Thalassotherapy – Relaxing in the Mud

The rail weekender feature has been resolutely urban so far, but everyone needs to rusticate now and then, and where better than by the sea? The French, firm believers in the restorative powers of a seaside stay, have elevated the principle to a quasi-science called thalassotherapy, from the Greek for “sea treatment.”

I grew up in the Great Plains, about as far inland as you can get in the States; perhaps as a consequence the ocean has always drawn me like a magnet. Recently I was able to fulfill a long-held dream and go be pampered at a thalassotherapy center. Though it didn’t always live up to my expectations, on the whole I would recommend the experience, and it’s tailor-made for a weekend break.

At least two well-known “thalasso” centers are within rail weekender distance of Paris: Riva Bella in Ouistreham, on the Channel, reachable by cab from Caen; and the Alliance/Phytomer center at Pornic, in southern Brittany, with private shuttle service from Nantes. I’d like to try a Riva Bella weekend someday, but for a week’s stay I chose Pornic, partly because it is “conventionné” so a bit of the treatment was reimbursable – and partly because the Atlantic coast reputedly has the best seaweed.

The world of thalasso is full of such lore. As a skeptic about “médecine douce,” I found thalassotherapy to be a largely enjoyable but pretty folkloric experience.

Many of the treatments involve being soaked in or doused with seawater. The theory on which thalasso is founded relies heavily on the chemical similarities between the sea and the human bloodstream (see box), as well as the purported benefits of trace elements such as magnesium and potassium. Every day for six days, I spent half an hour or so in a whirlpool bath of seawater mixed with ground seaweed or, on alternate days, several drops of some carefully selected essential oil. Other seawater treatments featured either a long hot shower or a stinging, high-pressure hosing down.

A prominent feature of the Pornic center, as at most thalassotherapy establishments, is a huge indoor seawater pool, heated to body temperature and filled with spigots and jets and pulsing fountains, each with its special purpose. For swimming laps it’s not exactly ideal, but various aquagym exercises are particularly efficacious in seawater, which offers more resistance and buoyancy than fresh water.

My excuses for indulging in thalassotherapy were arthritis, chronic back pain and a few superfluous kilos. One of my favorite treatments was targeted at the first two: my hands and lower back were slathered with “self-heating mud,” a mixture of clay-rich seabed mud, pulverized seaweed and some ingredient that made it effervesce as it heated (it never actually got much above body temperature). Soon it would start fizzing away, the bubbles popping against my hands and back with a clay-ey, fishy flatulence. For reasons mysterious to me and probably best left unexamined, I took a purely infantile pleasure in this and would spend most of the 15 minutes or so of treatment giggling helplessly.

Part of the weight-loss program was a body wrap every other day. This also featured gunk made with powdered seaweed, supposedly a great source of trace elements. The whole body is painted with goo, then wrapped in plastic and an electric blanket. I’m unsure how this was supposed to affect the weight but it was not unpleasant to lie in the dark, baking away and listening on earphones to new-age music. Ordinarily these sessions alternate with something called sophrology, which appears to be a sort of self-hypnosis method for relaxation and positive thinking; owing to a scheduling snafu, however, I had sophrology on only one day.

A treatment I loved was called pressotherapy: the legs and feet are encased to the hip in inflatable boots, which, when filled with air, exert a firm, evenly distributed pressure. An alternating inflation and deflation, controlled by a machine, works its way gradually up until the whole leg is being squeezed, then works its way back down. It is supposed to improve the circulation. It feels great.

I objected only to what was called the cavitosonic treatment. One sits for a deadly boring 20 minutes in a room filled with blacklight and a very fine seawater mist; these allegedly combine to produce negative ions, which are supposed to alleviate stress or fatigue. They say 20 minutes of “cavito” is equivalent to several hours in the mountains or at the seashore. In vain did I argue that I was neither stressed nor fatigued; in vain did I point out that we were, after all, AT the seashore. I managed to get only one of my scheduled three cavito sessions replaced by other treatments.

My no-nonsense GP had somewhat grudgingly given me a prescription for “massage en milieu marin,” so I had a daily session with a physical therapist/osteopath. These were the only treatments I was sure were providing any actual physical benefit.

My “cure” featured a special low-calorie, low-fat diet. After I checked in, lunch was the first order of business, and I soon found that life in thalasso revolved not so much around the treatments as around the meals. A “table d’hôte” was reserved for unaccompanied women, and I came to think of my mealmates as the Euroladies, an ever-changing group from Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Germany, France – basically a reflection of the clientele at large.

That clientele was predominantly female; it made for a distinctly refreshing change when the entire Nantes soccer team arrived in the middle of the week for a couple of days of R&R. My fellow “curistes” tended also to be well-heeled (thalasso does not come cheap) and on the far side of 40. It was not unusual to see women wading into salt-water pools in full makeup and gold jewelry. Mealtime conversations often featured discussions of the latest, priciest anti-wrinkle cream. During one of these, a younger German woman asked the table, “But why not just age naturally?” A scandalized silence descended, very briefly, and then the discussion continued as if no interruption had taken place.

Aside from the somewhat monotonous table talk, however, meals were a pleasure. My stay would have been worth the expense, if only for the sea view from my room and the luxury of having three delicious low-cal meals prepared for me every day. In one week I lost two kilos, and thanks to the Paris transport strike I actually managed to keep them off for two whole months until I fell victim to an onslaught of Epiphany galettes.

The hotel attached to the thalassotherapy center was rated three stars but was easily as good as many four-star places. The staff of the center itself includes two sports physicians (consultations obligatory), physical therapists and a squadron of manicurists, beauticians, etc., in addition to the physiotherapists, sophrologists and treatment assistants.

Practical info

Many thalassotherapy centers offer special rates in the low season (usually through June). Below are two well-known centers within reasonable distance from Paris for weekend stays:

Pornic Thalassothérapie, Plage de la Source, 44210 Pornic, tel: (toll-free). Low-season weekend package, in double room with sea view and full board: 2,300F per person (includes two nights’ stay and eight treatments: four each on Saturday and Sunday morning). Transport: TGV to Nantes starts at 320F return (Joker 30 fare); hotel shuttle to Pornic is 190F round trip.

Thalassothérapie Therms Marins, Plage Riva Bella, 14150 Ouistreham, tel: (16) Low-season weekend package, double room with sea view, full board: 2,118F per person (two nights and six treatments: three per day, Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon). Transport: SNCF to Caen from 200F return (Joker 30); cab to Riva Bella around 300F round trip.


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