Our guest blogger has travelled across time from 1909 to be with us today. Here she writes about her visit to the glamorous spa town of Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, but first a quick introduction:
Introducing Mary Alsop King Waddington
Mary Alsop King was born on 29 April 1833 into a well-connected New York family; her grandfather was a signatory on the American constitution. Mary married William Henry Waddington, a wealthy Frenchman who was for a while France’s Prime Minister then for rather a longer a Diplomat. During her time as Diplomat’s wife Mary wrote a number of warm and honest books about her life.
This post was first published in the delightful book ‘Château and Country Life in France’ in 1909.
It is lovely looking out of my window this morning, so green and cool and quiet. I had my petit déjeuner on my balcony, a big tree in the garden making perfect shade and a wealth of green wood and meadow in every direction, so resting to the eyes after the Paris asphalt.
It seems a very quiet little place. Scarcely anything passing – a big omnibus going, I suppose, to the baths, and a butcher’s cart.
Stubborn as a donkey
For the last ten minutes I have been watching a nice-looking sunburned girl with a big straw hat tied down over her ears, who is vainly endeavouring to get her small donkey-cart, piled high with fruit and vegetables, up a slight incline to the gate of a villa just opposite. She has been struggling for some time, pulling, talking, and red with the exertion.
One or two workmen have come to her assistance, but they can’t do anything either. The donkey’s mind is made up. There is an animated conversation – I am too high up to hear what they say. Finally she leaves her cart, ties up her fruit in her apron, balances a basket of eggs with one hand on her head, and disappears into the garden behind the gate.
No one comes along and the cart is quite unmolested. I think I should have gone down myself if I had seen anyone making off with any of the fruit. It is a delightful change from the hot stuffy August Paris I left yesterday.
The horror of accordions
My street is absolutely deserted, every house closed except mine, the sun shining down hard on the white pavement, and perfect stillness all day. The evenings from seven till ten are indescribable—a horror of musical concierges with accordions, a favourite French instrument.
They all sit outside their doors with their families and friends, playing and singing all the popular songs, and at intervals all joining in a loud chorus of “Viens Poupoule.”
Grooms are teaching lady friends to ride bicycles, a lot of barking, yapping fox-terriers running alongside. There is a lively cross-conversation going on from one side of the street to the other, my own concierge and chauffeur contributing largely.
Of course my balcony is untenable, and I am obliged to sit inside, until happily sleep descends upon them. They all vanish, and the street relapses into perfect silence.
Villas amid green fields and woodland
I am delighted to find myself in this quiet little Norman bathing-place, just getting known to the French and foreign public. It is hardly a village; the collection of villas, small houses, shops, and two enormous hotels surrounding the establishment seems to have sprung up quite suddenly and casually in the midst of the green fields and woods, shut in on all sides almost by the Forest of Ardennes, which makes a beautiful curtain of verdure.
There are villas dotted about everywhere, of every possible style; Norman chalets, white and grey, with the black crossbeams that one is so familiar with all over this part of the country; English cottages with verandas and bow-windows; three or four rather pretentious looking buildings with high perrons and one or two terraces; gardens with no very pretty flowers, principally red geraniums, some standing back in a nice little green wood, some directly on the road with benches along the fence so that the inhabitants can see the passers-by (and get all the dust of the roads).
A little England
But there isn’t much passing even in these days of automobiles. There are two trains from Paris, arriving at two in the afternoon and at eleven at night. The run down from Paris, especially after Dreux, is charming, almost like driving through a park. The meadows are beautifully green and the trees very fine – the whole country very like England in appearance, recalling it all the time, particularly when we saw pretty grey old farmhouses in the distance – and every now and then a fine Norman steeple.
Call that a lake?
There are two rival hotels and various small pensions and family houses. We are staying at The Grand, which is very comfortable. There is a splendid terrace overlooking the lake; rather an ambitious name for the big pond, which does, however, add to the picturesqueness of the place, particularly at night, when all the lights are reflected in the water.
The whole hotel adjourns there after dinner, and people walk up and down and listen to the music until ten o’clock. After that there is a decided falling off of the beau monde. Many people take their bath at half past five in the morning and are quite ready to go to bed early.
Washing in a glass of water
The walk down in the early morning is charming, through a broad, shaded alley – Allee de Dante. I wonder why it is called that. I don’t suppose the poet ever took warm baths or douches in any description of establishment. I remember the tale we were always told when we were children, and rebelled against the perpetual cleansing and washing that went on in the nursery, of the Italian countess who said she would be ashamed, if she couldn’t do all her washing in a glass of water.
It is rather amusing to see all the types. I don’t think there are many foreigners. I hear very little English spoken, though they tell me there are some English here.
We certainly don’t look our best in the early morning, but the women stand the test better than the men. With big hats, veils, and the long cloaks they wear now, they pass muster very well and don’t really look any worse than when they are attired for a spin in an open auto; but the men, with no waistcoats, a foulard around their throats, and a very dejected air, don’t have at all the conquering-hero appearance that one likes to see in the stronger sex.
Taking the ‘cures’
The establishment is large and fairly good, but nothing like what one finds in all the Austrian and German baths. When I first go in, coming out of the fresh morning air, I am rather oppressed with the smell of hot air, damp clothing, and many people crowded into little hot bath-rooms. There are terrible little dark closets called cabinets de repos.
Many doctors in white waistcoats and red ribbons are walking about; plenty of baigneuses, with their sleeves rolled up, showing a red arm that evidently has been constantly in the water; people who have had their baths and are resting, wrapped up in blankets, stretched out on long chairs near the windows; bells going all the time, cries of “Marie-Louise,” “Jeanne,” “Anne-Marie.” It is rather a pandemonium.
The legend of the Bagnoles waters
Our baigneuse, who is called Marie-Louise, is upstairs. At the top of the stairs there is a grand picture of the horse who discovered the Bagnoles waters, a beautiful white beast standing in a spring, all water lilies and sparkling water. A lovely young lady in a transparent green garment with roses over each ear, like the head-dress one sees on Japanese women, is holding his bridle.
The legend says that a certain gallant and amorous knight of yore, having become old and crippled with rheumatism, and unable any longer to make a brave show in tournaments under fair ladies’ eyes, determined to retire from the world, and to leave his horse–faithful companion of many jousts–in a certain green meadow traversed by a babbling brook, where he could end his days in peace.
What was his surprise, some months later, to find his horse quietly standing again in his old stable, his legs firm and straight, his skin glossy, quite renovated. The master took himself off to the meadow, investigated the quality of the
water, bathed himself, and began life anew with straightened limbs and quickened pulses. The waters certainly do wonders. We see every day people who had arrived on crutches or walking with canes quite discarding them after a course of baths.
The hotel is full, mostly French, but there are of course some exceptions. We have a tall and stately royal princess with two daughters and a niece. The girls are charming – simple, pretty, and evidently much pleased to be away for a little while from court life and etiquette. They make their cure quite regularly, like anyone else, walking and sitting in the Allee Dante. The people don’t stare at them too much.
There are one or two well-known men – deputies, membres de l’Institut – but, of course, women are in the majority. There is a band – not very good, as the performers, some of them good enough alone, had never played together until they came here. However, it isn’t of much consequence, as no one listens. I make friends with them, as usual; something always draws me to artists.
Dance the night away
The boy at the piano looks so thin–really as if he did not get enough to eat. He plays very well, told me he was a premier prix of the Conservatoire de Madrid. When one thinks of the hours of work and fatigue that means, it is rather pathetic to see him, contented to earn a few francs a night, pounding away at a piano and generally ending with a “cake walk,” danced by some enterprising young people with all sorts of remarkable steps and gestures, which would certainly astonish the original performers on a plantation.
Lights amongst the trees
The view from the terrace at night is pretty–quantities of lights twinkling about among the trees, and beyond, always on each side and in front, the thick green walls of the forest quite shutting in the quiet little place.
We are usually the last outside. It grows cooler as the evening gets on, and I fancy it is not wise to sit out too late after the hot bath and fatigue of the day.