22 May – Terme Tettuccio and Montecatini Alto
The human brain is 75% water; an elephant is 70% water; a pineapple is 80% water; a chicken is 75% water. Mother Earth sports a cloak of about 75% water in a closed system in which the same collection of water has recirculated for untold millions of years. Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom are electrically married and form water in the same process that binds chemicals and creates life.
Is it any wonder, then, that we humans are inexplicably drawn to water aside from our need for survival; that we find mother-womb comfort in a hot bath; that the top destination choice (in the USA) is the beach? We are liquid creatures, and the town of Montecatini Terme has cornered the Tuscan market in catering to that draw.
The second day of our Council of Europe Cultural Routes tour began on a blue-sky Tuscan morning at the entrance to Montecatini Terme’s grand dame – Terme Tettuccio. The undisputed queen of Montecatini’s 8 major thermal spas, this “Temple of European Thermal Energy” is home to the mineral springs known at least as far back as Roman times and first housed in 1370 under a wooden roof, or tettuccio.
Built to impress, the current Tettuccio took shape in 1919 and continues to do just that both visually and medicinally. Although not very old, especially in comparison to the history that surrounds it, Terme Tettuccio is more Greek Temple grandeur than early 20th century show. Had a toga clad ensemble greeted us rather than the cheerful guide Svatlana, I wouldn’t have shown surprise.
Ornate ionic columns placed strategically in the open air atrium support beautiful frescos and glassed skylights; the sense of solidity from these heavy structures doesn’t clash, however, with the palpable lightness and serenity. No accident, I’m sure, as the vision here was to cross health, a sense of well being, art, culture, and relaxation under one tettuccio for all who came to “take the waters”.
And there is plenty of water to take. Called hydropic because they can be ingested, the four types of mineral waters line up like an old-fashioned soda fountain at the Mixing Gallery, a massive wall that sports impressive marble alters with spigots pouring the waters, each a slightly different natural chemical make-up prescribed for treating a particular ailment or ailments.
We sampled the Tettucio spring where it flows from the famous Crocodile Fountain, but only a sip as we’d been warned. Turns out these special waters can excite the digestive tract rather quickly in any kind of quantity. No problem to go easy, however, as I do think I would have to be highly motivated to take more than that experimental swig; just a bit too salty for my taste, thank you.
The temporary pucker didn’t detract from admiring the richly detailed fresco that serves as backdrop to the Mixing Gallery. The allegorical journey depicted by artist Basilio Cascella takes the viewer on a trip from birth to death with the main idea being the importance of water. Although not a Michelangelo, this 7 panel lifespan is whimsical, richly colored, and something I found very enjoyable to linger with for awhile.
As the tour continued, we were lead into the continuing opulence of the once-library-now-giftshop that actually had its own postal code back in the day. Our guide explained that Tettuccio was considered a city within itself, by design, and self-contained in order to allow guests to totally escape from reality while they took the cure…so they could “staccare la spina” (turn off the mind). The Italian health system allows for prescriptions to be written for thermal spa cures; wonder if they include orders for this, as well?
There was much more to see and experience at Terme Tettuccio, but due to lack of time we were only able to take glancing blows at the elegant “snack bar”, the gardens, and other works of art integrated throughout Tetuccio. My walk-away impression was, again, what this town seems to do best: offer the weary rejuvenation in a stately crossing of natural healing, physical beauty, hedonistic pleasures, and just plain old rest.
We bid our farewells and enjoyed a warm walk to the lower station for the the oldest functioning funicular railway, The Funicolare Di Montecatini — undoubtedly the most amusing way to depart Montecatini Terme and head uphill to its mother-town Montecatini Alto. One could walk, of course, but why not take a scenic ride in one of the two original wood trolleys named Gigio and Gigia as they chug-chug up and down the hillside just as they’ve done since 1898 with only a little time off after damage during WWII and for mechanical reasons in the late 1970’s.
We did just that, arriving in about 10 minutes at the edge of the crescent shaped hilltop that cradles the ancient town, or what’s left of it, of Montecatini Alto. Long story kind of short, this town has historically been a strategic way station along the Cassia, Rome, and Francigena routes (crossing routes!), as well a a hotly contested holding amongst then-powerful Lucca, Pisa, and Florence. Various battles ensued as Montecatini Alto changed hands, and in 1554 it was all but razed by Cosimo I de’Medici who decreed that all archives be publicly destroyed — and go ahead and tear down the protective walls and most of the 25 towers while you’re at it.
As with the bodily ailments, it was the healing waters found in the springs at the base of the moon shaped hill that once more brought life to Montecatini Alto. Now a quaint village just above the bustle of its more cosmopolitan offspring and with all the offerings of a proper Tuscan kind, one can find a quieter experience here than in more frequented areas of Tuscany.
Our group strolled through the small but welcoming piazza which was lined on all sides with outdoor tables filled with a more genteel crowd than one would find in the larger tourist destinations. There were also a healthy number of shops and goods to make for a nice souvenir expedition. I was struck by the quiet and calm; more of that la dolce vita or the effects of the waters or maybe just because we were in Tuscany. Nonetheless, it was inviting and I wished we had time to sit and sip awhile.
Montecatini Alto also offers two historic churches worth a visit, as well as just being a nice place to saunter up and down the tiny cobbled streets. We hardly saw a soul of the non-tourist variety, but a vibrant life was evident in the show-off window boxes flowing with vivid flowers, the spring gardens busting with growth, and the neatly painted shutters and doors guarding the secrets of those inside.