Spa: Belgium's healthy-living retreat

Dicky heart? Touch of the rheumatics? The ailing once flocked to Spa in Belgium to take its curative waters. Are those days really long gone or could a lavish new public bath revive its healthy reputation, asks Cathy Pryor

Life was not going well for the Italian adventurer and ladies' man Giacomo Casanova in the summer of 1783. He was broke, bored and in a bad mood.

He was also in Belgium. Casanova had washed up in the crowded health resort of Spa in the Ardennes. His financial problems were piling up.

None of his money-making plans - setting up a lottery in Brussels, building a canal across France - looked promising. He hoped to meet sympathetic ladies, but got only one offer - an English lady who, he said, "addressed me with proposals which froze me with fear".

In his sour mood, Casanova had nothing good to say about Spa. "I don't know by what convention, every summer, all nations of Europe assemble [there] to do all sorts of foolish things." Frustrated and fuming, he left.

Casanova's experience was uniquely bad. If you venture there now, you're bound to have a better time. This small, pleasant town in Wallonia offers grandiose, if fading, French classicist architecture, excellent cafés and restaurants, clean air and lush greenery on its surrounding hills. In common with Belgium generally, it seems underrated as a holiday destination. Perhaps Casanova's problem was that he was looking for a financial cure, whereas most who go there are after its waters.

Not that the two are unconnected. Clean water has always been a valuable commodity. It's not for nothing that Spa's name became the generic term for all water resorts.

The reputation of its waters goes back to the Dark Ages. A 9th-century manuscript tells of a blind woman who bathed her eyes in Spa's waters and regained her sight. Spa also boasted a local saint, Remaclus, who was said to have the power to create springs and purify fountains. A stone near one spring bears a deep footprint, believed to be that of the saint.

By the Middle Ages, Spa's waters were so popular that a "cure tax" was imposed to deter visitors. It didn't work. Travel wasn't easy, but the pilgrims kept coming. By the 16th century, their numbers included royalty; Henry VIII's doctor is said to have been the first to use the waters at Spa to cure rheumatism.

Spa's fortunes rose relentlessly until its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries when "taking the waters" at resorts across Europe became the fashionable way for the rich to alleviate the damage caused by their extravagant lifestyles. Wealthy and powerful patrons may only have visited in high season, but they brought their lifestyle in their wake - opera houses, luxury hotels, casinos - changing the face of spa towns for ever.

By then, water cures were said to be based not on miracles, but on medicine. Mineral-rich waters were thought to cure illnesses from heart disease to kidney stones. Doctors prescribed vast amounts of the waters in cocktails made from the different springs.

You can, if you dare, drink from the same springs today: dozens are dotted around the town and the surrounding hills. Some are delicious. Some are full of sulphur. Some are heavy in iron salts, and stain the basins built around them a rich rust colour.

Sadly for Spa, medicine moved on; by the early 20th century it was realised that the "water cure" didn't work in the way people believed. After the First World War and the Depression, most spa towns declined. Spa still shows the scars: many of its most beautiful buildings look in need of a cure themselves. But the town has survived. Each year, it hosts the Belgian Grand Prix. And, still relying on its oldest asset, it produces a range of commercial mineral waters.

Spa is trying to rejuvenate its image. In its lavish, new public baths, Les Thermes de Spa, you can swim amid fountains or try health and beauty treatments including massages and hot baths.

Spa's waters today won't give sight to the blind, make you holier, or heal the damage done by your dissipated lifestyle, but they'll give you what they failed to give Casanova: some fun.

Cathy Pryor travelled as a guest of the Belgian Tourist Office (020-7531 0390; www.belgiumtheplaceto.be) and Eurostar (08705 186186; www.eurostar.com). Return fares to Brussels with a connection on Belgian rail services to Liege or Verviers (the closest stations to Spa) start at £59 return. Double rooms at the Hotel Radisson SAS Palace Spa (00 32 87 279 700; www.spa.radissonsas.com) start at €133 (£95) per night b&b. Great Gastronomy and Spa Holidays (01733 315522; www.greatgastronomy.com) offers two-night holidays from £300

More spas

Terme di Saturnia

WHERE IS IT? Deep in the rolling countryside of Tuscany's Maremma. Legend has it the Terme di Saturnia were created by a bolt of lightening thrown to earth by the god Saturn.

WHAT TO DO Stay in the Hotel Terme di Saturnia (00 39 056 460 0111; www.termedisaturnia.it), one of Italy's best spa hotels, which has direct access to the pools. Double rooms start at €360 (£257) per night b&b.

Eugénie-les-Bains

WHERE IS IT? The town, in the shadow of the French Pyrenees, could easily have been modelled by Walt Disney.

WHAT TO DO Most visitors make a beeline for the idyllic surroundings of Les Prés de Eugénie (00 33 558 05 05 05; www.michelguerard.com). It has an on-site spa with thermal baths and beauty treatments derived from plants grown on the property. Double rooms start at €270 (£192) per night b&b.

Druskininkai

WHERE IS IT? Close to the border with Belarus and Poland this southern Lithuanian resort has been attracting visitors since 1794.

WHAT TO DO Many of Druskininkai's sanitoriums, such as the Lietuva (00 370 313 52833; www.sanatorijalietuva.lt), offer no nonsense treatments that use not only the restorative properties of the seven mineral springs of the resort, but also curative sodium, calcium and potassium rich mud.

Bath

WHERE IS IT? England's premier spa town and Unesco World Heritage-listed city is due to open the much delayed and eagerly anticipated Thermae Bath Spa (01225 331234; www.thermaebathspa.com) later this summer.

WHAT TO DO Soak up the benefits of Britain's only naturally occurring hot springs at the restored Hot and Cross baths, while the rooftop pool offers a bird's eye view of the Georgian city.

Therme Vals

WHERE IS IT? High in the Graubunden region of the Swiss Alps, Therme Vals (00 41 81 926 8080; www.therme-vals.ch) is a modern spot to take the plunge.

WHAT TO DO The spa that houses the hot pools was given a contemporary redesign in 1996. This stunning landmark built from 60,000 slabs of Valser quartzite has a complex of baths containing mineral rich pools simmering at a constant 32C as well as a hotel and treatment rooms.

Baden-Baden

WHERE IS IT? The springs of Baden-Baden, bubbling up from 6,500ft below, have been enticing the great and the good to the western foothills of the Black Forest since Roman times.

WHAT TO DO Visit the Belle Epoque Kurhaus (00 49 7221 353 203; www.kurhaus-baden-baden.de) and its perfectly manicured gardens. Or loll in the grandeur of the frescoed Friedrichsbad (00 49 7221 275 920; roemisch-irisches-bad.de), a soporific 16-step ritual which has been combining Roman-Irish bathing traditions for 125 years.

Karlovy Vary

WHERE IS IT? Less than 100 kilometres east of Prague, this historic Czech city with an impressive regal pedigree is better known by its German name, Carlsbad, after the Bohemian king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles (Karl) IV, who found the springs during a hunting expedition in 1358.

WHAT TO DO Follow in the footsteps of numerous royals, Ludwig van Beethoven and Karl Marx and visit one of the six public thermal baths ('lazne'), which include the Castle baths, offering an array of medical and beauty treatments. For details see www.karlovyvary.cz

Budapest

WHERE IS IT? Perched on a bend of the scenic Danube, the Hungarian capital sits on top of a network of thermal springs channelled through bathing houses built by the Romans and Ottomans

WHAT TO DO If it's sheer opulence and grandeur you're after then stay at the Hotel Gellert (00 36 1 889-5501; www.danubiushotels.com/gellert), whose 'in-house' pool is said to be the finest Art Nouveau example in Europe. A double room starts at €146 (£104) per night b&b which includes entrance to the spa.

Vichy

WHERE IS IT? Vichy is at the gateway to picturesque Auvergne, rich in mineral springs and dotted with extinct volcanoes.

WHAT TO DO The Halle des Sources houses four of Vichy's six springs, where visitors can observe the water bubbling up or take the cure from one of the drinking fountains. Treatments at the wellness centre include the "Vichy Shower," a 15-minute, full body rub by two massage therapists under a four-headed shower of warm mineral water. For information see www.vichy-thermes.tm.fr.

Gareth Bourne and Sarah Hajibagheri

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