Sunday, January 11, 2015

Turning red


When visiting the Thermes de Spa in Spa, Belgium, one could be excused for being confused: is this a hot spring? Or not?

Thermes in French means baths according to google, though Oxford dictionaries also adds thermal baths as a translation. Though the use of thermal oddly does not mean from geothermal origin but merely being warm
In German, therme refers to a hot spring
And one would think that the name would imply originating from thermal.

The confusion continues. The Thermes de Spa's own website refers to the main pool as being a
'... thermal spring area [Espace thermal]'.  
Wikipedia in it's definitions of a thermal spring notes:
'The water temperature of a hot spring is usually 6.5 °C (12 °F) or more above mean air temperature'.
It's not only me who is confused. One of the best references on hot springs (Erfurt-Cooper & Cooper, 2009) has a sentence or two on the town of Spa and it's thermes:
'It was here in the 14th century AD that a health resort was founded after discovery of a thermal spring with apparent curative properties, and henceforth the name of Spa was connected to hot spring facilities worldwide'.
In this she refers to an article by R. Cordes
'April 2004 saw the grand opening of the Thermes de Spa, a EUR 15 million project of which 80 percent was financed by public authorities of Spa and the surrounding area. The rest came from Spa Monopole, producer of the famous Spa mineral water, and Eurothermes, a French company that runs similar facilities in France, Spain and Switzerland.
Investors are betting that within the next two to three years, some 150,000 people will come to swim in the 800 square metres of indoor and outdoor thermal pools every year, and that the wellness, beauty and health centre will administer between 80 and 200 treatments per day'.
Hot spring or not? The Thermes de Spa website reveals it's resources. For the purpose of bathing, it sources the natural waters from three different springs: Clementine (calcium bi-carbonate); Reine (slightly salty) and Marie-Henriette (naturally sparkling, bi-carbonated, iron bearing, manganese bearing) (source). All are piped in from their original spring, none though originate from a hot spring ....

So in conclusion, maybe not a hot spring ...?

Well the fact that it is not a hot spring need not deter a visit to Spa. After all the town and springs of Spa seem to be the origin of the word spa. So although there are doubts on the thermal origins of its waters, it certainly would be a sort of homecoming. Or not?

But is this homecoming correct? Has the town of Spa given it's name to spa, as in the wellness therapy?
The town of Spa was named after either a Latin word meaning to gush forth or a Germanic word meaning to spit (source). And by chance Spa became a highly regarded place to be, which inspired others to copy at least the concept of bathing buildings and industry and name this a spa, free PR ensured.

However there are others who contend that the word spa has a totally different origin, dating back to the Roman bathing heydays: 
'So the quoted acronym SPA found in the Roman world the culture broth to be interpreted as Salutem per Aquam. The problem is that there is not a reference in the ancient world to the phrase as such  nor the content or concept of water as a means to health'.
So possibly not? Interesting (or not) this discussion can be found here. I can imagine that probably the origin of spa is a mix of both ...

But with the historical context of Spa being the (possible) origin of the word combined with the possibility that the baths are of thermal origin and the need for a break with the availability of sauna visit / and a lengthy walk, we set off for a winter visit to Spa.


Understanding the need to visit Spa, is understanding it's unique history.

Naturally set in a valley in the north of the Belgian Ardennes, the town is still surrounded by large forests which are home to a reputed more than 300 fresh water springs. What's more, many of these springs have unique features, such as heavy on iron or naturally carbonated.

The first record of the fames of Spa's waters is to be found in the Naturalis Historia, written by Pliny the Elder. In the book dated to 77-79 AD:
'Tungri civitas Galliae fontem habet insignem plurimis bullis stillantem, ferruginei saporis, quod ipsum non nisi in fine potus intellegitur. purgat hic corpora, tertianas febres discutit, calculorum vitia. eadem aqua igne admoto turbida fit ac postremo rubescit', 
which translates as:
The state of the Tungri, in Gaul, has a spring of great renown, which sparkles as it bursts forth with bubbles innumerable, and has a certain ferruginous taste, only to be perceived after it has been drunk. This water is strongly purgative, is curative of tertian fevers, and disperses urinary calculi: upon the application of fire it assumes a turbid appearance, and finally turns red. 

However it wasn't until the latter Middle Ages that bathing in Spa's waters became fashionable. Visits are noted from Henry VIII and Peter the Great (source) and by the 18th century the following was said of Spa:
'... such was the flow of well-heeled visitors that Spa became known as “The Café of Europe'.
As wealth was mostly held these gentry back in those days, it's no surprise that Spa also saw the establishment of the first modern casino's of Europe (source).
'Spa reemerged [from Napoleon ruled France] in the late 19th century with a huge urbanism program, including the building of the Thermes (1862), of the Leopold II Gallery and the Pavilions (1878), of the Pouhon-Pierre-le-Grand (1880), of the Villa Marie-Henriette (1885), of the Lake Waarfaz (1892) and of the St. Remacle church (1896). The municipality revamped the Thermes in 1905 and built a new Kursaal in 1908'. (source)
Spa's older bath building

Concerning it's past the Thermes de Spa website adds this to the building of the elder spa building:
'... equipped with 54 bathtubs, opening in 1868'.
However this boom started off earlier. Same website:
'Starting in the 16th century, Spa pioneered the export of its water to nearby regions then throughout Europe
Originally hydrotherapy consisted in swallowing large quantities of these therapeutic waters. Then, starting in the 18th century, carbonated baths and peat baths took over.
It was at this time that Spa experienced an extremely brilliant period. Czar Peter the Great came to take the waters in 1717 and left having been healed.
Somewhat later, it was Belgium’s second queen, Marie-Henriette who linked her name and her destiny to the town. Indeed, she lived in Spa for a number of years and contributed to its renown. She died there in 1902'.
The statue Ondine de Spa stands in the Pouhon Pierre le Grand (the Peter the Great source) building, a former grand building (with winter garden) to accommodate the spring which is now the town's visitor information office. 
The ondine (or undine; it stems from German mythology) is nimf-like elf (or vice versa), don't   know why there are two ondines here. Some would say they are the soaking spirits of Spa ... Note they are noted for having no souls ... (source).

But what about the experience? 

The town of Spa itself has still some charm thanks to past construction efforts, though many of the grander buildings are in disuse. 

The baths themselves have given way to modern day version which is constructed on the mount, north of the town. Getting there has been made easier with the use of Belgium's only funicular rail which heads from the foot of the hill into the termes themself. A return ticket will set you back €3. If staying at the Radisson Blu Palace you'll even have your private funicular car to go up.

We arrived both visits at around 18:00, in the dark, to be welcomed by a vicious long line of other potential spa goers. Waits went up to 20 minutes which seems to suggest that customer satisfaction is not high on the Therme's agenda. After payment (€20/3 hours, €30/day), one gets a fiche which electronically gives you entry to the spa. It also functions as a coin for the lockers, for racking up the food and drinks bill (if pesky) and seems to serve as a deterral for corruptable youth wanting to visit the totally naked zone. And if not payed in full by departure, it will keep you locked in!

Anyway, after letting oneself inside, there's a mass of small cubicles for changing, all rather small and claustrophobic, but that's efficiency these days. Once through the changing process, it's off to the pools. Oh, mandatory showering? Yeah let's. Oh we're one of the few who do? Hmmm .....

The spacious pool area has a nice lay out and the tall ceiling is a delight to see. Less inviting, the pool is jam packed! 

On both visits we first head up the stairs to the rather small naked zone. After verifying our ages (we paid full price which means that our fiche indicates that we are over 16) one can proceed to said place. It consists of a larger sauna, a hot jacuzzi, a hot bath, a cold bath, a couple of showers and a steam room. With a couple of benches in between, all packed with towels to indicate that they are reserved ... 
The sauna itself is very hot, the steam room not warm enough, while the other features too small to cater to the amount of visitors. 
Many of the clients are die-hard sauna enthusiasts, though the set-up also allows newcomers while the tourniquet at the entrance ensures that there's not a constant to-ing and fro-ing of mostly curious onlookers / voyeurs. As is common at Thermae 2000 in nearby Valkenburg, Netherlands. New-comers also somehow mean a disregard for sauna etiquette / hygiene: there are some who don't use towels to sit on in the sauna and then after sweating jump straight into the hot pool. And there are those that come for the experience, but are actually clothed all the time.

After an hour or so, we donned the swim suits and went downstairs to the now less busier pools, one indoor, one out. Though the waters are warm (32°C?), they must be using a lot of chlorine as I feel an instant attack on my throat and nose. So much for a healthy (and natural?) experience!
(read Daily Mail, 7 Jan. 2015: What are YOU swimming in? Scientists find insect repellent, caffeine and flame retardant chemicals in public pools)

Dare to compare
With the spa's of Valkenburg (Thermae 2000) and Aachen (Carolus) nearby as well as the downstream Chaudfontaine, it's not so strange to compare between these. 

Below is a comparison based on reviews. 
(points out of 10 / reviews)
Thermae 2000  4 / 219, source  3 / 3 source  7.2 / 220, source  €32,50 / day
Carolus Thermen 4 / 308 source 4.5 / 64
 9.3 / 9, source €12-13 / 2.5 hours; €15-16 / day. Double with entry to sauna's
Chaudfontaine 3.5 / 7 source
 no reviews
 no reviews €40 / day

Spa's ratings are as follows: Tripadvisor: 3.5  (364 reviews), Yelp: 4 (7 reviews) and Zoover: 4.4 (4 reviews). It also shows that Dutch consumers are less satisfied. Clearly though, Spa scores are not the best ....

ng now been to Spa, Aachen and Valkenburg, I would also give preference to the Carolus Thermen: clean, well managed, efficient and still one of the cheapest of the four. Valkenburg though does have unclothed days which earns it a bonus point and the setting is also good. Spa though has the best setting and the funicular / town added to the experience. But the least pleasant experience.

Journée aux Thermes de Spa. On commence par les bains carbogazeux emoji C'est parti pour 20 min de bonheur emoji#spa #thermesdespa #bains #carbogazeux #relaxation #zen 

One of Spa's trademark therapies is the use of natural bains carbogazeux (carbonated bath) as depicted below. From
'Spa is already long been known for its 'Bain Carbogazeux', ie carbonated and we also want to try. The bath causes a delay of the heart rate and a decrease in blood pressure. What does a man want more! The copper baths in some treatment rooms and sink into the black marble floor. The employee has already run the bath with water from the Marie-Henriette full source, 400 years of the oldest source of Spa. It is ferruginous water and carbon dioxide comes from three different extractions up. A single pipe brings the water to the Baths, directly in my bathtub. That the shell of copper is, is required for the effect. The metal causes a chemical reaction with the water, they knew that a long time ago, even though. And indeed, if I'm in the copper tub lowering, the body is covered with thousands of bubbles. If I just rub my arms and chase the bubbles, they are in no-time back. They provide a slight tingling sensation on the skin. Very relaxing'.
The bath uses carbonated water which reacts to the skin by sizzling.

Erfurt-Cooper, P., Cooper, M. (2009) Health and Wellness Tourism: Spas and Hot Springs. Aspects of Tourism 40. Channel View Publications, Bristol, United Kingdom.

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