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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Castles and the real Spa

One thing I love about traveling on our own, without having everything planned ahead of time, is the discoveries we make along the way.
But heading south into Belgium and towards Luxembourg we realized it was better to have a reservation, and thus a destination, rather than simply hoping to find a hotel or B & B by passing one along the road. That way we made too many stops where everything was full, and finally had to settle for a more expensive hotel room than we had planned. 
Even though it is October and not so busy with tourists anymore, many villages seem to have festivals and celebrations, especially on weekends. 
Chateau Harzé

So I searched online (actually I mostly use to make bookings) and discovered a gorgeous looking castle in a tiny village in the area we wanted to visit in the Ardennes. The castle looked like a fancy hotel on the website but the cost was half of what we would have expected. It fitted our budget so I booked a room.
When we arrived, we were most impressed with the huge, gray stone castle, complete with turrets and surrounded by a wall with a gate. I had expected snooty waiters and a regular hotel lobby. Instead, there was a small reception desk with a very friendly gentleman. Our room was large with high ceilings. A kingsize bed with memory foam, a nice bathroom. We have a fridge and a coffee maker in our room - more than we had in many other hotels on this trip. And a view onto the castle garden and fountain. It is dead quiet.
Breakfast is included in the cute restaurant in what seems to be the old wine cellar. Rather than being part of a hotel chain, this castle is owned by the county.

When you sleep between the thick stone walls of this castle, you are certainly surrounded by history. The original building dates back to about 1200, with the main building as it is now arising around the 1600’s. I love the history sheet we were given in “English” - referring to a colonel who lived here in 1647 - and I quote: “Its armorial bearings were twinned with those of his wife.” I can just picture her armorial bearings…

During World War II the castle was the headquarters of the US 18th Airborne Corps during the Battle of the Bulge. A sign states that General Eisenhower was here.
We enjoyed staying here and I highly recommend Chateau Harzé if you visit this area:

From Harzé it is a 25 minutes drive, among lovely rolling hills and picturesque villages, to the city of Spa.
The word is recognized worldwide as a synonym for health. My dictionary defines the noun ‘spa’ as ‘mineral water’ or ‘resort with water for bathing’. So, if you are this close to the REAL Spa, I decided we better visit. I also happen to love spa’s in the broadest sense. 
Spa, Belgium has apparently been known for its healing waters since Roman times. Since Medieval times its waters have been used to cure illnesses. 
In Spa, you can stay in the Radisson Hotel which has a vernicular (tram) to the resort. We, however, preferred ‘our’ castle in Harzé and drove to Spa this morning. You can buy a day pass or a 3 hour pass. We figured that 3 hours of soaking would be plenty. They have a smart system: when you pay your admission they give you a small plastic chip. It opens the turn style to go into the change rooms. It also opens a locker for your stuff, and fits into a wristband that you then wear into the pool. When you want to eat or drink something, you “charge” it to the chip in your wrist band. Once you are ready to leave, you pay the balance and ‘voila’ - the chip opens the exit for you.

The pool consists of an enormous glass dome over a huge pool of wonderful warm water. Just the perfect temperature. You can float and swim. There are edges with massaging water nozzles. There are flumes and spouts and bubble seats, even bubble beds on which you can relax. You can swim outside, through a strong jetted river. We’ve seldom been so clean. And so relaxed. 
The only problem? I’m now spoiled for life by visiting the grandest ‘spa’ of them all.

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