22 May – Continued:
Montecatini Terme prides itself, of course, on its offerings of thermal spa experiences and relaxation. However, there’s a new kid in town and the folks of Montecatini are pretty proud of its offerings, as well — Montecatini Contemporary Art Museum, or MO.C.A., that now occupies the lovingly restored postal area of the town’s civic building.
The MO.C.A. is quite young, established in 2012 as a means to add to the already present art culture of Montecatini Terme.
Upon our return to this stunning building that had been visited the evening before, we were warmly welcomed by Mr. Bruno Ialuna, the curator of MO.C.A. A well-versed man, Mr. Ialuna escorted us into the initial gallery that occupies the stately main section of the old post office, now visually filled with a thought-provoking, grandiose painting by Pietro Annigoni entitled “Life”.
First impressions aren’t always correct. I reacted with a bit of “What the…?” at first glance of the dark, somewhat disturbing painting. As Mr. Ialuna explained, the artist was attempting to give credence to what he saw as man’s tumble into over-commercialism and consumerism. Pietro sure got my attention, regardless of his actual purpose. However, as I did a bit more research on Annigoni, I discovered he was an amazingly gifted and versatile artist who was summoned by notables such as Queen Elizabeth and John F. Kennedy for portrait work. I stand corrected, and yes — I will work on being more open-minded.
Holding a nice collection of some 32 paintings and 5 sculptures, the MO.C.A. is also home to one of Joan Mirò’s 5 largest works, Woman Wrapped in a Flight of Birds (1980).
Nice story behind this painting as it was specifically done for Montecatini Terme after Mirò was introduced to the town by long-time friend and resident, former Cuban Minister of Culture Carlos Franqui. In Mirò’s words… “I made very strong lines, thinking about a work to be shown in the open air, in the light and nature of Tuscany.” Mr. Ialuna did a fine job pointing out interesting details of the work such as shoe prints and coffee stains on the canvas that highlighted Mirò’s then-struggle with the final years of his life.
Bidding arrivederci, we took a short walk to the famous Grand Hotel & La Pace Spa for a quick tour at Mayor Bellandi’s behest the night before. Time travel doesn’t exist (yet), but stepping through the portico into this grand old place certainly whisked me away to a by-gone era of elegance and regality.
Built in 1870, The La Pace is still considered “the place” to stay in Montecatini Terme if you’re looking to impress and be impressed. Despite its age, the hotel still oozes a sense of gentility and good breeding. Heavily ornate, it might be too much for the sleek modernist, but it appealed to the romantic bones in my body as I easily imaged the likes of Garbo, Gable, Olivier, or Tracy slinking about in sequins and tuxes.
Daydreaming over, it was time to visit the less lavish but most welcoming Hotel Torretta and its inviting restaurant for our mid day feast. Owned by Mr. Dante Simoncini, third generation hotelier, we were treated to an incredible multi-course meal, as well as the jovial and warm hospitality of Mr. Simoncini, his nephew, and his wife.
Conversation at the table was lively, and it was so evident that Mr. Simoncini loved, adored, what he did. He spoke of his dislike of the slow season when he isn’t afforded the gift of making people happy with his restaurant or hotel. What a guy.
We also fell into interesting conversation as we devoured delicious course after course of how other cultures (ummm…like mine?) don’t understand the concept of enjoying a slow, multi-course meal and savoring the connection of food and folk. Another beautiful facet of la dolce vita Italians have figured out.
As if the day hadn’t already held enough joy, we found our full bellies being ferried for a trip to the underworld…Grotta Giusti located in the nearby town of Monsummano Terme. Like many great things, the grotto was discovered by accident in 1849 on the Giusti family property while workers were busy in a quarry. It didn’t take long for Mr. Giusti, babo to famous Italian poet Giuseppe Giusti, to catch on that this unusual thermal cave might make a great tourist attraction. Apparently, the likes of Verdi and Garibaldi agreed based on records of their frequent visits in the 1800’s.
Fast forward to today, and the Grotta Giusti is a popular thermal spa and resort offering above ground spa treatments, inhalation cures, and a lavish outdoor therapeutic pool that spurred Fellini movie images in my mind. But that’s not all — one can also partake in the underground levels of the cave for what equates to a natural Turkish Bath of heat, high humidity, and mineral laden vapors.
We were treated to time in the cave as part of our tour, and after collecting our borrowed gear of robe, disposable slippers, and towel at the front desk, our knowledgable guide Barbara lead our way into the bowels of Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell – the aptly named levels of the grotto. Oh, and Limbo — the otherworldly turquoise lake below Hell that is large enough for scuba diving.
Dimly lit, damp, and very humid, each level is meant to be experienced at the partakers pleasure for up to, but no more than an hour for an optimal “bath of health” and “overall sense of well-being”. Temperatures begin at about 31˚and increase to 34˚C (or 89˚ to 93˚F for us Americans) as the Hell/Inferno strata is reached, and humidity varies from 90 to 100%.
The interior was quite interesting, needless to say, but again…that high humidity just didn’t sit well with this Texan. My buddy Raffaela and I did our best to linger long enough to find that well-being; however, about 20 minutes was enough and we scampered our sweaty bodies back for up for fresh air, the relaxation room, and some cleansing tea.
The hotel has origins as far back as 1873 and was designed to draw the upper crust. Today’s visitors don’t need to possess a pedigree, however; just a desire for some real relaxation in plush, serene Tuscan beauty so bountifully offered here.
As I traded my white terry robe for street clothes, I pondered on all that I’d encountered over the past two days — the theme of water, of healing, of balance stood out above all. I surmised that possibly these beautiful Italians that call Tuscany home had truly figured out the art of relaxation, that dolce far niente – pleasant relaxation in carefree idleness according to Merriam-Webster – that seems to elude so many of us on the other side of the Atlantic. Maybe it’s due to thousands of years of practice…the crafty Etruscans knew the beauty of a good bath, and the Romans took to it to high art. Chi sa…who knows. But what I do now know is that these thermal spa towns, these water-blessed gems wedged along northern Tuscany, are well worth slow travel time spent to bask in the serene energy that is found here.