselves, as the phrase is, most genially to the humaner sympathies. It is no small consolation to some invalids to compare notes respecting their progress; and it must be remembered that the majority of those who frequent the baths at Plombières are actual invalids. As to any improprieties under the old system of bathing together, I can not testify: the worst that I heard of was that there was a good deal of water-splashing by the friskier convalescents.

But let us approach the splendid establishment which lies nearest the railroad-station, the Bain Impérial, or Thermes Napoléon of the Second Empire. The latter inscription is still traceable, though very faintly, under the briefer legend of to-day, "Thermes." Confucius demands somewhere, "How can a man be concealed?" and in France one must often ask himself the same of the names in the changing inscriptions on public buildings. They usually discover, if you scrutinize them a little closely, some trace of the previous occupancy—sometimes a pathetic trace. One may not sympathize with the doings of the Second Empire, and yet it rouses a lively feeling of unfair play to see this fine establishment, like many other public works which Napoleon III executed in France, stripped even of the name of the ruler who at least did much for the material prosperity and comfort of his country, as roads and public buildings throughout France testify. An author's name goes upon the title-page of his book; surely it is not less fair that the builder's name should remain upon his edifices.

The Thermes Napoléon, then, are the newest, finest, and most extensive of the six establishments of Plombières, and they are among the finest in France or in Europe. The Bain Romain, an old establishment, rebuilt in 1837; the Bain des Dames; the Bain tempéré, in which, as I have said, the bathers were formerly so crowded; and the Bain des Capucins, in an old church—these all lie farther up the beautiful narrow valley in which Plombières is built; and all are much frequented, the latter especially for the cure of sterility. In all these different springs the waters are warm, ranging from about 43° to 55° C. (110° to 131° Fahr.), and in the subterranean vapor-room, where the spring bursts from the rock, the temperature runs up to 153 Fahr.—quite as high as one can well face heat in the shape of vapor. It seems to burn when it first strikes your face, but a pleasant perspiration follows. This temperature, however, that of the hot spring itself, as it has been flowing for thousands of years past from the primitive rock, is not that which is used for treatment. In the steam-room the vapor-baths are given at 113° Fahr. Nearly every variety of bath known is administered in one or another of these thoroughly equipped establishments.

The waters of Plombières are of the mildest; they are classed by some as indifferent thermal waters, but they contain silicic acid and sulphate of soda. Taken as a drink, they are stimulating to the circulation and to the nerves; they are diuretic and aperient, and sometimes produce gastric disturbance and the so-called "thermal fever" at the outset of the treatment. There is, besides, an iron spring, which is cold, and which has a similar laxative effect, unusual among chalybeate waters. The baths of Plombières, at first stimulating, have afterward a sedative effect. A bath of an hour and a half will slow the circulation, and depress the muscular forces; but the baths are not now prescribed of such length as formerly.

And their virtues? They are employed with success in the following classes of ailments:

(a.) Flatulent and acid dyspepsias, with atony of the digestive system.

(b.) Rheumatism and gout.

(c.) Female complaints, especially neuralgia and engorgement of the uterus.

(d.) Chronic neuralgias of various kinds. Dr. Liétard, the courteous inspector, and Drs. Leclère, Bottentuit, and Daviller, are among the most prominent consulting physicians of the place.

I should add that the environs of Plombières are very attractive. The village has about eighteen hundred inhabitants; it stands where the railroad ceases to climb the valley of the Augronne, and its two or three pretty streets hang along the sides of the valley like terraces, here and there connected by steep stairways built in the hill-side and leading from one level to another.

There are pretty excursions, as everywhere in this part of France. The Ferme Jacquot, the Fontaine Stanislas, the valley of the Semouze, the Val d'Ajol, Hérival and its ruins, Saint-Etienne, a curious town of the seventh century, and the picturesque city of Remiremont, mountain-girdled, with the ruins of the ancient abbey—these are among the places to see. For a longer excursion, one should spend two days in visiting Gérardmer and the mountain-lake, high among the Vosges. But I need not specify any more pretty places in a country which is so beautiful as the east of France.

2. Luxeuil, in the Haute-Saône.—This is a pleasant little town, about three thousand years old, near the new Alsatian boundary of France, an afternoon's drive from Plombières. In spite of thirty centuries' growth, it has not as yet touched the round number of four thousand inhabitants, though during the season, from the 15th of May to the end of September, the place is flooded with guests. Luxeuil lies in a rolling country—not a mountainous one, but at an elevation (1,325 feet above sea-level) that gives cool, sometimes chilly, summer nights. The climate, however, is not a variable one, and one sleeps soundly at night at Luxeuil.

Judged by an American standard, its temperatures are equable, and their uniformity is increased by the protection which Luxeuil finds in a range of hills upon the north, covered with ancient forests—the haute futaie of the French classification. There, as elsewhere in France, the forestry department takes account of each tree in the forests, and they are classified according to their ages with systematic accuracy. The ages that divide the classes are forty, sixty, one hundred and twenty, two hundred, and lastly over two hundred years; and for each class there is a descriptive name. The French forests are the best cared for in the world, and, whenever we are ready to cultivate and preserve our own, we shall have the advantage of French experience in this important matter.

The springs are fifteen in number, bearing names that come down, in some instances, from the Roman era. The Bains des Benedictins, des Capucins, des Dames, des Fleurs, are among the most used, flowing as they do under the roof of a single establishment with four others, the Bain gradué, the Grand Bain, the Bain des Cuvettes, and the Bain ferrugineux.

The establishment itself is a fine, old-fashioned building, very spaciously and solidly built, more than a hundred years ago, in the gray stone of the country, and much enlarged in the year 1853. It stands in the middle of a park, shut in on either hand by rows of magnificent oak and plane trees. The establishment lies like an island in the inland sea of hills and meadows which make up this region in the department of the Haute-Saône. They are the last northward-rolling undulations of the Jura.

I will not enumerate the douches, the piscines, the shower and plunge baths, nor the score of appliances which go to make up the installation or plant of this fine establishment. These appliances are, indeed, much the same in all the great European watering-places, and their elaborate complexity is a thing that interests one upon the spot, rather than in the description of it. Taking all this balneological battery, then, for granted, let me come to the description of the waters themselves and of their virtues.

They are thermal, ranging from 28° to 51·5° C. (82° to 125° Fahr.). They are abundant in quantity, and in quality they are of two classes: they are either predominantly saline or predominantly iron-manganese. Chemically speaking, they are mild waters; they are none the less very effective therapeutically. Some of the mildest mineral waters, both at home and abroad, are the most valuable.

And for what classes of complaints are the springs of Luxeuil especially indicated? There is no obscurity about the answer; and it will be an encouraging one to many sufferers.

The waters of Luxeuil are especially adapted to anaemia and to the complaints that arise from it; and especially to the nervous, as distinguished from the scrofulous, forms of anaemia. Need I say more to indicate the point I am coming at? The tired housekeeper who is breaking down from work and worry, the jaded society-woman whose rounds of fatiguing pleasures have impaired her nerves and her temper—nearly all, indeed, who represent our domestic types of worry, exhaustion, and nervous debility, especially in women, or who suffer from the still graver derangements of special functions which these involve—these are the preappointed visitors to Luxeuil. For such sufferers its waters are, I will not say exactly a fountain of youth, for our belief is not easy in such waters; but a certain fountain of strength when rightly chosen and rightly used. The clientèle of Luxeuil is mostly composed of women and of young girls who are suffering from one, or more than one, of the protean forms of anaemia. I speak from my own observation when I say that relief is certain in cases of this nature, and that cure is frequent.

But the caution can not be too often repeated that cure or even relief, at Luxeuil, or at any other mineral spring, can only be expected when the right patient goes to the right spring. I would not send a scrofulous patient, for instance, to Luxeuil; Salins is the place for him, and for the cure of the particular form of anaemia from which he suffers. Even among the cases of nervous anaemia, with the resulting train of special symptoms to which I have alluded, there are some that should seek more strongly tonic waters than those of Luxeuil. If the patient will have himself rightly directed, by competent medical advice, to the springs that he requires, and if then he will go to these and no other, and there take the local treatment that he requires from the local physician—as at Luxeuil, from the highly accomplished Dr. Champouillon, or from either of his resident colleagues, Drs. Gauthier, Bertrand, or Paris—he will not regret the passing of three weeks in this health-giving place. I should add that the society is mostly French; and that the guest has to choose between furnished apartments, which are very comfortable and moderate in price, and the various hotels of the place. I found the Hôtel des Thermes comfortable, clean, and rejoicing in a pretty court-yard, where the birds sang all the morning; and it is a pleasure to record, though in a language that she does not know, and in words which she will probably never see, the courtesy with which the hostess of that hotel welcomed the present writer during his sojourn, last August, in the pleasant town of Luxeuil.

3. Bussang, a little to the east of Luxeuil, is the last French station toward the new Alsatian frontier. It is a quiet place, in the heart of beautiful mountains, which tower on every side; in the green valley below the establishment the Moselle slips quietly seaward from its sources in the Col de Bussang, near at hand. The mountain itself is pierced by a long tunnel, emerging from the eastward end of which you come suddenly upon the reft provinces, and see the uniform of the German forest-guards upon the highway.

The hotel stands alone upon a beautiful hill-side, a mile away from the ancient village; it is at an elevation of 2,188 feet above sea-level, in the very heart of the mountains; and, from every window of the large, quiet, clean, new building, the views are exquisite. The hill slope that sweeps far upward behind it is a mountain-pasture or Alp, where shepherd-boys tend the cattle throughout the cool summer nights. There is a Swiss air about the place: the scenery, if less grand than that of the French and Swiss Jura, is very beautiful; and Bussang is the headquarters for mountain excursions in the Vosges. The Ballons d'Alsace and Servance, with their wonderful views of the Swiss Alps, are but a few miles away, and Gérardmer, with its mountain-lake, is a day's excursion. I mention these local attractions, for at every mineral spring where such charms of mountain scenery exist, they form potent influences among those that are enlisted for the patient's cure. One can not find a more quietly delightful spot than Bussang.

These waters have been known and used for centuries. They are delicious to the taste, sparkling, cold, and strongly tonic, containing the bicarbonate of iron, manganese, and some arsenic. As in the excellent artificial Hygeia waters, the strong charge of contained carbonic-acid gas acts most beneficially as a digestive stimulant. They are used only internally as yet, though a bathing establishment is now in construction, which the courteous manager of the springs, M. Zimmermann, told me would be ready for use in the summer of 1886.

The waters are used for the following therapeutic purposes:

(a.) They are especially helpful to the digestion. In consequence they cure the anemia of mal-nutrition, and some forms of obstinate chronic diarrhœa. In one case of the latter category which came under my knowledge while in Bussang, a cure was wrought after years of suffering and prostration.

(b.) The waters of Bussang are an efficient tonic for delicate invalids, and especially for persons of the lymphatic constitution. They are exported; but they throw down a part of their iron after being kept for a time.

4. Vittel, in the Vosges.—Coming out of the mountains to the rolling country at the foot of the Vosges, and entering the valley of the Vair, we find a very interesting and completely appointed establishment, mostly of recent date, at Vittel. The springs flow in the middle of a fine park, at an elevation of 1,102 feet above sea-level. They have been known but about twenty-five years, but they attract a multitude of guests. The town has 1,343 inhabitants; the air is pure, and there is a mild mountain climate. The establishment is under the direction of the brothers Bouloumié, of whom one, the accomplished superintending physician, speaks English well. There are a casino and a theatre, as well as every device in the way of bathing and of douches; and the place is lively, cheerful, and in every way attractive—a pleasant place of sojourn.

The waters are cold, and are either predominantly iron or calcic; they belong by their constitution to a group of neighboring springs, of which Contrexéville and Martigny are the other members. They are very abundant and limpid, with but little taste; they throw down a red deposit upon the marble tanks and basins. In composition these waters are of the type of the Carlsbad waters; but they are milder in their action. They do not purge by indigestion, as those of Contrexéville are believed to do.

Their use is in curing—

(a.) Gravel, when caused by uric acid.
(b.) Chronic ailments of the liver and hepatic colic.
(c.) The gout of the anæmic.
(d.) Vesical catarrh.
(e.) Enlargement of the prostate gland.

It may be added that many cases of anæmia and chlorosis find their cure at these excellent springs.

5. Contrexéville, in the Vosges.—This is another little town in the valley of the Vair, a pleasant drive from Vittel, among rolling fields of wheat. The valley is small and narrow, cutting off the breeze in summer, so that the place is hot, according to French standards, though its temperatures never approach the fervors of our own summers. Less than a thousand people are included in the census of the place; but the summer visitors count by thousands, and among them you will find now and then an American; though the great majority of the visitors here, as at all other French spas, except perhaps Vichy, are French. The park and gardens offer a lively spectacle during the season; they are planted with fine old trees, and the usual good band of music may be heard. The establishment is built upon a peninsula formed by a loop of the stream; there are parlors for reading, for conversation, for games, and a fine casino. Contrexéville has not at all an ascetic reputation, and one of the attractions claimed for the place is that you get a better dinner here than even in Paris. Situated as it is in the midst of a fertile country, rich in almost every edible product of France, there is good ground for the claim of a superior cuisine—one, by-the-way, that is made for the city of Bordeaux, where they claim to give the best and the best-cooked breakfasts in Europe. Certainly, the breakfast of the Bordeaux restaurants would be hard to beat in any of the various quarters of the world.

The waters of Contrexéville are cold, limpid, colorless, with a slightly ferruginous taste and smell. On standing in contact with the air they form upon their surface the filmiest film of an iris-colored pellicle that one can imagine, and the water stains the cups and glasses in which it is used. There are four springs, all belonging to the class of calcic waters. Their action is diuretic, producing a strong effect upon the kidneys; and after the fourth day there is generally a laxative effect, which continues throughout the time of treatment. The secretory functions of the skin are sometimes increased—effects which are attributed to the indigestion of the mineral water. However this may be, some of those who take the treatment are purged by seven or eight glasses of the waters, while others bear twenty or thirty easily. The waters are cold.

Their special curative values are— (a.) For uric-acid gravel.

(b.) For vesical catarrh.

(c.) For enlargements of the prostate gland.

(d.) For gout, especially when it is hereditary, but occurs in a subject not individually predisposed by his way of life to the disease.

In all these categories of chronic disease the waters of Contrexéville, when supplemented by the kindly care of Dr. Brongniard, Dr. Thiery, or some other of the excellent physicians to be found at this station, will usually bring either cure or material relief.

6. Martigny is a quiet place in a rolling plain of the Vosges, 1,272 feet above sea-level. The train voyages through this placid upland country almost like a steamer upon the long swell of the Pacific Ocean. You get off at a little station in the midst of the wheat and scarlet poppies that are blowing together in the summer wind, and enjoy the brilliant color which gives such a charm to the French wheat-growing districts during the summer; taking the stage, you are set down in front of a fine new establishment—brand-new, indeed, and scarcely yet completed—where groups of well-dressed people are gathered in the newly planted park, waiting for the dinner-hour to strike. The dining-room, by-the-way, is hardly large enough for the company. A larger dining-hall was in process of building when I was there last summer, and also a promenade for exercise during rainy weather. An excellent reading-room is a feature of the establishment.

The waters are calcic, and are substantially the same as those of Vittel and Contrexéville, but purge less than the latter. There are two springs, both cold, besides a "saponaceous" spring, so called from the unctuous feel or texture of the water, and from its milky appearance; of this, however, little use is made. Dr. Bridou, the physician in charge, is a serious and competent physician, a young man, but well versed in the complex subject of mineral waters in general, and of those of Martigny-les-Bains in particular. He makes no extravagant claims for their virtues. "Gout and gravel—c'est tout" he said to me with decisive frankness; "but surely it is much to cure these two grave complaints." Gravel in its most frequent form, that which depends upon the uric-acid diathesis, and gravel in many of the severer cases even, are relieved or cured by these most efficient waters. Regimen is carefully attended to, as at all of the best French spas; and while I will not say that regimen is exceptionally necessary in the treatment of gout and gravel, it is a part of the treatment that can not be dispensed with safely in any disease that depends upon mal-nutrition. The mistake of many patients is that when once they are arrived at a spring they think that the waters will do all. The contrary is especially true of chronic diseases, and chronic diseases are almost the only ones that are treated at mineral springs. For in chronic diseases a cure is not wrought by a succession of powerful remedial impacts, as in acute diseases it is often wrought. In chronic diseases the cure depends rather upon a consensus of gentle influences, a sequence of impressions that, however slight, are wisely chosen and directed by the physician. And of these gentle influences those which come from the proper choice of diet and the right use of exercise are among the most important.

7. Bains, still in the Vosges, is a town of three thousand people, situated at the foot of the eastward slope of the mountains, and in a valley which is watered by a tributary of the Saône. There are eleven different springs, all warm, varying from 34·3° C. to 49° C. (94° to 120° Fahr.). Their main mineral constituent is the sulphate of soda; carbonate of soda and the chloride of sodium are also present, and both arsenic and iron have been found in very small quantities. These waters are limpid, colorless, and have no smell or taste, emerging from the grès vosgien which covers in shallow strata the granite substructure of the valley. They have been known and used, like many others of the French springs, since the time of the Romans, and their yield is abundant, alike for the baths, douches, steamings, inhalations, and internal uses which are prescribed at the establishments.

These establishments, two in number, include all of the principal springs. The first, the Bain Romain, which occupies the center of the town, is a handsome building, with galleries and colonnades, dressing-rooms, douches, and three piscines or bathing-tanks in the center. In the basement are huge tanks where the water is stored; hence it is lifted by pumps to reservoirs in the top of the building, and distributed to all of its different parts. The second establishment, the Bain des Promenades, is almost equally well appointed. Some two thousand guests come yearly to the place between the middle of May and the middle of September, the limits of the season; while the course of individual treatment is commonly fixed at twenty days.

These waters have a greatly stimulating effect, which is beneficial in cases of feebleness or of nervous dyscrasia; used as baths, they are more or less stimulating according to their temperature; after a certain time they produce a sedative effect, in this particular resembling the springs of Plombières, which are but ten miles distant. Taken inwardly, they produce at first more or less of the so-called "thermal fever," i. e., loss of appetite, a sense of weight at the stomach, and some constipation, and, like the waters of Plombières, they are very useful in dyspepsia, when this depends upon feebleness of the nervous system; in gout and rheumatism, and neuralgia and engorgement of the uterus. The choice between the two springs is between hill and plain, between the more fashionable and the quieter place. In either the patient will find a cure if he follows the course of hygiene and of water prescribed.

8. Bourbonne, in the Haute-Marne, is the last in the group of springs which we are studying. The town lies some fifteen miles due south of Martigny, whence I made my way by private carriage; and through what a region of pastoral calm, of smiling prairie and waving grain! Never have I seen such repose and beauty combined with the highest cultivation; one would call this part of France a garden of Eden, but for the fact that it is grain, not fruit, which is here mainly cultivated, and an apple-orchard is the proper connotation of the garden of Eden. On the southward limit of this lovely rolling upland, not yet invaded by the railway, a long ridge of eastward-trending hills arises; at its foot are the springs, the pretty town of four thousand people, at eight hundred and ninety-two feet above sea-level, and the railroad. On the hill-side are enormous distributing tanks, into which the steaming-hot mineral waters, too hot for use, are pumped up daily to cool under the starlight until they are at a usable temperature for the baths of the following day.

These waters, again, have been known and used since the Roman time, but especially since the sixteenth century. There are six principal springs, ranging from 28° to 66° C. (82° to 151° Fahr.); the water is limpid, with a slightly saltish taste, and one of the springs, the Source de la Reine, disengages a gas which has an odor distinctly the converse of attar of roses. These waters contain the chlorides of sodium and of magnesium, with sulphate of soda and a little iron; and they are used in all the ways known to modern balneology, the new establishment being completely provided with every form of apparatus—douches, piscines, vapor-baths, baignoires, and the new treatment by spraying with the "pulverized" or minutely divided water—a treatment now beginning to come into use at some of the springs in our own country.

Rheumatism, the scrofulous diathesis, and old wounds, are the ailments mainly treated here; and so efficacious are these waters in the latter class of cases, that the French Government sends many of its wounded officers and soldiers here. Dr. Magnin, the old inspector, and his genial nephew of the same name, and Drs. Cabrol, Bougard, and Causard, are among the excellent physicians of the place. Among the hotels, no more comfortable and quiet place can be found than the Maison Beaurain. M. Beaurain, the most affable of hosts, speaks English as well as French, and has a most refined class of guests.

Bourbonue-les-Bains is a pleasant place, and its waters are valuable and effective. But in deciding upon treatment it is not enough to know that the waters are good and that the place is pleasant. The waters must be adapted to the particular case. The main secret of successful treatment by mineral waters is in their right choice, and as to this I have one word of serious advice. Don't try to choose for yourself. The right prescription and choice among these delicate yet potent remedies can only be made by a physician who understands them, who has seen and studied their action, and who also understands the case for which treatment is required.