Do you know thalassotherapy ?

A personal experience...

 (This column was published by Harriet Welty Rochefort in Paris Pages, April 2000)

April in Paris is here and and if you didn't know it from the buds on the trees, you'd know it from the covers on the French women's magazines in the newsstands.

Every couverture, it would seem, features a fresh young flat-bellied blonde looking out at you challengingly. Next to her is some title screaming that she has lost four zillion pounds in two days.


In spite of my cynicism, I found myself staring at those magazine covers more and more. When, one fine morning, I stepped on the scale, I decided it was time to take action if I was ever going to look like that pulchritudinous creature. Nothing drastic, mind you, no sweating, jogging, push-ups or anything of a strenuous nature. No, some light eating and a change of scenery, I was sure, would be just the ticket.

So, speaking of tickets, I bought one: to St.-Jean-de-Luz, a pretty town of 12,000 in the southwest of France, where there is a "thalassotherapie" institute right on the sea. If you are wondering what that big word, "thalassotherapie", means, the translation is "seawater therapy". Also called hydrotherapy, this technique of using sea water to cure people's ills was discovered by Frenchman Louison Bobet, a Tour de France cyclist who was injured and healed by the seawater of his native Brittany. He was so impressed that he decided to promote the concept in a big way. That was in the 1960s and now there are fifty thalassotherapy centers all over France's coasts.

What do you do at these centers? There's a cure for almost everything. You can spend a week focusing on your legs, or your back, or your beauty. Young mothers can go to relax and get back in shape after having had a baby - and bébé can go along! There's also a cure for people who seriously want to lose weight. Many of the people though are not there for that purpose. They are there because they want to be pampered and coddled. Some people do go to lose weight. They also want to be pampered and coddled. I was one of them.

My cure was the general one called "bien-être" which translates to "well-being". My well-being started out with breakfast in bed with the newspaper (hey, you need a good start to the day, right?), and two well-balanced, aesthetically pleasing light meals taken in a spacious dining room overlooking the sea. This being France, even the light food looked and tasted scrumptious. The menus were heavy on fish and vegetables which were quite good but what I looked forward to were the desserts. Yes, desserts! How about a "biscuit roulé à l'orange", a chocolate cake with an orange filling, or a "clafoutis de fruit d'hiver", a baked fruit pie, or my favorite, a "fondant de chocolate à l'orange", another chocolate-orange combination. I kept wishing I could bring the chef home with me!

When not at meals, I was immersed in mud baths, or various other kinds of baths such as the "underwater shower" in which you are in a huge bathtub with an attendant squirting a hose at your ankles, back, shoulders. Fine by me! There was also a hammam I hung out in as much as my body would allow me to, and a sauna and a big pool, not to mention the entire beach outside for walking. I enjoyed four days of this unbelievable and unusual attention to my little self. The recommended amount of time is six days and more if one can. It sounds like a lot but when you think that the French have five weeks of vacation, this week only represents ONE of them!

When not immersing myself in water, I strolled around in the streets of St.-Jean-de-Luz whose claim to fame is that it was here that the Sun King married the Spanish Infante, Maria-Theresa. Other, more prosaic, Spanish influences are the "bodegas" or small restaurants selling "bocadillos", tasty looking sandwiches I couldn't touch because I was being serious about eating light food. Other things I resisted: the gateau Basque, a sweet cake which must have been oh so good with a cup of coffee or tea, and the tourons, an egg white and almond confection I was dying to try.

It was a good thing I resisted such temptations, though. Four days later, I weighed five pounds less. As I boarded the train for Paris, I decided that next spring I would disregard those covers on women's magazines. Instead, I'll head straight back to my "thalasso" which I fully intend to make a yearly outing.

Maybe I can give that skinny young thing on the cover of "Elle" some competition. At least I'll have a good time trying.

 Facts and figures about thalassotherapy    
  • Thalassotherapy, founded in France in the late 1950s by Louison Bobet, a very popular champion who won the Tour de France several times ; today, there are maybe 70 thalasso centers along the French coast, mostly but not only on the Atlantic 
  • It is somehow different from a classical spa : only sea water, tenth of different treatments (baths with or without various jets, massages, wraps, pool, etc...) ; in a typical stay of a week, 4 to 6 treatments a day.
  • More to come
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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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