Vichy, 50km north of Clermont-Ferrand, is famous for two things: its World War II puppet government under Marshal Pétain, and its curative sulphurous springs, which attract thousands of ageing and ailing visitors, or curistes, every year. The town is almost entirely devoted to catering for its largely elderly, genteel population, which swells several-fold in summer, though attempts are being made to rejuvenate Vichy’s image by appealing to a younger, fitness-conscious generation. Still, with Clermont-Ferrand’s nightlife so close, the young people aren’t flocking here, except perhaps in July and August when Des Célestines, the rather good riverside beach, becomes a big draw.
There’s a real fin-de-siècle atmosphere about Vichy, and the best reason to come is to see its fine belle époque, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture. The tourist office offers several afternoon tours (in French) showcasing different periods and also a brochure with suggested walking tours. If you are strolling on your own, you’ll find the most striking examples in and around the rue de Russie, rue de Belgique and rue Alquié and around the old town between the church of St Blaise, the river and the Sources des Célestines.