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A week’s incentive - in three days

Spa fast lap cars

Michelle Chenery visits Liege and Spa in Wallonia

I still find it hard to believe the range of activities, cuisine and hospitality that we enjoyed in so short a time. As guests of the Brussels-Wallonia section of the Belgian Tourist Office and their associates, we were invited to whizz under the English Channel on Eurostar and, via the Midi Station in Brussels, to Liege. There it was just a short walk from the station to the Crowne Plaza Liege, our hotel for the first night.

Wallonia is the Southern region of Belgium. It offers a variety of specialist landscapes and adventures and is dotted with excellent facilities for meetings and events. In the space of three days we experienced what Wallonia has to offer at the blistering pace of a Renault Megane RS sport rally car, from the dizzying height of a helicopter flight and at the traditional pace of a vintage Citroen 2CV.

After settling into the Crowne Plaza Liege, we took a walk down the hill into the heart of the town and to the Taverne A Pilori for dinner. With a great site in the market square, Le Pilori is one of the oldest inns in Liege, where visitors can enjoy traditional hearty local food. We rolled away from the table after polishing off Liege meatballs, chips and salad followed by a Liege waffle (not to be confused with the usual Belgian waffle, as they do taste a little different) with cream and chocolate sauce.
Le Pilori has a first floor room able to seat up to 40 guests with views over the market square.

Excitement at the Spa F1 Circuit
After a restful night, we breakfasted in the hotel’s O Cocottes Brasserie and then boarded a coach for the Spa-Francorchamps Circuit, which is 30 miles from Liege. It is easily accessible via the motorway network, the journey taking only about 40 minutes.

At the world-famous Grand Prix track we were split into small groups, identified by different coloured lanyards. Mini-buses then ferried us to the inner circuit and the pit lanes, where we were introduced to the four adventures that had been prepared for us by Coo Adventure, a specialist team-building agency.

We began with two speedy laps around the circuit in a Renault Sport RS racing car piloted by a professional driver. We were first given a short briefing on what to expect and then it was on with the helmets and into the cars with the drivers.

This is not for the faint hearted. At the time there were other cars out on the track and my driver just slipped in with them, jostling for position with Porsches, BMWs and a McLaren. OK, so we didn’t quite match the McLaren for speed on the straights, but my driver did a fine job of trying to keep up with it through the corners. I stepped out of the car after the second lap with the biggest grin on my face - and also glad that I hadn’t indulged in too big a breakfast that morning. It seemed more like a race than just two specimen fast laps. The drivers, I should mention, didn’t drive at the same speed for everyone. They gauged what speed the passengers would be happy with and then drove for their comfort and enjoyment.

We then proceeded to the pit garage and were instructed on our next activity, the Pit Stop Challenge. After a brief demonstration on what was expected, we split into two groups. Each required a driver, a jack operator, a wheel man, and a wheel gun technician to effect a smooth wheel change. There was a test run to familiarise us with the whole operation. The team drivers sat at the wheel of the racing VW Beetles, whilst the rest had to push the cars the length of the garage. The designated team members were waiting with the hydraulic jacks ready to lift the entire front end of the cars so the others could get to work removing and swapping around the two front wheels. The wheel gun had to be re-adjusted to remove and then replace the nuts. It was critical to ensure that the hubs were aligned when replacing the wheels. We had to take care not to trip over the hydraulic lines when switching the wheels. My team’s test run went surprisingly well. We finished well ahead of the opposing team, who were experiencing a few problems.

The cars were then shunted back to the start position and the timed run began in earnest. We were extremely competitive from the start, running while pushing the car to the start. Within seconds it was off the ground and I was already busy removing the first four bolts on the first wheel. That was whipped off and rolled around to the other side of the car whilst I was preparing, wheel gun in hand, straight into the removal of the next four bolts.

Then, as the second wheel hit the floor, the first was lifted into place and the bolts were whizzed on and tightened. By that time, on the other side of the car the wheel was already in position on the hub for me to just tighten the bolts. The car was then lowered and the entire team pushed the car back to the start position, proudly finishing ahead of our competitors.

After that exciting contest, where we could all imagine ourselves actually part of a Grand Prix event, we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the circuit. This took in the 24 hours paddocks and the F1 paddocks, the Press Room, the commentators’ booths and the Race Control Room where we could see absolutely everything going on at any point on the track. We were even taken to the legendary podium, where the greatest drivers have stood. Now, each one of us can say we have stood there! During the tour we were also informed about the history of the track and why it is seen as one of the most challenging circuits.

Tour by helicopter
For our next activity we were taken by mini bus to a nearby airfield where we were to discover the region via helicopter. A quick safety briefing was given on what not to do when approaching and getting into the helicopter and then the first five people from the group were boarding the helicopter, belted in and airborne. The 10-minute tour took in the surrounding area as well as a fly past over the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. It was a nice clear day and I was lucky enough to sit in the front seat, so I had a perfect view.

Back at the track we lunched in the Pit Brasserie on top of the Pit Building. It served up tasty cuisine from fresh products in keeping with the seasons. The Pit Brasserie terrace is the ideal place to get a panoramic view of the surrounding area as well as the pits, the finish line, podium and action on track.

The circuit of Spa-Francorchamps and its surroundings can host activities for groups ranging up to 300 people. Other activities on offer include discovering the region in a 4x4 off-road vehicle, or with the use of Segways or electric bikes. Francorchamps has 24 modern rooms for events, all with natural light and able to host up to 500 persons. There is Wi-Fi and audio and projection equipment.

We experienced some of the meeting facilities first hand with a workshop at the track with over 60 exhibitors from the Wallonia region. There were a wide array of hotels, convention bureaux, theme parks, vintage car rental companies, congress centres, incentive organisers and F1 simulators.

Radisson Blu Palace and a memorable 2CV drive
After learning all we could about the region and its MICE offerings, it was time to head the Radisson Blu Palace Hotel in the city centre.

That evening we walked round to La Tonnellerie next to the Radisson in Parc de Sept Heures to enjoy dinner. It was a warm Mediterranean-style restaurant serving regional dishes, with a menu that changes weekly. Diners can enjoy their meals either inside the main restaurant or make use of the heated terrace and patio area.

The next morning we were greeted by four Citroen 2CVs supplied by Road Vintage Experience. We formed four separate groups and a designated driver was chosen for each car. I was volunteered by the rest of my team, so after a quick briefing on how to change gears, where the lights, signals, wipers were and how to use the handbrake, it was time for me to get behind the wheel. A briefing on how to change the gears is essential. Try using a gearbox where the gear stick comes horizontally out of the dashboard and curves at the end, with the strangest shift pattern I have ever used. First gear is back on the left, second and third gear are in line with each other and fourth can only be engaged by turning the gear stick to the right from third. Reverse gear is opposite first.

Luckily I didn’t get those mixed up. We made our way to Verviers and I admit I did have trouble finding second gear, at one point bringing all the traffic behind me to a complete halt as the car didn’t like going uphill. There was also a cheer from my fellow occupants when I eventually found 4th gear.

I noted when we reached our destination that all the cars were parked in such a way that they wouldn’t need to engage reverse when we left.

A Belgian chocolate experience
The next item on our remarkable agenda was a visit to the Darcis Chocolate Academy. There we were able to become acquainted with all the origins of chocolate. As we went round the museum we journeyed from a Mayan temple to the Cortez Caravelle across the ocean, via the French Revolution and into the first chocolate shops of the early 20thC.

We were shown the different forms of chocolate and its health benefits and we were even prompted along the way to savour the small box of chocolates presented to each of us at the beginning of the tour. We eventually walked past some of the workshops, where we saw liquid chocolate running freely and staff hard at work producing the delectable delights for delivery to the shops.

A Chocolate Master Class awaited us in one of the workshop spaces on the upper level. Groups of eight or more can learn how to make just about anything that is produced there, provided they have the time.

We took part in one of the more basic classes, learning how to fold a piping bag from paper to create a small enough nozzle for fine lines, and then we were let loose, writing and drawing anything we pleased. I paid homage to the 2CV I had just been driving and drew a very basic one, whilst others of our group reproduced cartoon characters in great detail.

We were then into something a little more complicated. We were issued with a larger piping bag filled with a lot more liquid chocolate and we had to create chocolate discs with our own choice of toppings.

It sounds simple but you need to pipe the chocolate properly and slam the tray that they were on a few times to get the discs nice and flat before adding the toppings - and all before the chocolate started to harden. We were able to take our creations away with us in bags.

Travelling back to Liege on a motorway presented a whole new challenge in the 2CV. I was extremely happy to reach 100kmh, although I must say it did take me about a mile to reach that speed. However, were actually sad to say goodbye to the 2CVs when we arrived at the Opera Royal de Wallonie. Built in 1820 by Belgian architect Druckers and restored in 2012, the building oozes opulence, with deep reds and bright yellow golds lining the auditorium. A new floor was added with a multifunction room which can be used for rehearsals, meetings, conferences and training events.

There are a further four areas that cater for events. The Auditorium can host up to 1,000 seated; Foyer Grety up to 100 seated and 300 standing; Salle Raymond Rossius up to 190; and Salon César Franck can cater for 15 seated and 20 standing. For 30 persons and above a meal can be organised on stage, with delegates becoming the stars on for the night and enjoying a 3-course meal and wine on the set for the billed show. This gives a whole new perspective to the auditorium. Other options available include a champagne reception during the interval, personalised invitation cards, logos on guests' seats, logo on the VIP room and gourmet meals. Our group dined in Le Restaurant de l'Opéra in Foyer Grétry on an array of gourmet dishes. Our last visit was to Le Cadran a few steps away from the Palais train station. It is accessed from the street via two large metal doors, a 20-metre walkway that leads you down under the streets of Liege and into 2,800sqm of modern design meeting space in what was once an abandoned tunnel.

There are three distinctive areas. Studio 22 measuring 590sqm, can cater for up to 490 persons. Le Cadran, the main room, offers 1380sqm and can host up to 900 guests. The Louise Rotonde is able to host 150 people. The Cadran features two bars and benefits from a modular lighting system in the ceiling and the curved wall. It has separate toilets, smoking room and cloakroom. Studio 22 can be accessed via Saint-Hubert Street for a more private event featuring modern motifs painted on the walls. There is a bar, cloakroom, toilets and smoking room. The Louise Rotonde is the Champagne Bar of the venue, spanning 165sqm and boasting a chandelier and LEDS in the ceiling, allowing the mood in the room to change with the flick of a switch. This is suitable for upmarket events of the highest standard.

After such an intensely interesting and exciting itinerary, we eventually boarded a train back to Brussels and then rode rapidly back to London on Eurostar.

How we travelled there and back
Our agenda began when we boarded Eurostar in London. An any Belgium Station via Brussels Eurostar ticket allows the passenger to travel on to any station in Belgium by train.
Fastest London-Brussels journey time is 2 hours.
Information is available from www.eurostar.com or 03432 186 186.
There is a choice of classes, including Standard Premier with a light meal served at your seat, Business Premier offering a 10-minute express check-in, exclusive lounge access, along with delicious menus designed by Business Premier Culinary Director Raymond Blanc served at the seat.

Where we stayed
Crowne Plaza
The Crowne Plaza Liege is only 5-star hotel in the city and is conveniently just 10 minutes from Guillemins Station and 9km from Liege airport, with good motorway access. Combining history with modern comfort, its roots can be traced back to the 15thC. It took five years to transform a once-abandoned building into the 5-star hotel complex. There are 125 rooms, with four different room categories. Classic Rooms have more than 30sqm of floor space, high speed internet, air conditioning, safe, tea and coffee making facilities as well as Pay TV. The Club rooms offer a private sitting room, a Nespresso Machine and bathrobe and slippers. They have access to the Club Lounge.

The Suites are located in the historic Sélys Longchamps town house section of the property. Large-scale renovation has created the Royal Suite with over 98sqm of floor space. It can be connected to an adjoining suite to create a private space of over 160sqm. Guests staying here also have access to the Floor Lounge Club and Private staff.

The hotel has a total of 11 meetings rooms, all with natural daylight. The Ballroom has a glass roof with up to 9 metres ceiling height. It has been lovingly restored to its Napoleon III era decor. The Ballroom can cater for up to 350 people for cocktails and 192 for banquets.

Round tables from 6 persons can be hosted in the Noter room; up to 14 delegates can be seated boardroom-style in the Charlemagne room; and up to 100 person theatre style can be hosted when combining the Gretry and Naglemakers seminar rooms, all of which are equipped with the latest technology.

The hotel also has two restaurants and two bars: Le Sélys occupies the ground floor of the former Sélys Longchamps town house. Boasting impressive decor and listed as an outstanding Walloon heritage, the restaurant consists of two dining rooms with a total capacity of up to 40 diners, plus an extra 40 places on the terrace, weather permitting. Overseeing the kitchens in the restaurant is one-Michelin-star Chef Samuel Blanc.

O Cocottes has an à la carte menu, serving well-known classics of the region for up to 90 diners. It serves hot and cold breakfast buffets.

La Cave bar is located in an old 16th C arms room sitting directly beneath the hotel. Guest can enjoy a drink beneath subtly lit vaults and preserved arcades, with a chance to relax or listen to small band or DJ on certain nights. The Crowne Plaza Liege also provides its guests with a wellness facility, spanning 1,300sqm and entirely dedicated to wellness Osmose®.

Radisson Blu Palace Hotel
Located next to Les Thermes de Spa, the Radisson Blu Palace Hotel gives direct access to these famous mineral springs. Comprising 120 rooms, including 9 suites with balconies, the rooms offer views of either the city centre or the Ardennes forest. All rooms have high speed Wi-Fi, coffee and tea making facilities, bathroom with bathtub and bathrobe and slippers, Smart TV, telephone and in-room safe. The standard room size starts at approximately 25sqm, with the junior suites measuring 36sqm and with a balcony overlooking the city centre. The Palace Suite spans 105sqm, offering a convenient kitchen, comfortable living room, a separate dressing area, lavish bedroom, and three private panoramic terraces.

Guests can travel from the hotel in their bathrobes via a private funicular to the Les Thermes de Spa, where they can relax in 800sqm of indoor and outdoor baths of natural mineral water maintained at 33 degrees Celsius. There are also many balneotherapy treatments, including a carbonated bath, peat bath, thermal shower, Niagara bath and thalaxion bath.

Radisson Blu Palace offers more than 300sqm of event space in eight function rooms. The four Terra rooms all combined can cater for up to 150 theatre style and 180 for a reception, with the outside terrace able to host 150 for a reception or BBQ. It is also used for coffee breaks. The two Aqua rooms can host up to 180 for a reception and 60 cabaret style.

The Brasserie Les Saisons de Spa offers fine dining to guests in either the warmly lit dining room or out on the terrace, which is covered and heated during the colder months, serving dishes drawn from regional and international cuisine. The menu changes seasonally. Breakfast is also served here, where guest can choose from an array of options from fresh fruits, pastries, fresh breads to smoked salmon, yoghurts and cereals.

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