“So, where are you?” I asked my friend when she answered the phone.
“I’m just pulling in.”
“Awesome. IT’S A CASTLE!” I was beside myself. We met at Thermae Boetfort Spa rather than riding all the way to Brussels together, a commute of about 45 minutes, because she had spent the night with a friend in the Belgian capital. The pampering day that she and I were about to enjoy was going to take place inside a castle that has been converted to a modern spa, European style. Sweet! This would be no ordinary spa day, I was certain, and I was right. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, you deserve to know why spas are so important in Belgium.
The original spa after which all subsequent spas have been named is actually a town: Spa, Belgium. It has been known for its healing waters since Roman times, and it now boasts a modern spa facility with several pools, saunas, steam baths and a relaxing area under infrared lights. I went there a few months ago with a friend visiting from Pittsburgh and North Carolina via the Gulf of Mexico (that’s another story altogether), and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. They offer massages and facials but we didn’t call early enough for an appointment (they book a week or more out) so we simply enjoyed their wet area and had a nice lunch in their café. My favorite part of that particular day was the menthol steam bath. I was getting over a cold and my sinuses opened right up in there, and they stayed open! Plus it smells super nice.
I have also enjoyed a massage and the natural warm spring spa in Valkenburg, Netherlands. Very upscale with most of the same offerings, but a nicer facility than the one in Spa; newer, I suppose. Only my second bona fide European massage (read: nude), it was thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable. The masseuse was very skilled and even gave me a head massage, which was wonderful beyond belief. Your hair gets a great conditioning, too, as they use essential oils, even when massaging your scalp!
Fortunately the givers of all my European massages so far have been female. I often wonder what I would do if I were scheduled for a massage here in Europe and a man walked into the room…actually, there is nothing to wonder about. I would politely ask for a lady. Having a massage by a man, with me in my birthday suit, would undoubtedly be counter-productive; I would be stressed out instead of relaxed by the end.
In any event, having had these experiences, I figured I knew generally what to expect at Thermae Boetfort in Brussels. I had called ahead for a massage and a facial. I was going to enjoy the entire day. I said it wasn’t going to be ordinary, and it wasn’t, starting with my call to my friend who was joining me. So back to the conversation.
“I’ll wait for you,” I continued. “I’m in the lobby. See you in a minute.”
“Wait a minute,” she responded. “I have kind of a weird dilemma.” At that, I was expecting her to bail on me for some reason; maybe she got a better offer. “I went to the grocery last night and I bought ice cream. Do you think they’d put it in their freezer until we leave?”
I laughed. “Um…I don’t know. You could ask, I guess. Why, pray tell, did you buy ice cream, knowing we’d be here today and it’s probably 45 degrees?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think about it!” She paused, then, “I’m gonna ask ’em anyway!”
When she walked in the door, we approached the counter and got our robes, towels and slippers, as well as our armbands containing a computer chip so all our charges for the day would be right on our arms, thus eliminating the need to have cash while in the spa. Then my friend said to the lady behind the counter, “I have a request.”
I backed up. “This is all her,” I said, throwing her under the proverbial bus. She was a good sport about it though, and chuckled as she explained her problem. The nice girl smiled sweetly and advised her to go to the restaurant and ask them, as they have the only freezer. Her colleague was listening to this, and he said, “Or you could just eat it all now. Or share it with us. We’ll help you eat it.” We bantered back and forth with him for a few minutes about sharing the ice cream then headed toward the spa and its accompanying restaurant. (It’s worth noting that the front desk staff speaks very fine English, as well as French and Dutch; all these languages are requisite for major players in the commercial retail market in Brussels, definitely a multi-lingual city.) While I waited at the entrance to the locker room, my friend went to the restaurant to ask her little ice cream favor. I was absolutely expecting her to return and say, “You want to help me eat this ice cream?” but lo and behold, one of the waiters at the restaurant put it in their freezer! Sometimes people surprise me with how accommodating they can be, and in Belgium, no less!
Now when had I suggested this day to my friend, she asked if I wanted to use the bathing suit area or the nude area. Yes, my puritanical American friends (myself included, I’m afraid), this particular spa has an extensive nude area, larger than the suited area actually, at least in terms of number of saunas. Without a nano-second’s hesitation I responded, “the bathing suit area.” Then I stopped dead, looked up, and said, “You’d use the nude area, wouldn’t you?” How did I know this, you ask? Well, my pretty American 40-something gal pal is wonderfully uninhibited and comfortable in her skin. I admire her for it. But then, she can afford to be. She’s ten years younger than me and still has the body of her twenty year old self. She said, a little sheepishly, “Well, yeah, but we don’t have to; I’m fine with the suited area.” I was awfully happy to hear that because this American 50-something doesn’t relish the idea of baring it all in front of strangers – or friends, for that matter – in saunas and jacuzzis and such. I am only courageous enough to wear a two-piece bathing suit, and that only because I’ve lived in and visited European beaches long enough to know that Europeans’ expectations with regard to what they bare are markedly lower than Americans’, at least in general. Frankly, I like that a lot. It’s one of the many reasons I so love this ancient continent.
We headed to the co-ed locker room (there are private changing areas, no worries. Or so I thought – more on that later) and put on our bathing suits, stashing our stuff in the lockers. We went for an exploration of the facility; we both had treatments within about thirty minutes of our arrival, so we didn’t have time to do much except explore and take one quick dip in a very hot, small relaxing pool, downstairs in what might have once been the castle’s dungeon. More likely a root cellar, but whatever it had been, it made a wonderful, cave-y sort of pool.
The massage area is upstairs, past the restaurant, and between two of the castle’s turrets. The masseuse was not a native French speaker but her French was better than mine and she was very good at making me feel comfortable. That’s hard to do when she’s standing there watching you get naked. Oh yes, they do. They do NOT leave the room. They just stand there and watch. The first time that happened was in Valkenburg; I kept waiting for the masseuse to leave the room. I put my bag down. I looked out the window overlooking the pools. I turned and looked at the masseuse, smiling uncomfortably. She didn’t leave. She just waited. Eventually I got the idea and stripped down with her standing right there. Now it’s old hat. No, it’s not. It’s damned uncomfortable. But on this more recent occasion, the masseuse talked with me like we were old pals, very matter of fact, and pretty soon I was face down on the table, wearing nothing but what my mama gave me. The masseuse told me to tell her if I wanted the massage to be firmer or easier, but I never had to say anything; she knew just what to do. It was a very well spent fifty minutes. Very. Well. Spent. Aaahhhh…
Leaving the massage room was a challenge; my legs were a little like jelly. I decided to stop in the restaurant. In my robe. Such a decadent image, sitting in a restaurant in a robe, but everyone else was in their robes, too, so when in Rome! Anyway, I had a glass of the house red, and probably because of the massage, it went right to my head. I waited long enough for my head to stop spinning, and I went to look for my friend, stumbling only slightly, I’m pretty sure. When I found her in the relaxation area facing the outdoor pool, I asked about her treatment, some sort of bath. “It was okay. It was a bath. I’ve had baths before.” We laughed and I told her about the wine and she graciously suggested we have lunch, so we returned to the restaurant, which is far more upscale than the other spas I’ve visited. And we ate our very tasty lunch in our very damp robes and talked about the meaning of life. No, really we did. Seriously. We didn’t figure it out altogether, but we got a good start on it, at least as far as we two are concerned.
When we’d had our fill of lunch and deep conversation, we tried out the outdoor pool. The water felt warm when we entered the pool on the inside of the building. Notice that past tense verb, felt? In the other spas I’ve visited, the outdoor water was a little warmer so it was really quite pleasant, in spite of the colder temperatures. In fact, some are so warm that you can stand up in the water with your trunk exposed, and as long as you’re submerged to about your waist, you’re comfortable, even in 40 degree weather. The Blue Lagoon in Iceland is like that. I think you’ve gathered by now that this one wasn’t. But the jacuzzis were also outside and we figured they were warmer so we headed there. We were right. Warm, toasty and bubbly. All a Jacuzzi is supposed to be.
We also tried the saunas. One had a sign by the door that read “70 degrees Celsius.” “Geez,” I said, “what is that in Fahrenheit, like 350?” I was thinking you could bake a meatloaf in there! (It’s actually 158 degrees Fahrenheit; the hottest temperature recorded in Death Valley is 138 degrees Fahrenheit. 20 degrees hotter than Death Valley. Dang. That’s hot.) We went in and it was, in fact, quite hot, sweltering, in fact, but there is no way it was 70 degrees. I could actually stand it, and often I can’t take saunas. Steam rooms, yes; saunas usually are too much for me. So anyway, this sauna incorporated changing light colors, under the theory that different wavelengths of light have a different effect on your body. I don’t know about that but it was very pleasant, lots of good sweating going on. We stayed there for a bit, then headed out to shower and go for our next treatment, a facial for me; a massage for her.
This time they let us share the room, she on her table and me on mine. I was super excited; this was to be my first facial. I’ve heard that some European women get them every two or three months. Now I know why. The esthetician first cleansed my face, neck and shoulders. Then she used something to open and then close the pores. Next was a mildly peeling mask. After that was a gentle cleansing with face, neck and shoulder massage. A couple of different times she put cold things (cucumber slices?) on my eyes. Finally was another massage with moisturizer. This whole process took fifty glorious, rapturous, relaxing minutes, during which I woke myself up once with a whiffling snore! At the end, my face felt, and continued to feel, hours later, soft, smooth and cool to the touch. I looked in the mirror and it looked a little like a glow. My friend said to me, “Next time, I’m having what you had! She did little massages around your eyes!” Yes, I know; it was magnificent. Plus, I looked fabulous. I didn’t even put on makeup (what??? ME???) when I left; my skin looked so clear and practically unblemished. I see a lot of facials in my future.
My friend left after that but I stayed for another hour, visiting the steam bath (twice!), the Jacuzzi, and the cave-pool again. I was thoroughly relaxed when I headed back to the locker room to change. Imagine my surprise when I practically ran into this fellow, clearly on his way to the nude area. He was holding his towel strategically, thank goodness, but when he passed going the other way, I turned around to be sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing, and the moon was definitely out, right there in the locker room!
You never know what your European spa experience will be like, but it definitely won’t be ordinary.