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, young people don’t flock here, except in July and August when Des Célestines, the rather good beach on the banks of the Allier in the west of the city, 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, of which a prime example is the hôtel de ville near Place Charles de Gaulle. The tourist office offers 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 more striking examples in rue de Russie, rue de Belgique and rue Alquié, and around the old town between the church of St Blaise, the river and the town’s main spring, the Sources des Célestines. There are also four parks on the right bank of the Allier, providing pleasant, wooded river walks. The most famous is the Parc de Napoléon III, an English garden created for Napoléon III.