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Spa, Italian-Style

Dipu was raised and trained in India but moved to Italy on account of a love story and a betrayal (for which we should be grateful). A princess in Todi was his first client and she did much to spread the word. Though he does not claim to perform miracles (he shakes his head at some of his more naïve clients, who believe "Indian man touch me, tomorrow I fly"), a massage doesn't get much better than his. It is a vigorous up-and-down manipulation of the body, with an emphasis on the chest and stomach, which is said to relieve stress and tension. Dipu, who does 22 of these a day, seems to have infinite stores of energy. He has even trained two young assistants, both from San Casciano, to meet the increasing demand.

The moment I laid eyes on the menu of the Hotel Terme de' Medici's restaurant, I understood something very important about Italians and their philosophy of life and health. The menu was schizophrenically split: the left side was given over to a "light" menu; the right, to the regular tempting, delicately sauced, stuffed, sprinkled with Parmesan, Italian type of fare. For example, on the left were items such as a squash soufflé with a green-pea coulis, and on the right, baccalà alla livornese, prepared by frying chunks of cod until golden and crunchy and then depositing them in a fresh tomato sauce.

In the grand dining room—formerly the interior of the original Medici bathing establishment—you look through the arches for an unmarred view of seemingly endless hills. The room is now painted in alternating ocher and sienna, with high-backed chairs reminiscent of the rest of the hotel's furnishings, which came from the Palazzo Serristori in Florence: the owner of Terme de' Medici, who made his fortune in yarn and then revamped the legendary thermal center of Saturnia, recently acquired that palazzo. A long buffet table is laden with tantalizing vegetables, a dieter's dream—thin slices of grilled zucchini and eggplant, roasted peppers, steamed fennel, carrots, beet greens, and spinach, as well as sautéed green chiles, peeled roasted eggplant, and a half-dozen salads, such as grated carrots and shaved fennel.

One lady in a new Pucci chemisier, who was sitting at a round table by herself, ate a light minestrone followed by grilled sole with dainty vegetables. But when the elegant Antonino approached her in his cream-colored gabardine jacket inquiring whether she might like a peach, peeled and sliced, for dessert, she hesitated only a fraction of a second before breathing out, "Una bavarese, per favore." This Bavarian flan is one of the house specialties: an ethereal round, white mousse custard resting on a layer of sliced berries just slightly wilted by baking. Once tasted, it must be had, not perhaps at every meal, but at every other. So in a virtuosic minuet of discipline and pleasure, you never feel you are dieting, and never feel you are not, since the benefits of the grilled sole are complemented by those of the pici—a local pasta that resembles spaghetti, only thicker, and is often accompanied by a meaty sauce made with rabbit. The pici can be followed by the peach, and the grilled branzino by three slices of pecorino: fresh, seasoned, aged. The secret of the cure is... pleasure, pleasure, and more pleasure.

San Casciano dei Bagni is located at the southernmost point of Siena province. Since Etruscan times it has been famous for its thermal waters, which flow out of 42 springs at 108 degrees and contain magnesium, calcium, fluorine, and sulfur. To the Etruscans, the waters had a sacred value: listening to them gurgling out of the depths of rocks helped you divine destiny's hidden will. Apparently, Virgil and Horace write of the emperor Octavian Augustus residing at San Casciano. Salus per aquam (I didn't know that is what the word spa stands for) means "health through water." "In the Renaissance it was once again discovered that taking care of one's body—immersing it in beneficial thermal waters and recovering tone and beauty—gave one a new joie de vivre and could even help one recover sexual desire," states a brief history of the town.

Those who thought up the Hotel Terme de' Medici and the Fonteverde spa know very well that their clients' chief ailment is a lack of time, a lack of leisure, and that, if anything, they suffer from an excess of discipline. So this is not a boot camp, not a fat farm, not a whip-yourself-into-shape kind of a place. This is an establishment dedicated to well-being, rest, and bringing beauty and strength back into organisms once familiar with both. It is all about gentleness—except for the Incomparable, whose massages do the equivalent of giving your circulatory system a good talking-to, shocking it out of its complacent, all-too-languid functioning. But then, when he gives you a Dhara treatment, he is gentleness itself. Oil is dribbled in a continuous flow (dhara means "thread") on your forehead for half an hour as you recline; then your head is wrapped in a towel and feels very warm indeed, and you are left to rest for another 20 minutes or so in this happy torpor. A course of Dhara treatments is said to cure anxiety, insomnia, and depression. I suffer from none of the above, but it gave me a deep sense of calm, as though any worrying wires in my brain had been disconnected.


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