Thirsting for knowledge in the Ardennes: Stephen Wood took his plastic cup and set off in the footsteps of Peter the Great to try the waters of Spa

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The Independent Travel
Strange that Spa should lack the sort of water feature that graces so many Belgian towns. In Bruges there is a group of black metal figures set in a small pool, one of whom, a mermaid, has water not only gushing from her mouth but also spurting upwards out of each nipple. In Brussels the statue of Manneken-Pis has kept up a constant flow since the 15th century to amuse the tourists. But in Spa, nothing - despite the fact that the town has water coming out of its ears.

There are more than 300 natural springs in Spa and the surrounding Ardennes forest. The area is covered with a deep, peat-like surface, which acts as a natural filter for the rainwater passing through it; the water reacts with the pyrites below to release large quantities of acid and gas, which, in turn, allow the water to absorb minerals from the rocks.

Romans came to take the waters (the name Spa is probably derived from the Latin word spargere, 'to gush forth'), and in the Middle Ages a mystical cult grew up around the supposed healing qualities of the springs. Charles II came from England in 1654, Peter the Great from Russia with indigestion in 1717; and among those taking the waters

in the 18th and 19th centuries, at the height of Spa's popularity, were Alexandre Dumas, Benjamin Disraeli and the Shah of Persia, Nazer-ed-Din. In April 1994, I turned up with a plastic cup to taste them myself.

The tourist office in the quiet Victorian town helpfully hands out a map for visitors with a thirst for knowledge, showing the seven principal drinkable sources. The tasting notes are less helpful: each water is described as 'ferruginous, carbogaseous, cold'.

My own notes on the first, the Source du Tonnelet, at the eastern edge of the town, are fuller. 'Cool water with a sharp, almost lemony flavour, followed by an overpowering after-taste of iron - you need a glass of claret to clear the palate after this.' The source was mentioned in the first monograph on Spa waters, published in 1559, and was subsequently protected with a stone shelter supported by Doric columns; today the water flows out of a standpipe set in an elegant glass-and-iron rotunda, alongside three similar structures which house a restaurant. Business was not brisk on a bright Saturday morning, but one elderly woman hobbled along for what looked like a ritual mouthful of iron, and a motorist stopped to fill a couple of bottles with the stuff.

With one returnable plastic bottle, Spa residents are guaranteed free mineral water and an iron constitution. But no one was filling up at the twin Fontaines de La Sauveniere and Groesbeeck. My notes for both read 'cold, lightly sulphurous, strongly iron'; the sources are individually marked with engraved stones, but my palate was not sensitive enough to discern any differing degree of unpleasantness.

Like most of these seven sources,

La Sauvernere and Groesbeeck have spawned a restaurant, in this case in a building recognisable from an 18th-century print. The town has made conspicuous efforts since 1975 to encourage tourists to follow its water trail, and

not just with maps and booklets. The sources are signposted, well maintained and most have an enamel sign erected by Spa Monopole, the company that exports Spa water to the world's supermarkets, detailing the mineral content.

But the most important source goes almost unmarked. On the beautiful route des Fontaines, a dead-straight avenue through the forest which connects La Sauveniere and Groesbeeck with the Fontaine de la Geronstere, just a small sign indicates a ramblers' trail - with the name Source de la Reine on it.

A five-minute tramp through the forest brings you to a clearing, and what looks like a rather grand public convenience set on a rough concrete plinth. A metal plaque explains that on 15 June 1933, 'Queen Elizabeth inaugurated the pavilion of this source, to which Queen Marie-Henriette deigned to give her name'. The still Spa water runs below the pavilion, along a pipe into the bottling plant in town, into a plastic bottle with a blue label marked 'Reine', and thence to your local Sainsbury's. It is valuable stuff, so they do not give it away in the forest of the Ardennes.

The water that emerges at La Geronstere, on the other hand, 'cannot be commercially bottled without special care', says Spa Monopole's sign beside the source. 'The mineral water offered here has a high iron content. Consequently, it has quite a peculiar taste.' Iron is only part of the story: the source also offers lashings of calcium, sodium, sulphates and bicarbonates, as well as cheeky hints of lithium, barium and aluminium. And 'peculiar' is not the word I would have chosen. I noted that the water was 'cool, with a taste of sulphur strong enough to mask the iron'. This was the source that Tsar Peter used, so his taste was not great.

The drive to the Source Barisart is a delightful one, a hairpinned descent through the tall trees; and, while it is generally better to travel than to arrive on the Spa water trail, you can get a decent drink at Barisart. Not just in the cafe, either: the water here, I noted lyrically, was 'cool, with subtle flavours, the elusive centre surrounded by familiar hints of iron and sulphur'. It was bound to be good, though, because people pay good money for it - or at least for something similar. Sparkling Spa water comes from a source only a few hundred yards away, the sparkle being added in the bottling plant.

Both the cafe and the source at Barisart are in a sort of Sixties Swedish building, and the water emerges from what looks like a stainless-steel wood stove. The modern cleanliness emphasises the dramatic colouring of all the sources: the reddish-brown stain on the drain where the iron in the water has rusted. But at least the water at Barisart, for once, does not actually taste like the Industrial Revolution.

The last two sources are in the town of Spa itself. The Pouhon Prince de Conde (pouhon means spring) is set in a ridiculous, modern interior of mirrors and pot plants. You pay seven Belgian francs per cup for the water, which is 'flat and tasteless with a little sulphur on the nose'. On the other hand, the showpiece Pouhon Pierre le Grand, right in the centre of town, is a fine example of Victorian spa architecture, a light, airy temple of healthy drinking. At least, that was how it looked through the window. It was open every Saturday - except this one, when it was deserted and locked. 'It must be open,' said the woman at the tourist office. 'The door is very stiff,' she added helpfully.

There were further disappointments. The Spa Monopole plant, which processes 600 million bottles of water every year, is open for guided tours ('Free admission and sample of products'), but only on weekdays. I wanted to see the Laundry Museum ('evokes the lives of washerwomen and the gradual development of laundering techniques from the Middle Ages onwards'), but it is open only on off-season Sundays. Which left the Museum of the Town of Water.

Its ground floor offers a sad, municipal display of what are inappropriately called 'jolites' - horrid decorative sewing and toilet boxes, regrettably a speciality of Spa. But upstairs was a display of artefacts from its history as a resort. I had noticed in the cafe beside the tourist office that eight of the 16 items on its soft drinks menu were Spa water: Spa-pommes, Spa-cassis, Spa-petillant, Spa-reine, and so on. But this was nothing compared with the range offered to visitors in the 19th century: as the labels in the museum show, they could choose the water, not just the flavouring. The bottlers revealed their sources, offering water from La Reine, Prince de Conde and Tonnelet, among others. The label on the Tonnelet claims the water is 'non ferrugineuse', but adds that a variety with iron is also available.

There were similarly bold claims on a poster for Midland Railway's trips to Spa. The 'cold, chalybeate waters', awarded a 'Grand prize at Paris in 1900 for salubrity and hygiene', were said to offer a 'certain cure for anaemia, chlorosis, neurasthenia', while 'carbonic acid gas baths (are) efficacious in all heart troubles'. Included in the price of a through ticket was 'Free omnibus, St Pancras to Charing Cross'.

The town's history survives better in the museum than outside, where the old spa-town grandeur is being submerged in a sea of waffles, souvenirs and video games. True, the old covered market and the gardens are still pleasant, in an appropriately staid way; but the fine entrance hall to the therm-

al baths, its recessed ceiling panels painted with flowers, has been compromised by the desire to project the 'beauty treatment' potential of water cures. So I drove off to see Spa's other attraction, its motor-racing circuit.

Based on public roads, the circuit has one corner, called 'Eau Rouge', which is regarded by grand prix drivers as the most testing - and frightening - they have to face anywhere. I thought I would give it a go. A long, straight descent into a valley leads to a quick left- and-right flick, then up the other side. I got halfway through the corner, and turned sharp left: too many people have obviously wanted to give Eau Rouge a go, and traffic has been diverted off the circuit at the bottom of the hill. Still, so many drains full of rusty water did at least explain the name Eau Rouge.

THE FRENCH word fontaine has a variety of meanings. It describes monumental waterworks such as the Trevi fountain in Rome; but it also covers water cisterns, pissing little statues and - as at Spa - standpipes producing a dribble of rusty water. Anyone visiting the Musee de l'Eau et de la Fontaine on the drive from Spa back to the Channel ports is at least forewarned that the museum may not be as spectacular as it sounds. There is no problem seeing it at weekends: that is the only time it is open, since the charming, shy curator works in a bank during the week.

The museum is beside the lake at Genval-les-Eaux, about 10 miles south- east of Brussels, and it is a most curious place. There is a little bit of 'Look and Learn' (the water-cycle display, installed with the assistance of the Societe' Wallonne des Distributions d'Eau), and some popular science (a model of a village pump with a Perspex cylinder so that you can see how it works). Among the documentary sources are some bills, dated April and December 1962, from a plumber to Robert Lagniaux, 21 rue de Bruyere, Virginal; the industrial archaeology element is provided by a boot-sale selection of corroded water meters and all manner of stopcocks, plus a selection of ancient tools used by the fontainier.

Little garden-centre fountains tinkle away in the background as you wander around the museum's mock caves, confronted at every turn by fearsome black cast-iron pumps which look as if they were designed to extract confessions rather than water. On the walls are some bad paintings and some wonderful old photographs of municipal pumps in Belgian towns and villages. Best of all was the audio-visual on the maintenance of the water-supply network of the town of Seraing: I had no idea that dealing with encrustation inside a mains pipe could be so exciting.

Outside the museum is a strangely savage water feature. The remains of a mermaid lie across a pool: the jets which emerge from it seem to have blasted holes in her metal body. It left a nasty taste in the mouth, rather like the Source de Tonnelet.

(Photograph omitted)

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