A two-week vacation in Europe was set: fly to Munich, next stop Brussels, then on to Amsterdam.
But a thought occurred: "Three bustling cities — bam, bam, bam. Too hectic!" I've always had a great time in Brussels, but why not discover and explore a Belgian city with a slower pace? A little research with Francoise of the Belgium tourist office led us to the ancient city of Liège, reasoning that if it was good enough for Charlemagne, it's good enough for us. Liège is located in the beautiful Meuse River valley in the Wallonia region, which is the French-speaking section of Belgium.
Liège proved to be a perfect destination because the city is both old and new with a rapidly evolving art scene that I think will soon be attracting major attention in Europe. The restaurants are terrific and reasonably priced, and there is no shortage of music, fountains, gardens, winding streets, and shopping areas, parks, bike paths, historical sites, cathedrals, boat rides on the Meuse River, friendly people, and lively bars with great beer.
If you travel by train, as my girlfriend Jane and I did, you get a spectacular welcome as you arrive at the Guillemins station, the modern masterpiece of Santiago Calatrava, whose stunning work includes the Museum of the Future in Rio, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Adán Martin Arts Center in Tenerife, Spain. The station sets the tone for a city seriously dedicated to broadening the already large base of its museums and modern architecture.
Our hotel, The Liège Crowne Plaza (above), was centrally located, and has the distinction of being the only five-star establishment within nearly a hundred mile radius. You may be tempted to head to the modern "Lobby Bar" before you get to your room. If so, ask for a cocktail made with peket, the local version of gin (juniper spirit) that can be natural or infused with many flavors — melon, strawberry, violet, etc. Peket is also an essential cooking ingredient of the region. The hotel is a stunning combination of two very old private mansions and a completely new seven-story structure. It has a gym, full-service spa and an excellent indoor swimming pool, which is one thing I try to find while I am traveling.
Of great note at the Liège Crowne Plaza is its restaurant, Le Sélys (top), which occupies the ground floor of the former Sélys Longchamps town house. The restaurant has a capacity for only 50 guests in its two elegant rooms, and is a gastronomic dining destination within Liège and well beyond. Its Belgian executive chef, Samuel Blanc, has a Michelin star, and a creative hand that extols the virtues of delicious produce and products of the Liège region. Catherine, the maître d', runs the classically appointed rooms with friendly formality. I suggest you check out its spectacular menu, but let me just say that our “dorade royale (for two) en croute de sel avec sauce Noilly-Prat" was the best preparation of such a dish that I have ever experienced.
We had four days in Liège and on one of them, while I was prowling local bars and sampling high-powered Belgian beers like Delirium Tremens, Maredsous, and Tripel Karmeliet, Jane set off on a day trip to the thermal city of Spa, the town where the concept of a spa began. Here is her recollection of that adventure, because after my day, I really don't recall her story:
"My day in Spa was a delight. The short train ride left me in the heart of this small and charming town. Waiting for me on the station platform was my informative and entertaining guide, Gaetan Plein, who works at the tourist office there. As we walked around the city, he told me many stories about the history of Spa and its illustrious visitors, such as Peter the Great and Dwight Eisenhower, who came to take the water cures. Spa also has a Formula One racetrack, a very old classic Casino, numerous parks, and special thermal waters from five underground springs.
"Gaetan then drove me through the verdant hills surrounding Spa. We wound up at the Thermes de Spa (pictured), a huge thermal facility with many treatment rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, and places to enjoy the view from high above the city. The General Director, Ms. Severine Philippin, took me on a personal tour. It is new, and nothing has been overlooked regarding health and beauty services. They even have a treatment room with a copper bath tub for people with high blood pressure. There are areas for total nudity, if you're so inclined. I left there with the desire to return for a few days as soon as my schedule would allow. To top it all off, I got back down to the town via funicular! Do not miss a chance to spend time in Spa at the spa!"
At leisure in Liège with the side trip to Spa proved to be one of our more interesting travel experiences in the last several years. I hope you get a chance to go there and explore even more of Belgium yourself.