Vichy, the „queen of all spas“.

© Cathrine Stukhard

„At the latest when I entered the Vichy Opera House, its interior completely bathed in gold, ivory and yellow, I finally fell in love with this city: Overwhelmed and enchanted by this unique Art Nouveau jewel, I realise why Vichy is called the queen of all spa towns,“ says Cathrine Stukhard about Vichy, who has created a sensitive pictorial narrative for the Festival LaGacilly-Baden Photo. Atout France organised her trip. 

As part of this year’s La Gacilly-Baden Photo festival, a special exhibition will take visitors on a trip to the Auvergne spa town of Vichy. Cathrine Stukhard’s work is the result of a cooperation with Atout France, the French National Tourist Board, which has already existed since 2021. „As the French tourism agency, we are delighted to be working with the La Gacilly-Baden Photo Festival for the third time. As the most important Austro-French cultural initiative, the photo festival in Baden contributes sustainably to a stronger connection between the two countries,“ says Emmanuel Marcinkowski, director of Atout France in Austria.

The Great Spa Towns of Europe are an exceptional testimony to a European spa phenomenon that found its highest expression from the 1700s to the 1930s. This transnational heritage site includes the eleven most modern, dynamic and international spa towns among hundreds of spa towns that also contributed to the European spa phenomenon. Together, they were inscribed by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee as Great Spa Towns of Europe on 24 July 2021: Baden bei Wien (Austria); Spa (Belgium); Karlovy Vary, Františkovy Lázne and Mariánské Lázne (Czech Republic); Vichy (France), Bad Ems, Baden-Baden and Bad Kissingen (Germany); Montecatini Terme (Italy); and City of Bath (United Kingdom). 

Although every spa town is different, all towns developed around mineral water springs, which were the catalyst for a spatial organisational model. The spa business in the spas was literally ennobled by a round of social events in casinos, theatres, hotels and villas. Cathrine Stukhard’s exhibition introduces us to Vichy, the „queen of all spas“. 

Cathrine Stukhard completed her photographic training at „die Grafische“ in Vienna, where her grandfather had already been a student. Her reportage-like style was well received in the advertising world and she was soon hired for advertising campaigns and developed image concepts for companies. Magazine commissions followed and her images appeared in Geo Saison, Geo, Merian, Terra Mater, Servus Magazin, Stern, Lufthansa Magazin, SZ Wissen, among others. Her exhibition Walking On about the concentration camp Mauthausen was shown in the Memorial Mauthausen, Austria, the USA and Canada.

The impetus for their work came from the Mayor of Baden Stefan Szirucsek, who says of the cooperation with Vichy: „The exchange and cooperation of the Great Spa Towns of Europe are enriching. The Ville de Vichy was a guest with a delegation at the Ball Royale of the City of Baden in January 2023. On 23 July 2023, Baden will be a guest city at the World Heritage celebrations in Vichy. Baden will present itself in Vichy with music, singing, culinary specialities and Baden wine. The pictures by Cathrine Stukhard bring Vichy to Baden and give an impression of the beauty and flair of the great European spa towns.“

„During my walks through Vichy,“ Cathrine Stukhard tells, „I always had the impression that this little town – after its glory days during the Belle Époque – had been deeply asleep for many years and was kissed awake not so long ago. It seems to me that Vichy has thus preserved a youth that today seems somewhat „old-fashioned“. But for me, it is precisely this „youthful age“ that makes Vichy so charming.

When the sun breaks through the ornaments of the covered walkways in the „Parc des Sources“ in the early morning and bathes the Palais des Congrès in warm light, it is easy to imagine the city in Napoleon III’s time, the Belle Époque. When the aristocracy was wrapped in volcanic mud and not only mineral water flowed from the taps of the drinking halls, but also champagne in streams.

Even today, spa guests make a pilgrimage several times a day to the „Halles des Sources“, a drinking hall designed in Art Nouveau style with wrought-iron columns and green-and-white striped vaults. Here they fill their drinking glasses with the thermal water that the Romans already knew how to use. The same is true of the Source Hall  „Source de Celestine“, which takes its name from the Benedictine order of the Célestins and whose atmosphere and tranquillity remind me of that of a sacred building. The coming and going of the spa guests and visitors, the wind blowing through the open building, the chirping of the birds – an interplay with a quiet rhythm all its own. And so it seems to me that not only the water, but also the architecture of Vichy contributes to the well-being and healing process of spa guests.“

The exhibition can be found in Rathausgasse in Baden. 

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