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Escape to the Ardennes
The blast of icy air is a shock as we emerge into the outdoor pool, but there is a real pleasure in being submerged in warm soothing water under the rays of a midwinter sun. Flanked by bare-branched trees, the pool is an alfresco playground with fountains, overhead jets and a vigorous whirlpool. A counter current requires a little energetic swimming and we pull off a few invigorating laps.
Overlooking the town, known as the pearl of the Ardennes, Thermes de Spa is a treetop retreat that combines the facilities of a luxury spa with accessible aquatic fun for all the family (aged six and above). The current facility exploits the natural spring in a modern wood and glass building that houses 800m2 of pools under a towering central cupola. As the original spa town, it has been attracting visitors since Roman times, while Spa mineral water has been bottled for more than 500 years.
Taking to the waters today are as many pleasure-seekers as those in pursuit of a cure. After the outside pool session leaves the top of our heads frostbite-chilled, we head up to the first-floor sauna for some serious deep heat. There are two areas: naturist (ages 15 and over) and one in which you can keep your cossie on. We opt for the former, which also boasts more extensive facilities. After an initial tour of steam room, shower, 20° plunge pool, 38° warm-up pool and Jacuzzi, we enter the sauna, which is suddenly filled with an influx of bodies. They are not all admiring the panoramic view; by chance we have stumbled upon a free sauna ritual. It consists of two sweltering rounds in the dry heat while the instructor adds perfumed water to the burning coals (ginger and menthol) before circulating the air with the help of first a towel and then a giant fan. Resembling a bank of basking seals, we are banned from chatting and released only for a toxin-cleansing shower and obligatory plunge in the 20° pool. A refreshing ginger drink rounds off the unexpected detoxing experience.
There is nothing left to do now but recline and pretend to read. On a busy holiday afternoon such as this, expect to put in some nifty movements to bag yourself a lounger. They are sparse in the sauna areas, while in the large relaxation spaces – complete with infra-red lamps – they fill up quickly.
Three-hour entry costs €20 for adults and €15 for children (six-15 years), while treatments are available from €36 (early reservation recommended). Take your own towels and robe; beach shoes are not allowed. On arrival you will be given a token that releases a locker bracelet which also provides access to saunas. There is a separate changing room for visitors who have booked treatments, with direct access to the beauty centre. There is a poolside cafeteria and a dining room adjoins the treatment suite (buffet lunch €20). Extras include evening sessions (Zen after 18.00), mother and baby, couples and hotel packages. The Radisson Blu, directly below, is accessible by funicular, which also links the spa to the town. Lying 100km from Brussels, you can also travel by train.
While the town of Spa has maintained a fashionable air with the help of popular summer festivals, neighbouring Verviers has had to battle to reverse its fortunes after the bottom fell out of the prosperous wool trade, first in the late 19th century and definitively post-World War Two. Central to the current civic revival of the town is the four-star Verviers Hotel, an innovative renovation of a former railway depot which opened four years ago. I visited last spring when researching an article on its geo-thermal heating (it’s a Belgian first) and was reliably informed that it was the place to be for locals and visitors alike. After overnighting there, I can happily concur.
Christmas kitsch is never better appreciated than outside one’s own home and the hotel’s red-themed interior lends itself to cheerful seasonal decoration. The brasserie and bar is the social hub of the magnificent 19th-century building. Informal and cosy, it buzzes all evening, serving up coffee, drinks and bistro food to a diverse clientele, from those clad in walking boots to the more chic. As this is supposed to be a health break, we shun the three-course €30 menu in the adjoining gastronomic restaurant and plump for the local speciality, boulets de Liège. The duo of savoury cannonball-sized meatballs are coated in a dark caramelised sauce traditionally finished with sirop de Liège. Served with salad and fries, they are washed down by regional Val-Dieu abbey beer.
Our quarters for the night are on the third floor, which consists entirely of duplexes, due to the sloping roof of the 100m-long building. A large bed lies under the eaves while the stylish lounge area below has an en suite bathroom and separate WC. The hotel dominates the town and is in the middle of a redevelopment area, consisting of a shopping centre, cinema complex and large car park. We walk into historic Verviers, which proudly displays its glorious past with textile machine parts that dot the banks of the Vesdres, the river that rendered the wool so soft that it propelled the local industry into one of the top three centres in the world. Precocious technological innovation was the other reason for its success. The many fine maisons de maîtres and neo-gothic public buildings are testimony of this flourishing history.
Other monuments are the museums: the interactive Maison de l’eau, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Céramique and the Centre touristique de la Laine et de la Mode. But these are reserved for my next trip to the region!