The soothing spas of Tuscany
By Linda Tagliaferro
A breathtaking landscape, delicious food and gorgeous men who have always appreciated full-figured women surround you. No, you're not in heaven, but it's close. You've just stepped off a plane and you're on your way to spend some vacation time in Tuscany, a region in northern Italy with rolling hills, fabulous shopping and some of the most relaxing spas in the world.
The area's abundant underground springs contain hot, mineral-rich water that shoots to the surface of the land. In ancient times, the Romans enjoyed thermal baths in Tuscany, and the tradition of unwinding in the naturally warm water has continued to this day. Tuscany's numerous modern spas run the gamut from the elaborate to the understated but elegant.
Take your pick of spa offerings like thermal mud treatments or spring water baths that leave your skin smooth and soft, or rejuvenating facials, relaxing massages and more. One added incentive for Americans is the great exchange rate on the dollar in Italy these days. To help you find the place that's right for you, here's a quick run-down of some of the Tuscan spas that I enjoyed on a recent trip:
Terme di Saturnia
The Italian word for thermal springs is "terme" (pronounced "TAIR-may") and the four star Terme di Saturnia Hotel and Spa is built around one of these natural wonders. Just a one-and-a-half-hour ride from Rome's Fiumicino airport, this spa offers you a luxurious vacation centered in a stately landmark building. The place tends to attract mostly wealthy Italians because the prices are high by Italian standards. But Americans get such a great exchange rate, so the cost ranges from about $120 per night for room and breakfast, to $150 per night for a room plus three meals. This price includes guided morning hikes, use of the golf driving range, and even mountain biking for more adventurous guests. Spa package rates are also available.
There's a gym on premises where Rocco, an affable Italian, and Kirk, a transplanted American, can be your personal trainers. There are optional daily classes in light aerobics, step aerobics and other exercises. Take your pick of the four outdoor thermal pools filled with naturally healing water that bubbles up from the hot springs. First-time visitors might be surprised by a faint smell that resembles hard-boiled eggs near the pools. There's no cause for concern - it's just the high sulfur content in the water. There's also calcium, iron, magnesium and other naturally occurring substances, which make the water extra soothing and curative.
You can laze around under the Tuscan sun, or participate in one of the scheduled activities. The staff recommends their 45-minute morning walk for all guests, and they add, "even the laziest and unwilling ones." I guess I fell into that category, so I braved the terrors of sleep deprivation by getting up for the 8 a.m. low-impact hike through the lush Tuscan hills. Our instructor explained in Italian and then in English that our tour would take us up a slight incline. When the pace quickened, the group left me in the dust, but after they reached the midpoint of the walk and turned around, I became the first in line going downhill.
After the walk, I took an aquatic exercise class in one of the thermal pools. This has to be the easiest, most relaxing stretching ever. The water makes your limbs buoyant, so you get an effortless stretch in the deliciously warm water.
Later that day, I opted to try a rejuvenating facial. The capable massage therapist brushed a bright yellow concoction of thermal clay and spring water on my face and neck. She left as the mask hardened, and then returned to ever so gently remove the clay. She applied a pleasingly warm mist of thermal water to my face and then massaged it with a thin vibrating instrument. She finished up by teasing every laugh line and crow's foot into relaxing. The entire experience left my face soft and radiant.
In the evening, I enjoyed regional culinary delights at the spa's Ristorante Villa Montepaldi. There was "acquacotta," traditional thick soup made from bread, assorted vegetables and eggs. The restaurant's risotto, a rice dish served with fresh porcini mushrooms, was also superb. When they say fresh in Tuscany, they mean it. You'll have a hard time finding mushrooms this tender and bursting with flavor anywhere else.
The main courses included Filetto di Manzo Robespierre, tender slices of beef seasoned with rosemary, and prosciutto, the renowned Italian ham, served with sweet peas. Dinner ended with a delectable mousse made from two kinds of chocolate.
After dinner, you can go to the spa's piano bar to enjoy drinks, meet the other guests and even take a dancing lesson with the spa's instructors.
In Tuscany, spas are more than just exercise rooms and massage therapy. They also include social events, fine dining, concerts and more. In the center of the town of Chianciano (pronounced "KEY-on-CHAH-no") is Acqua Santa Park. For an entrance fee of about six dollars, you can spend the entire day walking through the tree-lined establishment.
You can line up along with the health-seeking Italians for a drink of the fresh thermal water, which they prize for its curative properties. Be forewarned that although the water is considered a miracle cure-all, it has a very unpleasant taste. I downed half a cup of the liquid before my taste buds went on strike.
I had breakfast in the park's cafÈ, where a live orchestra serenaded visitors with popular Italian songs. After breakfast, I went to the nearby Sillene spa. Although my mother told me never to play in the mud, I opted for a thermal mud treatment. The massage therapist asked me to disrobe and to lie down on the massage table. She carried a small bowl of thermal clay that was the consistency of a thick gray sauce.
She painted the exquisitely warm mixture all over my body. I felt like a basted turkey, but I was in heaven. Every bit of muscle tension melted away from my body like a pat of butter on a hot potato. Then the massage therapist wrapped me in a plastic sheet to hold in the moisture, and covered me with a blanket. I drifted off into a delicious slumber as she walked out the door to give me 20 minutes of blissful rest.
When she returned, she drew a thermal bath, and as I soaked in the hot water, the mud was effortlessly washed off. My skin felt velvety soft and smooth, and the effect lasted for several days.
The Tuscan town of Montecatini features several thermal bath establishments. One of the most beautiful is Tettuccio (pronounced "teh-TOO-chee-oh"). In these elaborate and elegant surroundings, a character played by Marcello Mastroianni romanced a married woman in the 1987 movie, Dark Eyes. Once you've been to Tettuccio, you'll understand how someone could fall hopelessly in love in these surroundings.
Structures with stately marble columns abound. Fountains with ornate stained glass panels adorn the grounds, and there's even a living calendar made out of flowers, which are painstakingly changed every day. Inside the buildings, you'll find cafÈs, an art gallery and places to drink the thermal waters.
I also visited the nearby Excelsior Center, a serene spa with paintings of blue skies filled with little angels on the ceiling. I decided on their "massage under the rain," but that didn't mean that I had to wait until the sky was overcast. In an immaculate, white tiled room with marble floors, I removed my clothes and draped myself, face down, over what felt like a soft inflatable raft. Then overhead jets of water sent bursts of warm spring water pulsing down my spine. After 15 minutes, the attendant asked me to turn over, and the front of my body got the same relaxing treatment. It was like taking a delightful nap in the rainforest.
When this part of the massage was over, the attendant asked me to stand up - as if I could at that point. Somehow I managed to get off the massage table, and she hosed me down with a strong, steady stream of warm spring water. I felt like I was on the receiving end of a fireman's hose, but the strong surge of water was relaxing.
When my week's vacation was finally over, I brought back wonderful memories of Tuscan-style cuisine, art, music, massage and men. One thing that I happily left behind was the stress that I had before my trip.
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