Spa, her circuit
and her thermal baths
The health benefits of bathing in natural hot-water springs were known in Ancient times, but the first town where visitors could “take the waters” in the modern sense was Spa in the Belgian Ardennes, which gave its name to many other similar resorts (e.g. Bath Spa and Leamington Spa in the UK). Spa was “the eighteenth-century Monte Carlo” with luxury hotels and restaurants and a casino to entertain the wealthy aristocrats taking the waters there. Today, visitors can still take the waters and a range of spa treatments, and there are plenty of other attractions in the town, including music festivals and the Spa-Francorchamps Formula 1 motor-racing circuit.
Health and Wellbeing for the twenty-first century
Who hasn’t enjoyed a nice soak in a hot bath, followed by a massage and other beauty treatments? The treatments based on Spa’s naturally hot spring water have developed from the austere to the lush and can be enjoyed in visits of one day or longer. The three springs continue to disgorge thousands of litres of mineral-rich water every day. The wooded hills surrounding Spa are perfect for exercise and mountain and forest sports and the annual “Francofolies” music festival is the perfect place to let off steam with some dancing!
The allure of the facades of yesteryear around the ancient baths is still alive
The first spa resort
Spa attracted foreign visitors even in mediaeval times. For example, King Henry VIII of England’s Italian physician visited in 1547. He was followed in 1654 by the future King Charles II of England during his exile and in 1717 by the Russian Emperor Peter the Great. To entertain the visitors who flocked to the town, a casino opened in 1763 (it is now the world’s oldest) and a racecourse in 1773. Austrian Emperor Joseph II visited in 1781 and called Spa “the café of Europe”. Casanova came for other attractions: “All the nations of Europe flock to Spa in the summer to commit thousands of indiscretions; I committed mine like everyone else” he wrote, “People don’t just come to take the waters, but to do business, to plot, to have fun, to find love and to spy on others…”
The middle classes take over
As the nineteenth century progressed, the growing middle classes replaced the aristocracy as the main group of visitors to Spa, as access and communications improved following the arrival of a daily postal system in 1840 and the telegraph and railway in 1856. King Leopold II of Belgium’s wife, Queen Marie-Henriette bought a villa in Spa and spent her summers here from 1853 until her death in Spa in 1902. This royal patronage conveyed a sense of respectability and more hotels and facilities were built in response to rising visitor numbers.
The First World War and after
During the First World War, Spa was occupied by the German army who used it as a convalescence centre for injured soldiers. The German General Headquarters, headed by Kaiser Wilhelm, moved to Spa in 1918, and it was in Spa that he signed the German surrender and his abdication. Spa was again used as a convalescence centre by the German army during the Second World War.
In the post-war years, the spa treatment centre was rebuilt and the town adapted to mass tourism. The growing interest in the environment and wellbeing led to a complete rebuilding of the spa centre in 2005, connected by an inclined lift to the town centre.
For more information, please visit www.thermesdespa.com
The Spa-Francorchamps motor-racing circuit
Located around 20 km from Spa, in the village of Francorchamps, the circuit that hosts the Belgian Grand Prix is one of the most famous in the world. Apart from the famous F1 drivers, visitors can also test their skills there!
Rebuilt to new safety standards in 2007, the circuit laps are just over 7 km long. Visitors can explore the pits and stands and then travel as a passenger in a racing car driven by a professional, or they can even drive themselves, from pole position, waiting for the chequered flag just like the champions.
The first Spa 24-hour race was held in 1924, followed by the first Belgian Grand Prix in 1925. The circuit’s setting amid the Ardennes forest and its difficulty quickly led to it becoming a favourite with drivers and spectators alike.
For more information, please visit www.spa-francorchamps.be