“Thirsty?” asks the flight attendant as she hands me a blue bottle. I twist the cap and sip the crisp, slightly acidic water. One look at the label, Spa Reine, and I wonder if the advertising gods are tracking me. Spa. That’s where I am headed. No, not to the spa — to the Belgian town.
Last year, after several grueling weeks spent juggling teenagers, dogs and deadlines, I sat at my computer, bent on planning a spa break. Instead, I stumbled on that town in Belgium where, I learned, the common noun originated. A few clicks and I was hooked. Last September, I flew to Brussels and took the train for an easy two-hour ride to Spa (population about 10,000), near Liege within the Ardennes forest, to discover where it all started.
Lulled by the rhythm of the train, I admired the late summer light streaming through the dense, peaceful woods, but I knew that in December 1944, those same trees became the site of one of the fiercest military battles. The Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last major offensive against the Allies, claimed about 19,000 American lives in just a few weeks.
“Thousands of soldiers are buried in military cemeteries in the area,” said Gaëtan Plein, a guide and raconteur, the next day as we strolled through the quaint town center.
Some say there are 25 springs, while others count as many as 300 sprinkled throughout the rolling hills. Their medicinal properties were already known locally in the 16th century, but when Czar Peter I of Russia (Peter the Great) arrived for a month-long stay in 1717 at the recommendation of his doctor and left seemingly cured of his liver ailment, he ignited the interest of aristocrats throughout Europe and Russia. Suddenly, Spa was the place to be.