The modern spa experience, accompanied by the sounds of the rain forest and the smell of burning candles, can leave you feeling soporific and drained. But spas were not always so prescriptive.
But it was during the Belle Epoque and the Grand Tour, in the early 19th century that wealthy foreigners took to “taking the waters” abroad.
Tuscany, in particular became a hotspot for these pleasure seekers. It was not just the health benefits and the natural beauty of the area that attracted them but also because they could enjoy roulette and other forms of gambling outlawed by the state.
The poets Byron, Browning, Shelley, the composer Puccini rubbed shoulders with European Royalty, Russian princes and the Napoleon family. As one local reporter described the social scene at the time in one of the most popular, Bagni de Lucca: “one is knee-deep in Royal Highnesses”.
Today you can still visit these historic “termes” but be warned there are no faux Buddah’s and no candles. Be prepared for a more rustic and invigorating spa experience.
In Bagni di Lucca, about an hour from Lucca, the ancient thermal waters, rise in geothermal caves known as Grotta and it was here that the spa culture was centered. The Grotta Paoline, names after one patron – Napoleon’s sister, is now part of the spa and wellness centre at the four star Antico AlbergoTerme. The hotel overlooks a picturesque valley with forests of pinewood and chestnut, bramble bush and beech trees.
Because of their historical and geographical nature the Grotta have been left as much as possible in their rustic state – the only comforts are ancient marble benches and modern low lighting. The waters contain many beneficial minerals (sulphur, carbon, calcium), particularly for respiratory and skin conditions. You will likely see children and the elderly taking the vapours in a special room as these Terme are part of the state health system. including and rain water at 3kms of depth and 54 degrees.
After an interview with a qualified doctor, Iana Togneri, we go the Grotta in our bathing suits and sit on the marble benches to sweat out our toxins. These vapours are very strong and rise into the cave at about 54◦c and we are advised that it’s not beneficial to stay too long. After about 15 minutes we are wrapped in a soothing hot towel and left to relax on bed. The hyperthermia induced by the steam bath is balanced by the cold spa water shower in the same room. The difference in the two water temperatures stimulates circulation throughout the body, helping to eliminate toxins. This steam is a natural stress reliever as the heat encourages muscles to relax and tension slips away. So when you lay down to rest in a warm towel you may find that you do fall into a restful slumber. The steam bath costs €20 ($25, £16) and you can combine it with other treatments such as a Hammam deep cleanse
The spa wellness centre has a large range of mud baths, massages and other treatments using thermal water. There is an anti-stress massage which lasts 30 or 60 mins (€34, $43, £27/€64, $82, £52)) anti-cellulite, aromatheraphy, salt, olive oil, stone, oriental and lymphatic drainage. And a great facial massage with volcanic mud – €28 euro and scrubs which use the local chestnuts and olive oil.
On our way back through the wellness centre we pass through a very beautiful and elegant room which was once the site of the oldest casino in Europe and invented the roulette wheel to relieve clients of their money.
The casino at nearby Ponte a Serraglio first opened in 1839 has recently reopened as an electronic casino and we visited one evening. A sort of Las Vegas interior meets real palazzo is not what we expected. The Casino Reale was built by Carlo Ludovico di Borbone and still contains some of the original decorations but it is now filled with electronic casino machines and the tourist office.
The hotel rooms have recently been refurbished and are clean and comfortable with great views of the valley and some have huge balconies with loungers. The bathroom does not have toiletries such as shower gel so luckily we had some of our own. The restaurant is more family than romantic. But there is a great pool and the staff are friendly and helpful. A great place, off the beaten track, great for relaxing and walking.
The Antico Albergo Terme offers a number of wellness packages which don’t include the room price and meals: Weekend – two days of body and facial treatments (€215, $290, £190) or Wellbeing and Ambience Package 6 days of treatments €418, $564, £368. Check the prices when you book as currency exchange rates and seasonal prices may var.
Termi Bagni de Lucca also has its own line of wellness products including cleansers, toners and masks made with chestnut flour.
Lucca – Hire a cycle and ride round the cobbled streets and piazzas which are pedestrianized or walk the 16th century walls. Giacomo Puccini was born here in 1858 and there is a statue in one of the main squares.
The Ponte Maddalena, at Borgo a Mozzano, which is also known as the Ponte del Diavolo built in the 12th century
The Ponte delle Catene – a chain suspension bridge built in 1840 in Fornoli and recently restored. Now used only as a footbridge connecting Fornoli and Chifenti on the other side of the river Lima.
The medieval walled town of Barga – a mountain town where you can see the scenary for miles around. It has an interesting 13th century cathedral, high on a terrace.
The delicatessen, Bellandi, via Jacopo da Chiviszzano, 4 in the village of Ghivizzano in the area of Garfagnana. www.selezionebellandi.com – you will find delicious sausages, local prosciutto, black sausages with chestnuts, friendly service and perhaps a glass of wine.
T: + 39 058386034
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Rooms prices are eighter high and low season but start from €80, $107, £70
Easyjet to Pisa www.easyjet.co.uk