Santé! To Your Health

  • © JL Rigaux

    © JL Rigaux

  • © Alain Doire Bourgogne Tourisme

    © Alain Doire Bourgogne Tourisme

Santé! To Your Health

By Peter Wortsman  

The secret behind the healthy French lifestyle is tradition, Mediterrean diet and, of course, wine.

When the French hoist a glass and toast “Santé!” ("Your health!"), they really mean it. The heart-healthful virtues of red wine as an antioxidant and the benefits of olive oil and the light and deliciously fish-rich Mediterranean diet are a matter of record. The French healthcare system is the envy of the developed world. French women live the longest in Europe, and second longest worldwide, after the Japanese. Married for more than a quarter century to a French native, I can attest to her healthy constitution, youthful figure and lasting good looks. So what is the secret? From Roman spas to monastic medicinal herb gardens to the research engine of the Pasteur Institute, the French have been honing their health for centuries.

 Two Medical Meccas on the Mediterranean

Montpellier, the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, boasts the oldest active medical school in the occidental world. Founded in 1181, its historic digs are nestled into a medieval monastery and an Episcopal palace. Noted graduates include apothecary and soothsayer Nostradamus and doctor-writer François Rabelais. A 16th-century anatomical theater and a medicinal botanical herb garden are among its surviving treasures. Visits can be arranged through the Montpellier Tourist Office.  

Behind the baroque Hôtel de Ville in the old Panier district of Marseille, the capital of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, medically-minded visitors can admire the shell of the 18th-century Hôtel Dieu, the city’s oldest hospital, currently being converted into a luxury hotel. All the sunlight of the region also proved particularly conducive to the study of the eye. Another medical site in the vicinity, the picturesque 18th-century Pavillon Daviel, once housed the Faculty of Medicine, where in 1745 Dr. Jacques Daviel performed the first successful cataract operation. 

Of Wine and Wellness

Beaune, the wine capital of the Côte d’Or, in the heart of the Bourgogne region, is home to the Hospices de Beaune, a 16th-century almshouse and hospital for the poor, preserved as a museum with its distinctive polychrome glazed tile rooftop and period interior. The institution is best known today for its annual charity wine auction. The Hôtel-Dieu in Tournus, in Southeast Burgundy, is a perfectly intact 17th-century hospital and pharmacy, its walls lined with porcelain pharmaceutical pots and a display of instruments that include a few formidable syringes.   

Taking the WatersThe French still swear by the restorative virtues of "taking the waters" in a regimen of hot thermal baths and mineral water treatments at spas dating back to Roman times. There are more than 50 spa towns scattered throughout the country, the best known and most fashionable of which are Vichy (in the Auvergne region), Aix-les-Bains (in Rhône-Alpes), Dax (in Aquitaine) and Enghien-les-Bains (in Île-de-France). 

Prescription Paris

As jazz great Billy Strayhorn prescribed in his famous song “Lush Life,” “A week in Paris will ease the bite of it.” The display of vintage surgical instruments at the Musée d’Histoire de la Médicine and the quirky curio cabinet of medical anomalies at the Musée Dupuytren (both on the Rue de l’École de Médicine, in the Latin Quarter) is good shock treatment. But a glass of wine on the terrace of any Paris café is still the best remedy for whatever ails you. 


Montpellier Tourist Office:

Marseille Tourist Office:

Hospices de Beaune:

Hôtel Dieu, Tournus:

Vichy Office of Tourism and Thermalism:


Dax Office of Tourism and Thermalism:


Musée de l'Histoire de la Médicine:

Musée Dupuytren: 15, rue de l'Ecole de médicine 75006, Paris +33 1 42 34 68 60