21 May : The thermal spa town of Montecatini Terme
Remember the great adversity of art or anything else is a hurried life.~Robert James Waller
Dare any of us say we relax too much? Most likely not. And as I hurriedly made my way via Fiat Panda along the Italian autostrada into Montecatini Terme, relaxed was definitely not a trait in my possession.
My introduction to Montecatini Terme, a moderate size town of about 21,000 located west/northwest of Florence, was more of a chaotic rat race into the industrial side of town…where was all the calma I’d heard about? However, the day gave way to a grand introduction to the beautiful Tuscan art of dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing – and I found it exists in legions within this charming old town.
Our Crossing Routes team of bloggers, photographers, and videographers were to gather at the aged but still-elegant Hotel Astoria located in the heart of 19th century Montecatini Terme. Reminding me of a grand old dame who has seen better years yet still retains a poised dignity and quiet splendor, the Astoria laid out a regal welcome of goodies lauding the town’s glories: spa products, art museum sovenirs, the famous Bargilli biscotti, and more. Bring on that relaxation!
With time to spare and a lovely afternoon walk along the glorious tree-lined streets accomplished, I noted a sense of calm, of tranquility, had begun to set in, gloriously so. Almost palpable, the sense of slow-down-and-smell-the-roses seemed to permeate this town. And it was by no accident, mind you. The grand buildings, hotels, parks, and restaurants that make up the personality of Montecatini Terme were purposefully designed in the earlier parts of the 20th century to foster an elite spa town persona – a tourist destination to offer total relaxation, pampering, and healing via the famous waters. And that persona stuck. It can be noted, too, that the grandeur set in place was also a means of “giving back to the people” some of the spoils of war after the rigors of WWI.
There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. ~Sylvia Plath
Group gathered and introductions made, our troupe was off to experience first-hand the wonders of Montecatini Terme; first stop The Terme Excelsior Spa. We entered a large, glass-laden sleek building and were greeted by the two elegantly coiffed women at the desk. This cavernous portion of the spa is the new conjoined sister to the Liberty style original building which makes for an interesting juxtaposition of moods and mannerisms.
We were lead up several flights of broad open-air wooden steps beneath an impressive mono-tone glass art/lighting ceiling cover and over classic Italian marble floors; the changing rooms were introduced, along with the cute little paper g-strings for those of us who came without bathing suits. When in Rome…
Cozied up in elegant white terry robes, our subdivided group of four females and one male were taken to a good sized, softly lit tile covered room sporting fluffy blue clouds on its ceilings. Wood slat loungers held towels for our use, and several mysterious glass-paneled doors lined the left wall.
Feeling a bit awkward due to 1.) lack of clothing underneath my robe and now understanding I had some choices to make, and 2.) not sure of the standard “customs” for this sort of activity, I decided to take the cowgirl approach and just go for it.
A big towel became my bathing suit — let the pleasures begin.
First stop was the light therapy shower…a not-too-large tiled stall overhung with a huge, rain-mimicking spout. Not only was I doused with a hearty spray of water, but softly colored lights changed overhead as the steam rose around me. My thoughts wandered to “How can I talk my husband into one of these??”
A few steps over and into the second shower. This similar cubicle offered a mist- like spray of water infiltrated with a delightful herbal infusion, lavender being the prevalent scent, and another overhead aura of softly changing lights. I lingered, literally soaking it all in.
Our other options in this room, behind the mysterious doors, were a dry sauna and a Turkish bath. Having never really experienced either, there was no question of my agenda.
Joining two others in the sauna, I stepped into a small, wood lined room that had just enough light to allow one to see the floor on their way down should they faint from heat. It was hot…hotter than August in Texas hot.
After I eased my soaked towel covered backside onto the bench, I worked hard to be the good sport and stay awhile. Five minutes felt more like an hour, and I had to smile and excuse myself. On to the next door…
A Turkish bath, after a bit of reading on my own, is a rather involved experience of being bathed, pounded, etc., so our transit to the Turkish bath found here was less the authentic experience, but an experience to remember (or avoid), nonetheless. Having lived much of my life on the humid Texas coast, a small room full of dense humidity and high heat just doesn’t add up to “fun”; however, I won’t deny the pleasure others might find in such treatment. Two minutes inside this room was abastanza (enough) for me, thank you.
A cooling rinse under the rain shower was the perfect tonic before laying myself out on one of the wooden loungers. This main part of the room, the relaxation area, was a fine treat of repose while waiting to be called for my massage.
Ahhh yes…massage. An endeavor I adore and have in later years treated myself to on a somewhat regular basis. Therefore, I was quite aware of the protocol for such treatment, and when asked if I preferred a back massage or a full massage, there was no doubt…a full, of course!
A smiling raven haired female attendant dressed in white from head to toe entered the room and called my name. Using my halting Italian, we were able to communicate somewhat effectively, and as I stood beside the massage table, it became clear that this was the moment. None of that “I’ll step out while you undress and get under the sheet” stuff. No…this was Italy. Drop the robe and climb onboard, belly up.
Good thing my older years have brought a bravado that I lacked in my youth, including a good sized demise in modesty in certain situations…such as this.
The massage went from head to toe, front and back. Interesting, indeed. As I lay there, smirking to myself, the new/old mantra danced through my thoughts again and again — “When in Rome…”
Oh the glories! It’s very easy to see how one could indulge in an entire vacation trip around this type of treatment and that beautiful art of doing nothing.
Relaxed bodies dressed and groomed, we made our way further down the Viale Verdi, a main thoroughfare gilded with brass circles strategically placed in the sidewalk highlighting the famous that have taken their holidays in Montecatini. Guiding us like breadcrumbs for birds, the circles took us to the steps of the civic building…and a personal encounter with one of Montecatini’s current famous and beloved, the soft-spoken but jovial Mayor (or Sindaco) Giuseppe Bellandi.
The civic building, which houses the mayor’s office, was a glorious structure more resembling a cathedral minus the alter; impressive frescoes flew over ornately carved wooden banisters and railings, vying to take attention from the opulent stained glass ceilings. Cut glass artfully laid in lead webbings silently spoke of grander days when this building also served as the post office. Ornate plaster workings graced ceiling junctions and continued on to herald busts of dignitaries whose names are but forgotten yet whose words live on. It was impressive.
Mayor Bellandi took time out of his undoubtedly busy schedule, even with election day a mere four days away, and kindly spoke to us of his city and its treasures. A fatherly pride was present in his eyes as we each were personally presented a pin of the city crest and a lovely book on Montecatini Terme; the honor felt was hopefully conveyed in an exchanged smile and heartfelt “Grazie mille”.
After filling ourselves on a delectable 6 course meal and local wines in the pastel yellow dining room of The Astoria , goodnights were exchanged with anticipation for what more awaited us along this European Route of Historic Thermal Spa Towns and Via Francigena journey.
Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the blue sky, is by no means waste of time. ~John Lubbock, “Recreation,” The Use of Life, 1894
*Author’s Note: A hearty congratulations to newly re-elected Mayor Bellandi!