The spa experience: Tuscany’s answer to good health

Nicky Swallow
October 20, 2005

Tuscany is full of natural hot springs or ‘terme,’ many of which date from Roman or even Etruscan times and whose waters, originating from deep within the earth’s crust, have long been associated with curative properties. Each individual spring has a different make up in terms of its combination of minerals and gases (gathered as the water courses towards the surface), so different ‘terme’ are  said to be beneficial for different conditions. Carbon dioxide boosts the immune system, for example, and sulphur-rich water is believed to be effective in the treatment of muscular and arthritic pain. Receptive structures have been developed around many of these springs, and while some have remained fairly modest affairs, others have turned into luxury spa resorts offering first-class accommodation and a myriad of treatments to compliment the thermal waters.

 

A day of wallowing in a thermal pool is a very popular activity in Tuscany, but many of the locals shun the up-market structures in favour of the relative simplicity of such places as Bagno Vignoni and Bagni San Filippo, which offer pools of warm thermal waters in a fabulous natural setting but not so much in the way of swish facilities. There are other spas where the emphasis is very much on the cure rather than the frills, and even the swankiest places have a department devoted to purely medical treatments. Anyone used to the kind of pampering spas where you pad around in a fluffy bathrobe and slippers, sip herbal teas and chill out to soft, ambient music will be taken aback by the clinical atmosphere and rough edges that they may encounter in these places.

 

Even in the luxury category, there’s not a whole lot of respect for modesty. The only thing coming between you and your masseuse, for example, is likely to be a minuscule pair of paper knickers and women may fi nd it a little disconcerting when a male, rather than female, member of the staff arrives to plop them unceremoniously in the tub for a hydrotherapy session or hose them down naked after a session in the steam room. Many Italians swear by the salutary effects of ‘fanghi’ or hot mud baths. Considered to work wonders for rheumatic, arthritic, and muscular problems, hot, mineral-rich mud is applied to the affl icted part of the body and left to do its stuff for twenty minutes or so. It’s also guaranteed to leave your skin as smooth as a baby’s bottom and most of the places mentioned here offer mud treatments.

 

The more upmarket thermal establishments are attached to a suitably swish hotel and offer various ‘pacchetti’ combining a certain number of treatments with accommodation. These are usually quite expensive, but one way to save money is to book into a cheaper hotel in the area, take out a day membership to the spa that will give you access to the basic facilities (usually the thermal pool plus extras such as the sauna and Turkish bath where relevant), and arrange the treatments separately according to your requirements.

 

The unique feature of the Grotta Giusti spa in Monsumano Terme near Lucca is its extraordinary prehistoric underground cave system that was stumbled upon in 1849. An hour spent sitting and sweating in the dripping grotta offers relief from rheumatic pain and does wonders for the skin. In the hottest part of the cave (‘Purgatory’), the temperature is a constant 34° C with 90% humidity, so you are advised to pass through cooler Paradise and Limbo fi rst. The shuffl ing fi gures dressed in shapeless, hooded white gowns, looking like they have escaped from a sanatorium, are you and your fellow sweaty guests; don’t bother with the mascara! After your sweat, you will be sluiced down naked in a small cubicle with a strong jet of water. There are many other treatments such as fanghi, massages (including a rather bizarre but very effective chocolate face and body scrub), inhalations, facials and so on, plus a new outdoor thermal pool. The adjacent hotel has recently been renovated; it sits in a lovely park filled with secular trees and birdsong and has a fi ne restaurant, producing fresh and imaginative dishes even for dieters.

 

Situated in the extreme south-eastern corner of Tuscany, San Casciano dei Bagni is home to the Fonteverde Terme. Set in glorious country side, it has a state-of-the-art spa offering more than a hundred different treatments. Grand Duke Ferdinando I dei Medici came to this spot and built a large house, now the fi ve-star Hotel Terme de’ Medici. The original Roman spring is preserved in the elegant, frescoed restaurant where delicious creative food (adjectives that are equally applicable to the ‘light’ menu) is served by white- and gold-jacketed waiters. A day at the spa should start off with a long dip in the fabulous, hot ‘Bioacqua’ pool (half indoor and half out), where you can sit or lie and let 24 different massage jets pummel the stiffness from limbs, backs, and shoulders at the press of a button. Follow this with an Ayurvedic massage in the extraordinary hands of Dipu (book well in advance – he’s a popular guy), and then chill out in one of various ‘relax’ areas where you can sip green tea to a background of calming music.

 

The Tombolo Talasso Resort at Castagneto Carducci (a seaside town in the beautiful Maremma) enjoys an ideal position a stone’s throw from a long, private beach. This is Tuscany’s first spa specialising in thalassotherapy (from the Greek word ‘thalassa’-sea), a combination of preventive and curative treatments using the virtues of seawater and seaweed to oxygenate, tone, moisturise and revitalise the body and skin. Seawater is pumped from 900 metres off the coast, purified (but not so much that it destroys all the benefi cial minerals and algae), and is used to fill indoor and outdoor pools as well as in specific treatments offered at the spa. Five heated pools equipped with various hydrojets are housed in a large, womb-like artificial cave and seawater is also used in mud  treatments, hydro massages, and medicinal inhalations. Once done with the pampering, you can relax in the comfortable hotel, a low-rise modern building done out in natural colours overlooking the beach. Make sure you get a room with a sea view; the best have big terraces. There’s an   excellent restaurant that also serves ‘light’ dishes, but this being Italy, even the diet food is fabulous.

 

The area around Monte Amiata, south of Siena, is particularly rich in thermal activity. The warm,  sulphurous waters at the tiny mediaeval spa of Bagno Vignoni have been known since Roman times, and the Medici constructed a huge pool in the central piazza to contain the hot,  bubbling waters. You can’t bathe in the old ‘vasca’ these days, but you can wallow in the magnificent pool at the Hotel Posta Marcucci to the splendid backdrop of the Val d’Orcia. If you want to stay over, the newly renovated three-star hotel provides reasonably priced accommodation and a limited number of spa treatments. Just south of here lies Bagni San Filippo where, at a constant 42°, the water is even hotter. The steaming, sulphur- and calcium-rich waters are characterised by their opaque, electric blue colour, and the pool at the Terme is surrounded by natural waterfalls and whirlpools, a result of the unusual rock formations. The newly renovated three-star hotel is comfortable and reasonably-priced and offers a good variety of spa treatments. These are just a handful of the many thermal spa establishments in Tuscany, but there are plenty more. Also check out Terme di Saturnia,Montecatini Terme, Bagni di Pisa, Casciana Terme and Chianciano Terme.

 

Grotta Giusti, Monsumano Terme, 0572

90771, www.grottagiustispa.com

Hotel Terme de’ Medici, San Casciano

dei Bagni, 0578 57241, www.fonteverdeterme

Tombolo Talasso Resort, Via del Corallo

3, Marina di Castagneto Carducci. 0565

74530, www.tombolotalasso.it

Hotel Posta Marcucci, Bagno Vignoni,

0578 887112, www.hotelpostamarcucci.it

Terme San Filippo, Bagni San Filippo,

0577 872982, www.termesanfilippo.it

 

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