The year 1789 was a revolutionary one for Evian – that is the year when its mineral water was ‘discovered’, thanks to a sickly marquis, de Lessert, who came to take the waters at nearby Amphion for his kidney stones. To little effect. At Evian, he tried St Catherine’s spring, below a certain Monsieur Cachat’s garden. That appeared to do the trick. News of the water’s miraculous power soon spread, doctors prescribing it, Cachat fencing off the spring to make his fortune. Bottling took off in earnest from 1826, while the first public baths went up in 1827. The Société des Eaux d’Evian created in 1869 drilled for and bought further springs, financed refreshment pavilions, hotels, theatre and casino, and the place grew into a highly fashionable spa resort, attracting the extremely wealthy.
Although taking the waters has become less common these days, bottled mineral water is all the rage, and Evian apparently the world’s largest producer, some 4 million bottles filled a day, at the Eaux Minérales d’Evian factory (t 04 50 26 93 23, www.evian.fr; by appointment only) located, somewhat ironically, at Amphion.
The glamorous crowd go yachting on the lake from Evian’s swanky marina opposite Swiss Lausanne. Clearly, a boat trip (t 00 41 848 811 848, www.cgn.ch) is de rigueur, but the immaculately manicured promenade offers a relaxing alternative view from dry land. The town behind proves a jumble, just the odd historic fragment jutting out, but all is undergoing major renovations. Along the front, the irreverent casino mocks the shape of a Greek-cross church, and is only separated from the real church by an elaborate mock-Renaissance villa, now the town hall, but originally built for the Lumière family of cinema fame – enter during working hours for a free peak at a Belle Epoque decorative extravaganza. The place was very slightly damaged during demonstrations at the G8 summit held in town in 2003, although a police cordon kept most of the protesters on the Swiss side of the lake, which bore the brunt of their rage. Evian, with its very grand hotels, has hosted many major international conferences as well as well-heeled honeymooners. Most seriously, the Accords d’Evian of 1962 saw the French government officially acknowledge Algeria’s independence. The luxury hotels now stand aloof high on the hillside, but remnants of palatial lake-side blocks can still be made out on the front, along with the jaded old thermal establishement – a much more contemporary glass-covered Thermes has made it redundant. Up on the main pedestrian shopping street, the Art Nouveau Evian Buvette Thermale (open to visitors at certain times) cuts a dash. Just above, top up on Evian water for free at one of the public fountains.