Spa - Belgium

Introduction

The word "Spa" has entered into everyday language, perhaps due to a prestigious past, when celebrities from all over the world made it their meeting place and it became known as the "Cafe of Europe".  Kings, emperors, artists and some of the most illustrious and influential people in the word stayed at Spa! It became so famous that it gave the world its name.

These days, Spa, the "Pearl of the Ardennes",  is a lively town offering museums, shopping, sporting activites and plenty of cultrual events, including the famous Francofolies festival each year, and of course the prestigious casino and famous racetrack.  The town is set within a landscape which is protected, so that the sources of its water are kept pure, but which is also ideal for therapeutic walks, trails and other healthy outdoor activities. Spa's bottled water is exported across the world, and many people still visit the town for its baths - now housed in a brand new facility above the town.  

 

Spa has been nominated as one of the "Great Spas of Europe" - a transnational serial nomination bid for UNESCO World Heritage status, alongside Bath, Baden-Baden, Karlovy Vary, Montecatini, Vichy and others.

Historical background

Although there is a good chance that the Romans knew about the springs that emerge where the town of Spa now stands, Spa’s history did not really begin until 1559, with the publication of the book “Des Fontaines acides de la forest d’Ardenne” (Acid springs in the Ardennes Forest) written by Lymborh, the doctor to the prince-bishop of Liège.
This scientific book revealed to doctors who treated the leading figures of the time the properties of Spa’s springs. Czar Peter the Great came to spend a few weeks in Spa in June 1717 and this mineral water treatment (Pouhon and Géronstère) cured him of a liver disease. Word of this cure, which was officially certified by the czar’s doctor, did the rounds of the European courts and launched the fashion for a course of treatment in Spa.
The second half of the 18th Century was Spa’s first golden age. Everyone came here supposedly for a course of treatment, but the real aim was to be seen, preferably in the right company. During their stay, the “bobelins” (a derisive term used by the locals to describe these visitors) bought “jolités”, craftsman-made wooden objects typical of Spa.
At the time, people did not take baths in the mineral water (except the English!); they drank it (crenotherapy). Spa treatments in the 18th Century involved 3 obligations: drink mineral water (different springs for different diseases), practise a physical activity (walking, dancing, riding, etc.) and enjoy oneself. A whole series of pleasant pastimes were organized to occupy all these important people (gaming, concerts, horse-racing, balls, country lunches, landscaped walks, etc.). The spring water was already bottled and shipped all over Europe, as far as Russia. The French Revolution plunged Spa into an economic crisis that lasted half a century.
In the mid-19th Century, a variety of socio-economic factors radically changed spa treatments. The aristocracy gave way to the bourgeoisie, the holiday replaced the social round and balneotherapy took over from crenotherapy. Urban development followed in the wake of these changes and, in line with the German model, Spa was equipped with the amenities essential to a spa town worthy of its name: Wayai vault, new bath establishments, arcade (Léopold II Gallery), renovation of the buildings housing the main springs (Pouhon, Barisart, etc.), boating lake, bandstands, etc.
Two types of treatment, at the forefront of progress at the time, took place in the bath establishments: effervescent baths (heart disease, high blood pressure etc.) and peat baths (rheumatism, skin diseases, etc.)
This was Spa’s second golden age: wool producers from Verviers, manufacturers from Liège and politicians from Brussels had second homes in Spa (500 villas listed in the early 20th Century). They took an interest in the new sports (tennis, cars, aviation, etc.) and all kinds of attractions; this was the period of the “firsts” in Spa (beauty competition, battle of flowers, etc.). The town’s prestige grew even further when Queen Marie-Henriette took up residence there, and it became Belgium’s flagship tourist venue, along with Ostend.
However, this momentum was broken by the permanent abolition of gaming (1902) then the two world wars.
In the second half of the 20th Century, the mineral water was mainly bottled by the Spa-Monopole company. Only the older inhabitants of Spa came to collect water from the springs and the bath establishment offered mainly treatments covered by Social Security. This activity increased steadily until the mid-70s (up to 170,000 treatments a year). But all good things come to an end and, in 1993, Social Security stopped refunding these courses of treatment.
It was not until ten years later that a new bath establishment (the 4th) was inaugurated on the Annette et Lubin Hill. The “recreational spa” era had opened in Spa, bringing with it the renewed urban and economic development that continues today.

Water sources

Scattered around Spa, the springs best known as “pouhons” are always accessible to visitors. A complete circuit will include the “pouhons” of Pierre-le-Grand and Prince de Condé (city centre), the Tonnelet spring, the springs of the Sauvenière and of Groesbeek, the Barisart spring and the fountain of Géronstère, the latter being higher situated (between 950 and 1400 ft) in the surrounding woods.

In the past, the population attributed the therapeutic virtues of the waters to some miraculous intervention. Later on, numerous studies took on a more scientific approach, classifying the springs by taking into account their components and the ailments that they were to cure.
Today, they are still recommended in many therapies. It’s however not necessary to be ill to “take the waters”. Curiosity is just as legitimate a pretext as any other.

SPA PPLG extérieur phto OT Spa SMALLPouhon Pierre le Grand’spring and the winter garden
In the 16th century, the spring of “Pierre-le-Grand” was still only a simple cesspool sheltered in a modest recess. In 1717, delighted by the efficiency of the treatment, Tsar “Peter the Great” had a black marble plaque set up to celebrate the recovery of his health. Pouhon Pierre le Grand shelters the most prolific spring; naturally fizzy, it is full of mineral salts and rich in iron with an average flow rate of 21,000 liters per day.  Constructed in 1880 by Victor Besme, the building was completely renovated by the architect Léo Haesbroeck in 2012. It houses the Tourist Office and the celebrated Spa «Livre d’Or», the work of artist Antoine Fontaine, nine meters long and representing in joyous chronological disorder 92 famous people who came to take the waters at Spa. Interactive animations show the wealth of Spa through its prestigious past as well as the current dynamism of the thermal city. Return to the atmosphere of 1900 with its great colonnades, reconstructed mosaics and open views over the town. This splendid room is home to an outstanding permanent exhibition of works by Joan Miro as well as temporary exhibitions.

Pouhon Prince de Condé
Discovered in 1863 by the pharmacist Schaltin, in the cellar of his house named “Prince de Condé” (1774), the spring was exploited on the spot.  Until the end of the century this mineral water was bottled at the rate of 50.000 bottles per annum. The spring was later sold to the Compagnie de Vichy and bought back by the city of Spa in 1903. The Pouhon Prince de Condé originates from the same layer of ground water as the close by Pouhons Pierre-le-Grand and Armes d’Autriche. It differentiates itself however by a higher count in minerals acquired during the last lap of its underground itinerary. In equilibrium with the 19th century glass wall surrounding the original building which housed the spring, the current pyramid is designed to reflect architecture from the end of the 20th century. Art exhibitions are held here throughout the year.

The Tonnelet springSPA Tonnelet SMALL
The Tonnelet spring at Nivezé was only visited at the beginning of the 17th century. It takes its name from the fact that it was collected in a small barrel (tonnelet). This is the same water as the "Spa Marie-Henriette", but as it is the spring (ferruginous and carbonated). For commercial purposes, the iron content is reduced in "Spa Marie-Henriette" water.  Successively studied by de RYE and de HEER, doctors of Liège, it also had the honour of being examined by André TREVISIUS, doctor of Archduke ALBERT and Archduchess ISABELLE.

The Sauveniere and Groesbeeck springs
The Sauvenière spring is the oldest, and used to be the most prolific of the Spa springs. It was discovered by Saint Remacle who, according to legend, left the imprint of his sandal at the edge of the fountain taht was thereafter considered as miraculous. It became a place of pilgrimage for young husbands, since it was said to possess specific properties for curing sterility. This spring is the departure point for many of the walks, including the well-known "Promenade d’Orléans" named after the Duchess. BERKELEY, an English gentleman, traced many paths in the vicinity. 

The history of the Groesbeeck spring is closely related to that of its neighbour. Having disappeared for some unknown reason in 1663, it reappeared, not long after, more abundant and clearer. The Baron de GROESBEECK had a marble niche erected in 1651. The Marquis de CROY whose spouse was of the de GROESBEECK family restored this construction in 1776. In 1963 the Tourist Office of the Town of Spa further refurbished it.

The Géronstère spring
Water from this spring (altitude 400 meters), has a sulphurous taste, and is highly recommended for infections of the respiratory tract. Doctor de RYE is the first, who let know the virtues of this spring. The water, tasting of sulphur, is mainly recommended for respiratory ailments. It was said to be good to cure the “black bile”. The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, frequently came to «take the waters». Known for its strong taste (it is ferruginous and carbonated), it was also known under the name «Enragée» (Furious). The pavilion and the water temple that house the spring were donated to Spa by the Earl of Burgsdorff in 1651. The restoration of the site was done in 1979 by the Tourist Office of the Town of Spa with the help of the “Commissariat Général au Tourisme”.

The Barisart spring
Well known spring of the bygone days it is cited with the others in the LYMBORGHT list in 1559.  Until it was ahrnessed in 1850, it flowed freely through the fields. Musicians and famous composers, Giacomo MEYERBEER and Charles GOUNOD were familiar figures at this site. A charming walk along the little cascades named after the first of these artists, links Barisart to her neighbouring sister of the Géronstère. Between a romantic grotto dating from the 19th century and two artificial ponds, a new Trink-Hall and restaurant were built in 1972.
Two other forest springs, sheltered under small constructions, are also known to the holidaymakers. They are the Pouhon Pia and the Pouhon Delcor.

Spa has three bottled waters - named Riene, Marie-Henriette (gently carbonated), and Barisart (sparkling). 

Composition in mg/l Spa Reine

Spa Marie-Henriette

Spa Barisart

Calcium 4.5 11 5.5
Magnesium 1.3  7.0 1.5
Sodium 3.0 10.5 5.0
Potassium 0.5 1.3 0.5
Silica 7.0 15 10
Bicarbonate 15 75 18
Sulphate 4.0 6.5 7.5
Chloride 5.0 9.5 5.5
Nitrate 1.9 0.5 1.5
Dry residue 33 95 49

Cultural heritage

Delve into Spa’s history by visiting its museums dedicated to the rich past of the town, the nature and purity of the water, or, more unusually, the history of laundry.  

The Royal villa - formerly a hotel, the buildings that form the Villa Royale were acquired by Queen Marie-Henriette, wife of King Leopold II, in 1895. She stayed there till her death on 19 September 1902. The central body of the Villa Royale is now occupied by the actual “Musée de la Ville d’Eaux” (Spa town Museum) that houses permanent exhibition halls dedicated to the “jolités” (niceties), local craft also known as “Bois de Spa” which are finely decorated wooden trinkets and boxes.

The «Eaudyssée de Spa» at Spa Monopole is a magical journey which unveils the secrets of Spa natural mineral waters, their percolation and filtration including their unique protection.
Discover:
- Water as a life force
- How a drop of rainwater is changed into naturally pure water
- The protection of the water cycle and natural resources
- The bottling process and the Spa brands
SPA jardin du Casino photo IG office du tourisme 2012 SMALLThe Casino

In the early 1760’s, the Prince-Bishop of Liège, wanting to exercise his control over the practice of games, already widespread in Spa, encouraged the municipality to build an “Assembly House” where games of chance could be played. The town authorities then sold the enterprise to private owners in 1763. To thank them for a large participation in the profits, the Prince Bishop of Liège gave them the exclusive privilege of organising public balls, festivities and gambling games. This privilege will however be shared with the Waux-Hall, a second hall inaugurated a few years later. There is no doubt that these two establishments contributed to the wealth of the little town.  Nothing remains of the Redoute today. The present Casino now rebuilt, in front of these beautiful gardens, remains a centre of the cultural life of Spa. It is the setting of many exhibitions and concerts, of the Theatre Festival and the Francofolies.  

The Waux-Hall

On the edge of the town, in the direction of the Géronstère spring, stands a large building of which the walls still seem to shelter long forgotten splendours. Built in 1770, it’s the joint work of architect RENOZ, sculptor and stucco artist FRANCK and painter DEPREZ. The Waux-Hall is directly inspired by the symmetric plans of the 18th century “Maisons de Plaisance” (pleasure houses). High society rendezvous of aristocrats and European crowned heads who sought entertainment here after taking the waters. This “House of meetings and games” soon knew a great success. Balls and concerts followed the “Grands déjeuners” and animated card games. The building and its rich interior decorations suffered from its tormented past. Its restoration started in 1988 by a complete renewal of its roofing. The consolidation works and renovation of the painted ceilings and stucco started in 1990. They are still under way.

Leopeold II Gallery and Small Games Pavilion

This architectural lot alongside the “Parc de Sept-Heures”,(the seven o’clock park) is made of two pavilions linked by a covered walk. The Leopold II Gallery, built in 1878 following the plans of William HANSEN, is made of a cast iron structure set on a brick platform with a terrace in its middle.
This work of art seems to be the application of the monumental metallic constructions of the late 19th century. Each Sunday, at daybreak, the gallery shelters the traditional Marché aux Puces (Flea market).
The Town Hall is an elegant building in Louis XVI style, by architect RENOZ, the town hall was built in the years 1762-1768. In the 18th century it welcomed the Lords who came to take the waters. It was the “Grand Hôtel”. In 1822 it was purchased by JOHN COCKERILL who transformed it into a manufactory of textile cards and spindles Today the building houses the administrative services of the Town. Opposite the entrance of the Town Hall is the Perron de Spa, symbol of the liberties awarded to the town by the Prince Bishop of Liège in 1594.

The Church of Saint Remacle was erected in 1885 on the foundations of previous buildings, of which the first dated back to the early 15th century. It’s built in granite in the Romanesque-Rhenish style (Cologne school). 

SPA Galerie Léopold II Parc de 7 heures photo HP Lesuisse SMALLThe Parc des Sept Heures (The seven o’clock park) was first opened as a public promenade (so that visitors could still take their obligatory exercise under cover, if it was raining) in 1758. It is siturated in the centre of Spa, and houses many monuments and statues.

The Anglican Park  A long history links Spa to the English. They were amongst the first to appreciate the mineral waters of Spa. The popularisation of the term «Spa» is attributed to two English researchers William Paddy and Richard Andrews, who, after having studied the virtues of the ferruginous waters, encouraged the use of the word in England. They gave the name «Spa» to English springs and thus was born the authenti’city: Spa. The English colony became very important in Spa. 

Spa and treatments

The "spa" aspect of Spa was really developed from the 19th century onwards. The first spa cure centre was a revolution which immediately led to an important development in spa treatments. Before this, many «bobelins» came to take the waters of the various springs appreciating their healing properties.

The ancient thermal baths
Spa owes the creation of its ancient Thermal Baths to a great mayor: Joseph SERVAIS. In those days it was a fast revolution bringing a major development of the concept of taking the waters.
The building was built between 1862 and 1868 under the supervision of the architect SUYS, the architect of the Stock Exchange in Brussels. Charles-Henri THORELLE was put in charge of the carving and sculpting of the stone. The statues of the facade and sides are the work of VAN OMBERG, JACQUES and the VAN DEN KERKHOVE brothers. The painter CARPEY decorated the entrance hall and lounges.

The new thermal bathsSpa Thermes de Spa in autumn SMALL
The new building housing the “Thermes de Spa” was designed by STREBELLE, the architect of the Place Saint-Lambert in Liège. Dominated by light and curving lines, these buildings, set on top of the Annette and Lubin hill, represent a new face of thermalism in Spa. Even more recreational, as ever preventive and closer to the current fashion for wellness and relaxation, the new Thermal Baths of Spa are dedicated to pure pleasure and relaxation: discover the inside and outside swimming pools, saunas, hammams en relaxation rooms. The Wellness, Beauty and Health Center, a remarkable place with a large choice of care and cure packages à la carte from half a day to five days.

A panoramic cliff railway links the centre of town to the top of the Annette and Lubin hill where the new health centre can be found. This spot offers a splendid view of the town, with many signposted walks starting from here and a scenic footpath that leads down to the Parc de Sept Heures.

 

SPA Dame baignoire thermes de Spa SMALLSpa treatments include a Carbonated Bath (pictured, right), in one of the old copper baths used for treatments in the original spa buildings.  Other treatments include: Baby Massage, Crenotherapy, Relaxation Massage, Back Care, Spa massage shower, Spa shower, Lymphatic Drainage, Endermology, Body Wraps, Flash Active Contour, Body Scrub, Hypopressive Gymnastics, Hammam, Holistic, Hot Stones , Face Lift, Underwater Massage, Mesotherapy, Niagara bath, Pressure therapy, Prospa Concept (Sothys), Reflexology, Reiki, Relaxation, Soft-pack-in infra-red-wood light, Revitalization "chakras", Sauna, Shiatsu, Relaxation therapy, Thalaxo Bath, Thermal Bath, Peat bath, Facial care. Watsu
Spa beauty products : produit cosmétiques Sotthys – Spa

 

Famous visitors

SPA Le livre dor SMALL

 

After the establishment of the town in the 16th century, more and more people began to flow in to Spa from all corners of Europe to take the waters and experience the beneficial effects of the treatment. The town became known as the “Café de l’Europe” (Café of Europe) after Emperor Joseph II  visited the town in 1781. The nick-name brilliantly shows the exceptional appeal of the town during this period, when most of the renowned names of the 18th century rubbed shoulders here -  crowned heads and celebrities, be they of nobility, clergy or wealthy bourgeoisie. Upon arrival they would add their names to the “List of Lords and Ladies” which, year after year included some 600 to 1200 people taking the waters and were accompanied by their suite. These figures represent a considerable inflow for the times, and reflected the fact that a trip to Spa was no longer made for  the sole reason of receiving therapeutic treatment - it was a major social opportunity too. The impressive concentration of influential people offered many opportunities of diplomatic dealings.

The illustration, above is of the Livre d'or, painted by Antoine Fontaine at the end of the 19th century to show the most famous people who visited Spa over the years.  It can be seen at the Office of Tourism.

Facts and figures

 

Spa's tourism figures in 2015:

 

239.000 nights
175.067 visitors to the Thermal Baths of Spa
37.000 visitors to our museums
3.000 digital walks downloaded
8.000 monthly visits to our web site
73.000 visitors to the casino
8.400 visitors to the MIRO exhibition in 2015
Highly successful events
170 000 festival goers at the Francofolies and no less than 10.000 at the Theatre Festival

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