Digne-les-Bains, “Zen City”
Set in the hollow of an inspiring landscape, Digne-les-Bains houses many curiosities. Prefecture of the department of the Alpes de Haute-Provence, it is also known as the Historic Capital of Lavender. On the threshold of both the plains of Provence and the Alps, the city spreads out along valleys amid a series of mid-range mountains. It is gifted with an exceptional air quality with low humidity. Tucked away from large urban centres, Digne-les-Bains is a mid-sized city that possesses both charm and tranquillity.
At the confluence of the Bléone, Mardaric and Eaux Chaudes rivers, the city distinguishes itself by the ubiquitous presence of mountain water. In Digne-les-Bains, you will find waters for multiple uses and benefits – healing, wellness and leisure. It is a spa town that enjoys an excellent reputation throughout France.
Since antiquity, the presence of thermal water has been a natural resource that Digne-les-Bains has been able to tap on. Gushing at 50°C at the exit of a borehole, the water is rich in chlorides, sulphates and calcium. The constant and significant mineralisation of the water is ensured by its deep underground origin (870 metres). The thermal water in Digne is recommended especially for those who suffer from respiratory ailments and rheumatology. Thanks to the quality of the air, the spa town is also well suited to those with asthma.
Apart from receiving those on a ‘cure thermale’ (in France, medical treatment prescribed by a doctor which takes place in a spa over three weeks), the spa’s wellness area in Digne offers beauty treatments and fitness activities in its Espace Zen or Zen Space in English. The ‘rituals’ range from aromatherapy, Tibetan massages with a Kansu bowl, light therapy baths to aquagym classes in the thermal pool. From summer 2021, the spa will house a wellness centre dedicated to the general public who have not been prescribed thermal ‘cures’.
Spots to cool off in
While Digne-les-Bains is known for its thermal baths, it also possesses other water facilities for relaxation and fitness. In the centre of town, the Eaux Chaudes Aquatic Centre is open all year round. This indoor pool complex is the only one of its kind in the department; it houses both a competition pool and a family fun pool that comes with a long spiral slide perfect for children. When the weather gets warm and sunny, they open their terraces which provide an original and relaxing area for sunbathing in the city centre.
On the road to Nice a little way off, there is also the Ferréols Lake for water lovers. From the centre of town, it can be reached by bus, car and bike or even on foot (a pleasant 25-minute walk along the Bléone). A bar-café sits right by the lake for those who want a spot of food or drink, or for those who prefer, the grassy banks shaded by trees make for a lovely picnic area. Swimming in the lake is supervised by lifeguards in the summer.
After the Ferréols Lake, the river continues its course and takes us to the Gaubert Lake. The calm atmosphere there is suitable for both fishing and wildlife observation. Depending on the season, you might spot beavers, moorhens and grey herons. Follow the course of the river from the city centre by bike to Lake Gaubert and soak up nature’s gentle restorative energies as you go along at your own pace.
The surrounding nature in Digne-les-Bains provides not only a peaceful setting for relaxation, but also an excellent playground for outdoor sports. A variety of options exist to make the best of nature through sport be it on foot, by bike, hanging from paragliders or clinging on to cliffs. Alone, with friends or accompanied by professional guides, Digne-les-Bains offers a wide range of outdoor activities to recharge your batteries.
Beginning with walking or running, hiking trails crisscross the surrounding mountains and provide a great way to get to know the city from above. The pine and oak woods on the mountain slopes offering beautiful views of Digne are easily accessible from the city centre. Some of these trails include the Trois Chapelles, Caguerenard and Oreilles d’âne.
Another lovely walk, if not a little vertiginous, is the Rocher de Neuf Heures that leads to the foot of the via ferrata with its rock face of more than 100 metres in height. Climbing enthusiasts will no doubt quickly sniff out the trail that leads to the climb site at the Rocher de Courbons with 80 available routes of all levels. Finally, for those who want to get a lift off the ground, getting under the arched canopy of a paraglider is an original and delightful way to get to know Digne from above.
A multi-layered history
It is not difficult to imagine that the old town located in the neighbourhood of the Rochas is the historic seat of the city. Indeed, it is here that the majestic Saint-Jérôme Cathedral towers over Digne. Its Gothic architecture is accompanied by a clock tower, topped by one of the most beautiful bell towers in the region. In reality, however, the city has its roots a little further north, in the Bourg neighbourhood. It was here that the Notre Dame du Bourg Cathedral was built in the 9th century, on the remains of Roman villas. A remarkable Romanesque edifice, the cathedral houses a crypt which contains a unique trove of archaeological, Gallo-Roman and medieval vestiges.
It was only later that the city moved to the Rochas – a hill overlooking the old town. In the 11th century, the bishop had his castle built on the current site of the prison. Little by little, the population sought refuge there and in the 13th century, ramparts were built at the foot of the hill. After the Great Plague in the 17th century, the city expanded beyond its fortified walls to take on its current form. The fortifications were eventually destroyed and few traces of medieval times survived the changes the city underwent. Several of these elements, however, have been restored and preserved. The Tourist Office offers guided tours of the old town to share the history of the city with you.
During the tour, the climb from rue Saint Charles to the Saint-Jérôme Cathedral is rewarded with an unparalleled view of the city’s rooftops and façades, warmed by the orange and golden glow of the late afternoon sun in Provence.
Digne-les-Bains contains many other treasures that can be found in the Gassendi Museum, a historical museum founded in 1885. Pierre Gassendi, after whom the museum is named, was a humanist and astronomer from Digne. He was a contemporary of the learned elite of the Age of Enlightenment, including Descartes and Galileo. The museum boasts an original museography that encourages the public to wander along the porous border between art and science. The exhibition room dedicated to the Hydropithèques is one example of a work of art that bridges the divide between the two disciplines.
Contemporary art goes far beyond the walls of the Gassendi Museum. It is also found rooted in the surrounding nature – the origin and source of all inspiration. Renowned land artist Andy Goldsworthy’s flagship work “Refuges d’Art” is dispersed around the region and recalls mountain life that has now disappeared. Other artists, such as herman de vries, Richard Nonas, Joan Fontcuberta, Paul-Armand Gette, Jean-Luc Vilmouth, Trevor Gould and Stéphane Bérard, each, in their own way reveal the relationship between Man and the natural environment.
On the grounds of the Musée Promenade, new works are constantly being exhibited in the CAIRN (Informal Art Centre for Research on Nature). A permanent collection of contemporary art installations is spread out around the park that joins up the CAIRN and the Promenade Museum. The mini-trails within the park grounds that take you through these works lead to the headquarters of the Haute-Provence UNESCO Global Geopark. The exhibition rooms there are dedicated to the geological history of the region. This geological museum possesses an impressive collection of fossils.
Digne-les-Bains is a forerunner in the preservation and valorisation of geological heritage. In the 1980s, it saw the birth of the first Natural Geological Reserve in France. In 1991, under the aegis of UNESCO, it became the seat of the International Declaration of the Rights of the Memory of the Earth. In 2004, it was, once again, the birthplace of the world’s very first UNESCO Global Geopark!
If Digne-les-Bains is a starting point for many explorations, it is undoubtedly because it is also a city of explorers. The most well-known of them all is Alexandra David-Neel. A figurehead of Orientalism in the 20th century and a committed intellectual, she was notably the first and only European woman to enter the Forbidden City of Lhasa. At the end of the 1920s, in her fifties, she moved to Digne-les-Bains, her “Himalayas for Lilliputians”. It is here where she would continue her work through writing. Alexandra David-Neel kept in her villa in Digne-les-Bains, all the objects, notes, photos and other ethnographic documents from her travels. She christened her villa Samten Dzong, meaning “Fortress of Meditation” or “Residence of Reflection” in Tibetan.
The explorer designated the city as the sole beneficiary of her house, copyrights and archives upon her passing. A priceless legacy! Thus, the Maison Alexandra David-Neel continues to serve as a museum and interpretation centre dedicated to the author, as well as Himalayan and Buddhist culture. The house was listed under the national Inventory of Historical Monuments in 1996, and in 2006, it was bestowed the “20th Century Heritage” label by the Ministry of Culture and Communication – a label created to recognise significant and exceptional architectural works belonging to the cultural heritage of the 20th century.
Where lavender reigns supreme
Many traditional festivals take place in Digne-les-Bains. The summer months are the focal point of all festivities, many of which involve honouring the place of lavender in this town. Indeed, lavender is omnipresent in Provençal culture. Visit the Lavender Museum to learn about the historical significance of this aromatic plant in Haute Provence. The highlight of the summer festivities is, without a doubt, the Corso de la Lavande. This festival has been held during the first weekend of August every year since 1939. The city lights up and draws visitors and Dignois alike to the main street where the music of brass bands and other marching bands accompany a colourful parade of flowered floats. The big fun fair is also in full swing during this festival.
The Lavender Fair occupies the main square of Digne-les-Bains at the end of August. At this fair, you will find all products stemming from the cultivation of lavender such as essences, essential oils, soaps, honey and so on. Like the Corso, the fair is also a long-standing tradition, organised since the 1920s. In the past, it took place to mark the end of the lavender harvest. The challenge, then, for lavender farmers was to promote its essence in order to make its different properties known to the greatest perfumers in the country. Over the years, the Lavender Fair has garnered a certain amount of fame, attracting a large number of merchants and visitors alike.
During the Corso or the fair, many producers come to demonstrate the distillation of lavender oil. It is a great opportunity to meet and chat with these producers first hand and share in the Haute Provence way of life!
In the mood for music
September is the month of Digne’s most highly anticipated musicl festival of the year – the Festival au Top. Steadily gaining in popularity since its first edition in 2015, it is a festival that marks the turning point of the end of summer and the start of the new school year. The genre of music centres around contemporary Francophone pop. The organisers of this festival are a group of friends who have embarked on a project to rehabilitate the “Top”, Digne’s old cinema into a space for arts and culture. The building will then have a new lease of life.