France - Bordeaux. Les Sources de Caudalie - originally written for SPA magazine


The city of Bordeaux is built around wine and water. The wine, of course, is easy to find.  Pyramids of bottles glitter in shops that line medieval streets, enormous barrels fill the vaults of eighteenth century wine-merchants' houses, carved bunches of grapes adorn old store-fronts, and galleries, museums and antique shops display art inspired by the vine. Even the street kiosks sell wine-bottle fridge magnets  (I choose Chateau Laroze Grand Cru Classe Saint-Emilion for my fridge shopping list).

But there's even more water than wine in Bordeaux. The wide, green-brown river Garonne defines the town's edge -  indeed, the name "Bordeaux" means "Water's Edge". The weekly waterside markets on the crescent-curved quay of the Port du Lune (Moon Port) are a gastronome’s dream. Vats of bouillabaisse, or filet de morue provencale, and queues de lotte langoustine mingle scents. Tumbled heaps of oysters create a miniature lunar landscape, creamy calimari contrast with with spark-fresh mullet and pink trout and salmon terrines.

Wine stalls will sell you a glass of the vintage of your choice, then you sit at plastic tables by the water to try your purchases; maybe lemon bread and pressed roast duckling to start, or walnut bread with soft caillebotes cheese. Or foie gras, bayonne ham, baguette with armagnac jelly, followed by a canele, (Bordeaux' own vanilla-flavored batter-cake) coated with caramelized sugar, and strawberries to finish...   

Just as well that this spa I'm going to be visiting isn't famous for its diet regime, though apparently you can order 500-calorie menus if you book 24 hours in advance.  Rest, rejuvenation and plenty of wine seems to be the recipe for health at Les Sources de Caudalie. Situated in a vineyard, its treatments are based on wine and wine products, a treatment known as “vinotherapy."  To be honest, it sounds unlikely to me, but I'm willing to try anything.  

But before checking in, I want to see more of the town.  Bordeaux's February weather has been unsettled this year, alternating between bright sunshine and heavy rain, so I continue the water and wine theme - though not on purpose, since the "water" part consists of dodging numerous heavy downpours and splashing up streaming sidewalks like Christopher Robin in his wellingtons. 

The town's main wine museum, Musee des Chartrons, is independent of the numerous wine chateau tours, and right in the town center. It was once a wine-merchants mansion - still is, really, since I happen to bump into its now-retired wine-merchant owner on the doorstep and he tells me that he still keeps an apartment there.

Its elegant shadowed rooms are devoted to the history of Bordeaux's wine trade, and the place is full of curiosities, like the 19th century "Retour des Indes" labels for wine sent to the Indies and back (the rocking motion and even temperature improved the aging process). And I wince to see a bottle of immensely rare Latour 1895 tragically discovered with the cork inside the bottle!  The collections of wine memorabilia complement the museum's step-by-step demonstrations of how the very best Bordeaux wine was originally created. I learn that those huge wine barrels I've admired are made of French (not foreign) oak, bound with chestnut and willow,  and they are carefully burned inside to give a subtle yet detectable aroma to the wine maturing within.    Perfectionism indeed.

When the downpours temporarily cease, I hail a taxi to Martillac village, home of Chateau Smith-Lafitte and Les Sources de Caudalie spa.  We drive about 15 minutes from Bordeaux, first down a highway, then along ever-smaller roads, till finally I spot the 16th century vineyard tower, and, just a few hundred feet away amidst the vines, the main hotel building and spa. 

It is only small, but seems very luxurious.  The hotel building, approached by a straight, neatly hedged French gravel paths is cream coloured nad low rise, with a pillared gallery and arched front door.  At the back, there's a bijou lake with tall overhanging trees and a couple of swans, with a view of vineyards stretching out to a wooded horizon. 

The decor is a blend of eighteenth century and hand-made modern, and my welcome is friendly and English-speaking   I like my room.  It is spacious, with a small balcony and a lake view. The walls are a highly saturated yellow-green, cushions and fabrics are accented with red and a dim-glassed antique mirror says "country house" rather than "hotel."  Each individually designed room is decorated with discreet grape motifs either on curtains, carpets or wallpapers.  

After a quick shower, I dress up a little and head for the cigar bar, high in the tower, with leather sofas, rough hewn ceiling, a closet full of fine cigars (and lingering scent of the same) with windows all around. It seems to be owned by a large tabby cat which casually sharpens its claws on the floor, then strolls around and chooses a guest who will be allowed to tickle its tummy.  Today's chosen guest, a black-clad Frenchman, happily obliges, and when his wife hurries in  a few moments later, I hide a smile - for round her neck is draped an expensive  tabby scarf exactly the same color as the cat.  

The guests are mainly French, but there's an American couple too, finely dressed in silk and cashmere, plus four Korean men in business suits who constantly make notes. They can't be a conference group, because there are only four of them, I puzzle.  Is it a business trip?  What kind of businessmen stay overnight in a country spa?   I file the Koreans away under "Mystery."

It's getting dark, and outside,  the swans have slid their heads beneath their wings. But the sunset is so pretty in violet and pink, that I brave the evening chill to explore the grounds in the half-darkness. There's a little house on stilts overlooking the lake and I peep inside and like the country-cabin furniture hewn from silver-birch logs. Outside stands a gypsy caravan, which looks like a nice retreat for summer days.  There are lawns and a terrace, which will be good for sunbathing, I suppose,  when the sun finally appears - if it does.

Later that evening, I meet the Cathiard family who run the spa and vineyard.  The Cathiards - Florence and Daniel, plus their daughter and son-in-law Mathilde and Bertrand, are enthusiastic, hands-on and dedicated to their business, as they should be. Florence explains that the vineyard was here before the spa. (Long before, in fact - for wine has been made on the site since the fourteenth century)  She and husband Daniel, both competitive skiers and self-made millionaires, bought the estate in 1989. He was then owner of a chain of sportswear shops, she was vice-president of a major advertising company. They had no wine-making experience and the estate was what you'd diplomatically call  "a rough diamond." In fact, it was all but derelict.  

In the first year, bad weather lost them ninety percent of their crop, but they went ahead and invested more money and just worked harder. Now, they have restored the Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte label's good reputation,  rebuilt the entire winery, reintroduced traditional hand-harvesting, and cut down pesticide and chemical use, too.

Their daughter Mathilde is also a business whiz. In partnership with her half-American husband Bertrand, she started Caudalie brand cosmetics. The Caudalie concept, she explains, is based in part on research conducted by University of Bordeaux professor Joseph Vercauteren, which indicates that grape pips are good for health.   Pips, skins and all are used in the production of red wine, and extract of crushed grape pips contains antioxidant polyphenols, said to be up to 10,000 times more effective than vitamin E in stopping the free radicals responsible for so much skin damage.  I have to admit I glaze over when presented with such a mass of information, and I am far from convinced by it, but hey, I know a good marketing pitch when I see it.  Sufficient to say that  Mathilde instantly spotted the selling potential for the tons of white grape pips that her parents discarded every harvest-time, and Caudalie now uses 102,000 tons of grape pips annually.   

It is most gorgeously scented and elegant in the extreme, the brand quickly acquired a sparkling following - Isabelle Adjani, Princess Caroline of Morocco, Carla Bruni, Donatella Versace.  So Florence Cathiard suggested to her dynamic daughter that they consider the family vineyard as a location for a spa using the cosmetics.  An ancient mineral water source was uncovered on the estate.... and Les Sources de Caudalie was born.  More spas followed in Paris, Chamonix, Bilbao, New York and Portugal.

Although Mathilde herself exercises regularly, she believes that the French aren't too interested in spartan regimes.   "They want comfort, good living, good food" she declares. The spa's philosophy is geared towards relaxation and anti-aging. "We are not curing any disease, we want to take great care of people so they forget their problems.  I want them to be well and happy, to feel relaxed and de-stressed". 

Sounds good to me.  The following morning, I pay a dutiful pre-breakfast visit to the gym and discover it's small, almost perfunctory, and there's nobody else there. I guess I could try the fitness trail, play three holes of golf or go for a spin on the bike, but nobody else is doing it.  The breakfast room offers instead a typical French breakfast of bread, croissants, jam, yogurts, fruit and cheese, so I stroll over there. That's going to be my kind of exercise here, I think. 

The spa building adjoins the hotel, and although the two buildings harmonize, the spa has its own style.   Outside, it resembles an airy converted shed, with slatted widows, wonderfully speckled ceramic roof tiles and an rectangular thermal pool.  Indoors, the main feature's a thermal pool in the central courtyard, with water springing from 1500 feet below ground and maintaining a pleasantly warm temperature, and an ambience that's almost Japanese in style, with much natural light.   

My treatments begin with an anti-cellulite "barrel bath" with red wine. Actually, the "barrel" is a wood-cased hydro tub filled with iron and fluorine-rich spring water.  My  attendant sprinkles in wine marc laced with essential oils, which turns the water red and sends up an aroma like strongly scented violets.   I get in and laze for half an hour amidst the bubbles, and wonder if I can feel the cellulite melting away -  or whether it's just my tension that's dissolving.

I feel deeply relaxed at the end, though the small size of the towels afterwards comes as a surprise. Many French people have a casual attitude to nudity, and later that morning I am to find that that my clothes are hung outside the treatment-room door. It doesn't really bother me -  but I check that more privacy and more cover-ups would be available on request.  Soon afterwards, white-clad and plastic-slippered, I'm vegetating in the open-plan tea bar.

To a Brit like me, "tea" means a big cup of Indian blend with milk; but this tea bar (in French, a "tisanerie") is aesthetic in style, with beverages quite unlike the usual English cuppa. The herbal tea  has wine extracts, and there's a different blend on offer every day. Today's choice is "revitalising", with red wine, mint and rosemary. As I sip, I scan a photo book about showy Mauritius wildlife, but suddenly get the feeling I'm being watched. I look up and see two of the spa's pet peacocks gazing through the window, every bit as showy as anything on Mauritius

I like the way there's a touch of humor in the names of the treatments, with sauvignon massage,  Cabernet rub and "Massage pulp friction" on offer.  If I'd been here at harvest time I could have tried the "cure de raisin" a revival of a 19th century detox diet when you eat only grapes fresh from the vine.  On the whole, I am glad I am not here at harvest time, because my next treatment sounds far more fun than the cure de raisin. It's a honey and merlot wrap, in which I'll lie on a heated mattress, coated in a sticky mixture of honey and wine and wrapped up to bake. 

Wine yeast and organic essential oils give the honey a delicious scent like summer meadows, and I'm told it will improve my skin tone and circulation. The temperature is just right, so when my therapist, comes to unpeel me, my temper is as sweet as the mixture, and my skin tone feels great.   The follow-up jet spray - in most spas, my least favorite treatment of all - is actually quite pleasant and wakes me up enough to appreciate the underwater massage.

This doesn't take place literally underwater. I lie on a massage table while the attendant directs sprays of warm spa water over my body. The constant play of water jets slightly numbs the skin surface which makes me feel dreamy and unreal, an effect heightened by the oil massage. It's actually a very unusual sensation and really does feel like floating in water. At the end my therapist turns the water up so it prickles all over me like little needles, in a revitalising return to reality.

I'm starting to feel I could take these treatments all day without stopping - but it is time for lunch.  La Table du Lavoir is an auberge-style restaurant with another of those  magnificent hewn wooden ceilings, a vast open fireplace (complete with log fire) and striped tablecloths. I try Grenier Medocain - a regional sausage served with salad of red peppers, followed by simple poached salmon with rice, nuts and macedoine of vegetables, with iced orange and red berry sauce to follow. I skip the wine - which feels quite a daring thing to do in these surroundings - and drink Badoit mineral water as an accompaniment to this perfect simple meal. Small portions, so the French say, are the secret of keeping slim.

After lunch, it's time for a facial.  The  Caudalie Grand facial is good. It lasts over an hour and a half, beginning with grapeseed cleanser and buffing creams, and a well scented pepperminty facial lotion with damask rose and other plant extracts. The moisturizing face mask is followed by a head and shoulder massage. The therapist, Caroline, offers a choice of three face oils: for dry, combination or tired skin.  After a stressful London winter, I know my skin is tired – heck, the whole of me has been tired for weeks.   The oil is a a blend of musk rose, sweet almond and grape seed oils, neroli, lavender, sandalwood and carrot. I'd never thought of carrot as a beauty treatment, but Caroline assures me that it purifies the skin and tends to diminish wrinkles. So far I have managed to avoid falling asleep, but this facial defeats my resolve.   

A stroll around the garden and a tour of the immaculately renovated Smith-Lafitte winery fill the rest of the time till supper, when I sample the spa's formal restaurant, La Grande Vigne.  It's a beautiful restaurant in dazzling shades of white and cream, with cute bonsai grapevines on each starched-linen table. The service is perfect, yet it's not an intimidating place, because a large French family reunion fills most of the room and the children are running around and playing between courses. When they do eat, they’re not demanding burgers, fries or other kid-friendly food. These parents are obviously raising a new generation of food perfectionists.

The famous pate de foie gras and other goose products of this region are too rich for me, so I stick to fish.  I start with a good Salade St Jacques with truffles and caviar, followed by roasted pigeon with artichokes, and conclude with a grape creme brulee garnished with a pot of perfect red grape sorbet - and a bottle of crisp and herby Chateau-Lafitte white as accompaniment.

The other diners include a pair of well-dressed Germans, and the Americans I saw earlier in the bar. They sit at at the next table and they talk so loudly that I can't help but overhear that they're discussing their relationships - relationships with other people!  I'm the only solo diner in the room,  but the constant bustle - not to mention the revelations from the next table - mean that I don't feel bored, and the staff, despite their formal attire, are friendly too. 

When I return to London,  I'm complimented on my improved skin tone, and I feel as bubbly as a glass of champagne. So, what's the verdict on vinotherapy?  Well, even though I don't usually laze around and eat all day, I have enjoyed my time here. And as for the beauty treatments, of course it's worth taking the plunge into the wine - or, rather, why not?    


Street Address
Chemin de Smith Haut Lafitte
33650 Bordeaux-Martillac
GPS: 44.733504, -0.558721

Tel: + 33 5 57 83 82 82
Fax: + 33 5 57 83 82 81

© Jenny Woolf 
Originally published in SPA Magazine, this version updated 2016. 

 Jenny Woolf Travel Articles Collection

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive