It was the Etruscans who first discovered the healing properties of the thermal waters in Tuscany's Val d'Orcia. Now the baths built there by the Medici family in the 17th century have been reborn as a luxurious new hotel and spa
I dragged myself kicking to the most beautiful new spa in the world, the Terme de' Medici, in the most beautiful place in the world, the Val d'Orcia, in Tuscany, little knowing I would have to add a yearly stay there to my short list of essential addictions.
I have always left the body to fend for itself, but now it demanded to be taken on holiday. The instant I accepted, however, it began to remonstrate, Let's not go—let's go somewhere where we can keep our clothes on. Oh, to be able to keep one's clothes on. The world must be fairly divided between those who like to take them off and those who don't. I belong firmly in the second category, having sadly neglected activities pursued by those in the first, with one or two exceptions.
The dialogue with my body went on for days, becoming an altercation, then a cajolement. Look, I said, the countryside is beautiful there: pale, silvery-green tufts of olive trees in slightly curved rows; gentle hills; allées of green cypress that emphasize the graceful design of those hills, their golden yellows, hay yellows, burnt-sienna yellows. Look, I said, you will be able to bathe in thermal waters with such properties—the list of their miraculous powers made me think of Lourdes—that all skin and eye complaints will be healed, aches and pains diminished, sinus and other respiratory problems alleviated, high blood pressure lowered. You will practically be reborn there, I said, and it will all happen in one week—okay, six days. Finally, the body bowed its head obediently.
There I was at last, at Fonteverde, the Hotel Terme de' Medici's spa, where the walls were plastered by master Sicilian plasterers in a delectable, pistachio-mint-dill mayonnaise-green of a green with a bit of whipped cream mixed in. The lights were not so low, but lowish, and take off one's clothes one had to, although a young man by the name of Paolo had gingerly set a little plastic packet on the massage table containing a pair of paper panties that covered just the thought of being covered and little else.
I slipped them on gratefully as at the last moment the body threatened to bolt for the door, up a flight of stairs, through the long corridor leading from the spa to the hotel and passing various pools, out the splendid arches Ferdinando I de' Medici built in 1607 in Renaissance Neoclassical harmonious perfection, through the town of San Casciano, and into the nearest elegant taxi, such as the silver SUV that had brought me from the tiny railway station at Chiusi, a town graced by a little museum with one of the most important collections of Etruscan artifacts in Italy. The thought of the museum brought me back to my senses. The Etruscans made it quite clear that to have gone to the Other World was far from restful: on every sarcophagus they are depicted reclining but propped up on one elbow, most uncomfortably, as though wishing to be prepared, after their demise, for any new shocks coming their way. Here was my body's chance to be made whole again—it was not to be missed.
I was to have my first treatment with a personage who had been described to me in a missive as "the incomparable Dipu." I remembered the name from an article I had read the previous summer: people flocked to him from all parts of Italy for his Ayurvedic massages—famous people, people whose names he was indignant the papers had printed, he told me when I met him, since he had expressly stated in the interviews that his clients' privacy was to be respected.
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.
It would be hard to summarize the million gestures that were made to my body in those six days. Among the facial treatments I had at the talented hands of a certain Manuela, the most unusual was a buffing by means of a mechanized nozzle that emits a fine spray of minerals to remove the top layer of dry cells; according to the aesthetician's discretion it can be used with greater power and duration over areas where the skin tends to thicken, such as the chin and in between the brows. I was afraid this might irritate, but afterward my skin seemed to have entered a time machine, for once in the right direction—backward.
The hotel is in a building adjacent to the original Renaissance structure; through a long descending corridor you reach the newly constructed spa, which is unremarkable as architecture goes but was built down into the slope so as to be practically invisible at ground level. The complex consists of many private treatment rooms and several pools, among them the Bioaquam; the Acquagym for water exercises; the Kneipp, two long corridors of water, one hot, one cool, through which you walk in continuous loops, alternating the two temperatures, to improve circulation in the legs; as well as a sauna and a Turkish bath where the lights are kept low, making the delicate black-and-white mosaic interior seem very magical. There's even a shallow, round thermal pool for dogs: here they can waddle and be cured of their arthritis and rheumatism before returning to special, uncarpeted guest rooms.
The water of all the pools is kept at 97 degrees and contains no chemicals. Perhaps the most exceptional feature of Terme de' Medici—aside from the people who work there, who are refreshingly regional in their ways, since many of them were born and bred in the area—is the Bioaquam pool. This is a Jacuzzi to end all Jacuzzis: a vast round pool made of travertine marble and mosaic that merges into a narrow outdoor lap pool. When I asked the resident physician, Paolo Bruno, whether you could actually describe it as a Jacuzzi, he said that it's much too large and much too beautiful to be called that, and fits far too many people comfortably. All right: it has 22 jets at different heights set into its sides; four thrones you can sit on and have your shoulders and waist massaged; a large geyser-like fountain inside a circular enclosure that you can stand in to feel the water surging around you; a zigzag walkway with jets at the thighs and knees; and more jets everywhere that you can activate by pushing a black rubber button. All this is fine, to be sure, but what determines that you'll never be as happy in any other whirlpool, or whatever you want to call it, is the immense glass façade overlooking one of the most beautiful Tuscan valleys you've ever seen, with cypress, olive trees, the towers of the castle of Radicofani in the distance, and nothing to spoil the view. It is as it must have been several centuries ago, because this corner of Tuscany on the borders of Lazio and Umbria has been mysteriously overlooked by developers and tourists alike.
I'd go back right now for another dose. The combination of warm, enveloping waters from which you emerge with baby skin and rested nerves and the nimble, expert fingertips dabbing minerals and fine mud on your face and body while tickling nerve endings along your neck, is irresistible. So said the body, and for once we agreed.
The Facts: Terme de' Medici
San Casciano dei Bagni is 95 miles from Rome or Florence. You can reach it by car, or by train from either city via the town of Chiusi and then a 20-minute taxi ride to the hotel.
THE HOTEL & SPA
Hotel Terme de' Medici and Centro Termale Fonteverde The hotel and spa, owned by the proprietors of the thermal center in Saturnia, opened in June. A one-week stay is recommended to get the full benefits of the waters. An appointment with the resident doctor, Paolo Bruno, or with Ayurveda specialist Dipu, is essential to form a plan that will suit your needs. Packages are available that include treatments targeting overall well-being, fitness, or relaxation, as well as other, more specific problems and ailments, such as cellulite. In addition to Dipu's massages ($74), I particularly liked the spa facial ($67), the micro-lifting facial (a buffing treatment, $112), and the phyto-fango therapy (a cellulite treatment, $77). All treatments use the Fonteverde's own line of products, which are based on algae that grow in the thermal waters. The spa also has a fully equipped gym with individual and group instruction for stretching, aerobics, and Pilates. Guided walks through the countryside are offered each morning. From $270 per night, single occupancy, with all meals; weekly packages from $1,700, single occupancy, with meals.
San Casciano dei Bagni; 39-0578/57241; fax 39-0578/572-200; www.fonteverdeterme.com
WHERE TO EAT
If you're not on a strict diet, consider abandoning the hotel's superb restaurant occasionally to dine at one of the following excellent restaurants.
Osteria della Montagna Set in the nature reserve of Monte Rufeno, this restaurant has a terrace overlooking trees, and serves ravioli in a black truffle sauce along with delicious organic wines from Chianti and other regions. Dinner for two $40. Monaldesca, Trevinano 39-0763/717-078
Ristorante Daniela Right on the square and an easy 10-minute walk from the hotel. Dinner for two $60. 7 Piazza Matteotti, San Casciano dei Bagni; 39-0578/58041
Il Poggio Tuscan nouvelle cuisine on an immense terrace with a commanding view of the countryside. Dinner for two $73. Celle Sul Rigo, San Casciano dei Bagni; 39-0578/53748
Ristorante Zaira Specialties are deer and wild boar prosciutti, pici, and roast pigeon. Be sure to visit the impressive wine cellar. Dinner for two $60. 12 Via Arunte, Chiusi; 39-0578/20260
WHAT TO DO
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Chiusi One of the finest collections of Etruscan artifacts in Italy. 93 Via Porsenna, Chiusi; 39-0578/20177
Abbazia di Sant'Antimo A cathedral set in the most bucolic countryside; mass with Gregorian chant is held on Sundays. Castelnuovo dell'Abate, Montalcino
Bathing establishments can be found throughout the area, from public ones such as the Bagno Grande (where you can bathe at night) to the calcified waterfalls of Bagni San Filippo, which look like a baked Alaska.
An excursion to Bagno Vignoni, about 18 miles from San Casciano. The centerpiece of this extraordinary little town is a rectangular pool (formerly used for bathing) surrounded by a colonnaded building, low stone houses, and olive groves. Osteria del Leone serves local specialties in a delightful courtyard. Dinner for two $50. Piazza del Moretto; 39-0577/887-300