Belgium: Poirot’s trail
Belgium: Poirot’s trail
As Monsieur Hercule Poirot would like it, his origin story is shrouded in mystery. The fictional Belgian detective won his way into fame firstly in the British novelist Agatha Christie’s stories, then shows and movie adaptions. This led to a cross-generational appreciation for his sleuthing adventures, right up there with Sherlock Holmes. The most recent has been the 2022 film, “Death on the Nile,” which has re-invigorated the “little grey cells” of all who love this genre.
I grew up watching detective shows as a joint pastime with my mom, who could often figure out the whodunit before the episode’s end as I sat back in wonder. Like Poirot, she would conquer my expectations of the plot as he would conquer the expectations of those around him as a boastful, diminutive foreigner. He laid out evidence that he had been meticulously collecting the whole time, often rooting out the killer and motivations surrounding heinous crimes. I found it interesting that he was transplanted from his homeland of Belgium and solved many cases in his adoptive England, but also around Europe and North Africa. He became an idealized world traveler to many readers, set on providing justice for many wrongs committed.
There are two theories that Belgians and Christie fans have about where Poirot came from and one is the town of Spa in the Ardennes mountains, about 40 minutes from Liège. Spa’s actual history lends credence as to why Poirot left Belgium, which was represented in the form of the German Army taking up headquarters in the town during World War I. Poirot shared that he left his homeland to escape the ravages of the Great War, but not without his silver-swan tipped cane that he was known to carry throughout his many cases.
As the name suggests, Spa is a place renowned for its “healing” mineral springs, and visitors aim to relax with recreational activities amongst nature. Today’s town allows visitors to get lost in the woods at fun locations like SpaForest, an adventure park with treetop free falls, survival workshops, treasure hunting and mountain biking. Spa is part of the network of RAVeL hiking and biking trails that totals more than 900 miles (1,480 kilometers) of paved paths that never have more than a 2 percent gradient, perfect for kids and adults to traverse.
If you aim to release tension from a hike in the woods, the Thermes de Spa is located in the town center and has promoted aristocratic self-care since the 16th century. Spa has made the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the top 11 European spa towns, and that sure sounds relaxing to me.
A fifteen-minute drive away from Spa, the Château de Franchimont still reigns over the landscape, despite being in ruins. The castle-side La Brasserie de Franchimont offers cozy interior or exterior seating to grab a local beer, and a nice meal like raspberry sauced duck with chive pureed potatoes. In other words, a perfect place to muse over this region’s timeless beauty and what it must have been like to grow up here.
The town of Ellezelles also claims Poirot as a native of their town and has paid tribute to him with a relief sculpture of him, hands on his vest pockets as if reaching for his pocket watch or glasses. The town also proudly possesses his birth certificate, stating his parent’s names on the document. Best of all, Poirot’s birthday is declared to be April 1, 1850, or April Fools’ Day. Even one of the best-known actors to portray Poirot, David Suchet, made sure to visit this Belgian town on a nostalgia trip.
There’s plenty close by to round out your trip, including the town of Ath, which has the Gallo-Roman Museum containing 2,000-year-old shipwrecks with countless artifacts of ancient life. Afterward, be sure to take a tour of the Brasserie des Légendes, which brews an English-style stout called “Hercule” in honor of the mustachioed figure, who is emblazoned on the flip-top bottle. The zoo and botanical garden Pairi Daiza is also an 18-minute drive from Ath, and in a unique twist, allows guests to stay overnight beside the animal habitats. If you’ve ever thought, “I want to hang out with wolves, bears or penguins,” here’s your shot!
A notable portion of Poirot’s sleuthing career came from his experience as the Chief of Police in Brussels. If you have not yet walked through its Grand Place in front of the Gothic-style 15th century town hall, you should dedicate at least a day to wandering the streets of this vibrant city. The city is full of Art Nouveau architecture, museums and one of my favorites, the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral. Be sure to sample and bring home a box of rich Belgian chocolate… as long as it is not poisoned like the one in the Poirot episode, “The Chocolate Box.” This was the failed case that Poirot lamented to Arthur Hastings that he was never able to solve in his early days.
When Agatha Christie inevitably wrote her longest-lived character’s end in the 1940s, she kept the manuscript in a safe for 3 decades until 1974. The beloved Poirot was the only fictional character at the time to be given an obituary in The New York Times. After Christie’s 33 novels and 54 short stories sharing him with the world, the adventures of Poirot came to an end. His deeds now live on through the love of his character, both in Belgium and around the world.
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