Follow in the wet footsteps of renaissance royalty and enjoy the thermal springs of Spa, Belgium's best kept secret. If health spas aren't your thing, try out your luck at the world's oldest casino
Yes, there's a place called Spa, and no, it's not named after the town's invigorating medicinal waters.
On the contrary, the word ´spa´ comes from the name of the town, not the other way round. All the health spas of the world, every spa in every suburban bathroom and backyard, all of it was named after this place. Yep, the water's that good. And when you're done bubbling away in a warm pool, there's plenty else to do as well, including incredible woodland hikes, the oldest casino in the world, and the annual Belgian F1 Grand Prix.
Nestled away in the rolling Belgian Ardennes, Spa is everything Brussels isn't: an easy-paced town of fading French Classicist architecture surrounded by pristine natural beauty, with not a Eurocrat in sight. Well, OK, you´ll find them here too, but the suits and red tape have been left at home, I promise. The town is a popular destination among European high flyers, who seem to have been keeping it a secret from the rest of us. As a result, the feel of the place is classy but still quite traditional, so if you enjoy having tourist paraphernalia being shoved down your throat, this is probably not the spot for you.
The actual health resort itself, the Thermes de Spa (19 euros for the day, 13 euros for three hours off-peak), is situated up on a cliff top overlooking the town and the surrounding natural reserve. It is possible to drive up, but I strongly advise taking the glass funicular (2 euros each way) from the town centre. The view is sensational and it's a nice ride to boot. If you're a little too good for a public lift, then stay at the Radisson SAS Palace Hotel Spa, which has its own private funicular. You can get a room there for 105 euros including breakfast, and they also have packages that include two full days at the spa. I didn't stay there myself, but the word amidst the bubbles indicated it was the place to be.
The lift takes you right up into the middle of the Spa facility, a swish new development with minimalist décor which gives the building a futuristic feel, despite the ancient history of the place: Spa's waters have been taken advantage of since Roman times. The springs went unused through the Dark Ages, but once the Renaissance came along it became popular oncemore, peaking in the 18th century when aristocrats from all over Europe used the pools to heal their ailments. Everybody from Henry VIII to Casanova has had a go at them.
Whether you believe in the power of mineral waters to heal or not, swimming through naturally-heated water while enjoying panoramic views for miles around is quite something. After you dry off, try out the aromatherapy rooms, aqua gym sessions, infra red and wood light therapy spaces, hammams, and saunas (which include some naturist ones, so unless you want to hang out with naked European Commissioners, check the sign before you enter). There are also massage services, but that will cost extra. Er, not the dodgy kind, to be clear.
On your way out of the building, be sure to fill up a bottle from one of the four varieties of mineral water flowing out of the reception's spring. The various flavours really do have a unique body and finish to them, but watch out for the badly misnamed Clemintine, which tastes like a kick to the mouth with a rusty boot. An acquired taste, maybe.
One of the town's main industries is bottled water, and people drink Spa brand right across Europe. The factory is available for tours (Rue Auguste Laporte 34 Tel +32 87794111). If you´ve ever wanted to learn about natural carbonation (definately one of the great mysteries of life), this is your chance.
You can actually turn the mineral water thing into a bit of a quest, if you like. Dotted all around the Spa region are ancient fountains that pilgrims have been trekking to for centuries. Some are easy to access, right in the middle of town; others are off in the wilderness. Get a map from the tourist office (right by the funicular, you can´t miss it) and hit the trails.
I say get a map because, well, I didn't, and ended up hopelessly lost in the woods. Although I may not have found a mysterious spring, I still managed to stumble across an amazing pair of burnt out mansions in the middle of the forest. Coated in bizarre graffiti ("I am the lizard king" proclaimed one), the buildings are really worth checking out: ask around town as to where they are, I couldn´t possibly tell you.
The town itself is a mix of rural small town fare and highbrow class: gun and knife shops stand side by side with gourmet restaurants. Being a little place, everything is quite accessible and easy to find. Score some local produce at one of the delicatessens along the pedestrian strip parallel to the main road, and don´t forget to enjoy Belgium's greatest achievement: its beer. Forget your typical lager; there are bazillions of varieties to try out, from wheat beers to Trappist monastery tipples (back in the good old days only monks were allowed to brew!). Some varieties are as strong as wine, others as sweet as an alco-pop, the variety is astonishing.
If you want to hot things up, check out the ritzy palace-like Casino of Spa (Rue Royale 4, minimum age to enter is 21) which claims to be the oldest casino in the world, est 1763. There is also skiing in winter, along with ice skating, and golf in summer. Better yet, come here between 27 to the 29 August, when the Belgian F1 Grand Prix takes place, traditionally the most dangerous GP in the world... for the drivers that is, not you. Book well ahead for this one if you´re keen, packages available at www.f1grandprixtours.com/belgium-f1-tour-packages-prices.php).
But if you're really looking for a good time, and I mean really, really looking for fun, check out the stunning Laundry Museum (Rue de la Géronstère 10). It is basically a converted attic with some old washing boards. My jaw is still hanging.
Oh, and before you start practising your Flemish, I should probably note that Spa is in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. Comprendre?
Like everywhere in Belgium, English is widely spoken too, and strangely enough, less offensive to a staunch Walloonian than Flemish.
For transportation, I recommend Eurostarring your way to Brussels (from 69 euros return; www.eurostar.com). If you're lucky, you might even get trapped in the chunnel - think of the travel-story potential. The high speed rail experience is an overwhelmingly positive one, with wifi, gourmet food and crazy tilting whenever the train takes a corner. You´ll certainly notice the difference when you switch to a normal train to Liege, and then change again for a rumbling regional train the rest of the way to Spa (+32 4229 26 10 for timetables). Alternatively, fly to Cologne in Germany (Spa is only 16km from the German border) and train or car your way from there.
Radisson SAS Palace Hotel Spa is the one I heard most about while in town, and the chain has another place to stay nearby, the Radisson SAS Balmoral Hotel Spa. Avoid if you can the Best Western Hotel Restaurant L'Auberge, I had a bad meal there and as a hotel it has scathing reviews all over the internet.
I stayed at the affordable Le Pierre Hotel (from 75 euros for a double, Avenue Reine Astrid, 86). The place is run by a really dedicated, friendly couple who tend to your every need (and stayed up well past their bedtimes to check me in at two in the morning). The location is in a nice spot five minutes' walk from the centre of town and the funicular to paradise. Wifi is free, and so is brekky. Only trouble is it's quite small, so book ahead to get a room. Even if you´re not staying there, the restaurant is well worth a visit.