As I stepped off my train in Vichy’s exquisite station, I had all sorts of pre-conceptions. Yes, yes, I would find the perfect building or monument to capture the shame of Pétain’s collaborationist government with the 3rd Reich…and somehow it would also capture the long history of aristocratic pleasuring at Vichy’s thermal springs. And, oh yes, I would dine in elegance, somewhere, on native son Louis Diat’s vichyssoise and capture that on film for you too.
Please know that Vichy is an extraordinary town–a little down at the heels, maybe, despite the gilding, the eye-popping statuary, the exotic moorish architecture, the parks and river walks. But still dedicated to pleasure, as it has been since Emperor Napoleon III took its cool, metallic and also hot, stinky waters in the 1860s for his health. Horseracing, casinos, golf, casinos, theater, casinos, opera, casinos, and temples to health and beauty that clothe then divest you of impossibly thick white terry robes between your massages, baths, languid slumps in the hammam, you get the picture.
I had only two commitments: 1. Meeting foodie friend Catherine for a sensational lunch at Brasserie du Casino on Sunday. 2. Finding a local soup that would set your hair on fire, preferably a creation of chef Diat. First stop on Saturday morning, Brasserie du Casino–to establish that I would find a great soup there to order next day. Absolument non. There it was again–the only offering that same old bland gaspacho that is everywhere. From that point on, it was Experience the Town and Find a Soup, all day long.
How about in the oldest part of town, past Mme. de Sévigné’s house, where Pétain held his cabinet meetings, and twisting down from the heights on narrow streets to the river and the elegant pavilion housing the source of Celestin waters? Nope. Lots of restos, none served soup.
How about along the formal Parc des Sources, bristling with the priciest boutiques and most expensive restaurants? Um, no. No soup.
The center of town, cachinking from the casinos and oompah-pahing from the bandstand? Non.
Surely at the Grand Marché, a stadium of over a hundred food markets of every stripe? Rien.
In the end, the giant Les Quatre Chemins shopping center/casino complex to the north of town saved me: Soupe d’avocat froide au citron vert, brunoise de concombre in its cool panoramic restaurant just a winding staircase up from the heated, neonized casino. You can see how good it was. Thick and creamy; mild (of course, it’s French) with only a hint of lime and tarragon; tiny chunks of cucumber and sweet red pepper, a drizzle of fruity olive oil. And, you know, there it was: a 21st century version of Diat’s vichyssoise–his classic cold leek/potato soup whipped with avocado and sweetly garnished. Make it yourself from my recipe Colombian Avocado Vichyssoise .
So, a perfect and very full vacation in less than 2 days. And if I hadn’t been scouring the town for a good soup, I never would have stumbled into this pictured evidence of local wedding customs. Is it just me, or is this custom a little gender bending?