Taking the Waters in Armagnac Country
The Gascons believe thermal waters and Armagnac to be essential to good health. After a few days in Michel Guérard’s refined La Bastide, you will be hard pressed to disagree
Article by Rupert Watkins
The benefits of thermal waters have been known about for millennia and south east France has long been known as a rich source of many beneficial thermal springs. Tucked away in the spa village of Barbotan-les-Thermes lies La Bastide, an inviting and elegant base for “taking the cure.”
The village itself owes its very existence to the beneficial waters. Next to a beautiful 11th Century church, La Bastide is an 18th century former charterhouse sitting in its own tranquil gardens. With its open terrace, there is a rather Italian air to the establishment. Walking in the front door, you are greeted by cool marble, high ceilings, original fireplaces and antique furnishings. The reception rooms are chic, restrained and offer a comfortable place to enjoy a pre or post prandial drink. The rooms and suites are large; with wooden floors, white décor and slated shutters there is a strong colonial feel to many of them. Black and white photographs and the neutral tones of the furnishings further imply a slightly minimalist but classical air. The bathrooms are large and equipped with excellent, huge walk-in showers. Many of the suites have deep and decedent baths.
Given La Bastide is part of the Michelin starred chef Michel Guérard’s group of hotels, it comes as no surprise that food is a central pillar of the establishment. On the first evening, after delicious and fresh house cocktails in the garden – a take on the mojito using local white Armagnac and lime – we moved into the cool and elegantly rustic restaurant, where we were confronted with delicious food.
There are two menus available at La Bastide – a lighter, sparser one for those taking the waters and a more indulgent option for those slightly less worried about the state of their innards. A prominent feature in all the meals is the use of fresh herbs. At Michel’s other starred establishments, the use of edible flowers is a speciality so this sure handed use of flavour sits well within his culinary oeuvre.
Throughout the stay, whether it was Gascony Black Pig chop with roasted garlic cloves, lamb shank with grapefruit, strawberry and vervain shortbread tart or home-made Foie Gras, the food was all delightfully fresh, piquant and supremely well balanced in flavour. Picking a stand out dish or course is really quite difficult – rest assured you will need both the waters and the medicinal post meal Armagnac should you put in a few days at La Bastide. The meals are accompanied by a refined and extensive selection of wines. Many are from Michel’s own vineyards; I sampled both the 2013 and 2014 vintages of his Baron de Bachen, Tursan Blanc. Both fresh with a minerally edge, they made for fine drinking and sat alongside starter courses each evening very well, holding up against even the earthiness of Foie Gras.
Following sound night’s sleep in the firm beds, coming down to breakfast you are confronted with a selection of continental fare – from hams through to patisseries. However, at 24 Euros per person extra (30 should you wish for room service), be aware that it is a cost that will substantially alter your final room bill over a few days, especially given continental breakfasts are light affairs by nature.
Though less prominent than brandy, Armagnac is one of the oldest spirits distilled in France, although unfortunately less well known than many of the international Cognac makers. Michel bought the vineyard of Chateau de Sandemagnan in the late 1950s and the estate has been producing Armagnac since 1966. As one of the larger Armagnac vineyards with 52 hectares – 32 completely dedicated to the spirit – de Sandemagnan has its own alembic still, unlike some of the smallest and most rustic producers. All maturation and bottling is also done on site.
The estate falls within the Bas Armagnac appellation which makes just over 50 per cent of all the spirit produced, the other appellations being Haut Armagnac and Armagnac-Ténarèze. Made through a 15 day single continuous distillation process, it is actually white when distilled. Armagnac gains colour from the tannins in the wood barrels it is matured in. All maturation takes place in oak barrels; two thirds of the barrels used at any one time have been used before, with the remainder being fresh barrels, being used for the first time. The estate produces between 60 to 70 barrels a year with around 1,000 barrels kept in the storage cellars. Much like whisky, the older Armagnacs barrels lose a certain amount to evaporation, “les part des anges”.
De Sandemagnan has vintages covering every year since 1966, the 1970s being a particularly vintage era. Chatting with the chief distiller, Max Dumollie, this is down to the higher acidity in the rain over that decade. Certainly, on tasting both single year examples and blends from the period, the powerfully rich, nutty taste with strong smooth hints of brown molasses is simply divine.
After such indulgence, the waters are clearly needed. Across the region, various thermal springs are seen as specifically beneficial for different ailments, be it skin conditions or circulation. In Barbotan’s case, the waters are seen to benefit circulation and help with arthritis and associated concerns. The hotel has a small spa on the side of the larger village thermal baths with its own entrance and staff. The massage rooms are small and peaceful and my writer’s stress began to melt away with a relaxing and firm back massage. Moving through to the treatment rooms, there remains a strong medicinal and utilitarian feel to the spa; you are here to get better as much as to be indulged.
The treatments are brisk – the body is certainly pummelled by the waters. Both the Vicky shower and hydro-massage bath were unashamedly there to kick start the circulation. You do not realise the power of the various jets being trained upon you until the treatment stops; it’s only as you step out that you feel your body tingling. The spa staff are extremely well trained and courteous, and the herbal tea was good enough to trick this writer into thinking he was being virtuous.
Those seeking the “indulgence” end of the spa spectrum may find some of the treatments not quite to their taste. By coming to La Bastide, you are perhaps buying into the French medicinal mindset that thermal waters are an adjunct to normal medical treatment. In France, thermal treatments can be prescribed and the cost offset by the state health service. The spa offers an excellent way to tone up and flush out the system. You will leave La Bastide re-invigorated. The only thing that is noticeable with this emphasis in Barbotan is the age of the visitors – this is perhaps not a town for the young – a feeling re-enforced by the long drive from Bordeaux.
On the day of departure, the village market was taking place. The high street exploded into colourful life as its small number of inhabitants and those taking the waters perused locally produced Foie Gras, cheeses and rillettes. Tucked away in a picturesque part of Gascony – and on the fictional route of d’Artagnan as he headed to Paris to join the Musketeers – La Bastide offers immaculate and elegant surroundings, service and dining.
Nearest airport is Bordeaux. Easyjet flies from London Gatwick. La Bastide is an 80 minute drive.
Off peak rooms start at £171, high season £202.
A member of the Relais & Chateaux group.
Enquiries: La Bastide, Avenue des Thermes, 32150 Barbaton-Les-Thermes, France / +33 (0)5 62 08 21 00 / www.bastide-gasconne.com/en/