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Blog: Great Spas of Europe: the original Spa

There's a rather grand transboundary nomination in the making called Great Spas of Europe. 16 Spa Towns scattered through Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, France, UK and Belgium are preparing a serial nomination on 19th century European spa culture. The final selection will hold less sites (maybe as little as 7 or 8). Bath, Spa, the West Bohemian Spa Triangle, Baden-Baden and Vichy seem to be the most likely ones to make the cut.1.

Last weekend I visited the Belgian town of Spa, a safe bet as it is considered the "original" spa after which the other 19th century resorts were named. The site was on Belgium's Tentative List on its own merits between 2008 and 2014, but now is caught up in what might become a cumbersome and messy pan-European nomination process. The failed attempts of the global Corbusier sites come to my mind when I think of the logistics. The nomination date for the Great Spas of Europe has already been postponed from 2015 to 2017.

Casino

I did not expect too much from my visit to Spa: the Dutch language Wikipedia-page on the town remarks that it "was" the most popular tourist site in the Ardennes until 1980. What happened then is unclear. I did enjoy my stay however: I spent a short weekend there, staying overnight in the much recommended Herbergue Chatoiment. The sunny autumn weather obviously attributed much to the beauty of the town. There were lots of tourists too, mainly Belgians making the best of a long weekend.

Among Spa's attractions are the oldest Casino in the world (1774) and one of the most fabulous Art Nouveau buildings in Wallonia: the Maison Charlier (1900). Not to be missed also is Peter the Great's Spring, the most efficacious of the springs of Spa named after Tsar Peter the Great who visited in 1717. Only a slow trickle from a modernist structure now remains, and tasting the mineral water is included in the 1 EUR entrance fee. A 1892 group painting in the same building (the Livre d'Or) shows 92 historical figures that visited Spa: lots of royalty and other VIP's ranging from Victor Hugo to Casanova.

Most of the city center's historical buildings seem to be in good repair. Only the original Bath House (a huge Classicist building on the main road) is without use nowadays and looks dilapidated.

Maison Charlier

The City Museum is worthwhile too. It has a collection of "Jolités", decorated wooden objects typical of Spa, which were often taken home as souvenirs by the many 19th century tourists. One of the most remarkable among those is a small ivory item, that was used to keep track of how many healthy glasses of Spa water one had drunk during the day!

21st century Spa still does have mineral baths. These have been relocated to the "Thermes" on top of the hill above town. You can get there using a self-service funicular. It's a very modern building (2004), and not much different from other wellness centers that have emerged recently all over Western Europe. It lies in a forest where the 19th century guests took healthy walks. I think more could be made of explaining the routes and promenades there. I wandered about for a while but did not really know where to go. Not to be missed in that area is the Spa cemetery, which is built terrace-wise on a steep hill.

Reflecting on my stay in Spa, I find it a pity that the bath culture is not so prominent anymore. The 19th century cityscape is the main attraction now. I guess Health Tourism nowadays is more alive in Eastern Europe, in Serbia for example where last year I visited Vrnjacka Banja. However: with a well-written nomination dossier (there are lots of stories to tell) and not too many discussions among the candidate cities, Spa and the other spas will be a shoo-in WHS in 2017.

Published 15 November 2014

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Responses to Great Spas of Europe: the original Spa
Els (18 November 2014)

Thank you too. Late 19th, early 20th century Spa culture and Art Nouveau fit together so well.


seishonagon3 (18 November 2014)

Thank you for the link to my website About Art Nouveau.
Did you notice I also wrote about another Spa City La Bourboule, in France?
I am very much concerned about Maison Rozier as it is seriously being neglected, even though it is a listed monument! I go there every year and I see no indication that anyone has been there...
I am also preparing a story about Le Mont-Dore which has some beautiful Art Nouveau architecture too.