Idyll in Italy

The hillside path winds downward past the crumbling stone ruins of some nameless, long-forgotten building. At the bottom, the ground levels out to accommodate a small lake filled with water that reflects the startling blue of the sky, and my husband James and I pause to relish the view. The fragrance of lemon blossoms fills the hot, dry air. Sounds drift toward us — voices, a barking dog, wind chimes hanging above a shop door in the small Tuscan village of Bagno Vignoni.

Bagno Vignoni has been a destination since the days of the Roman Empire, when St. Catherine and Lorenzo the Magnificent — no doubt mounted on splendid horses — came in search of the healing properties of the village’s mineral pool. It remained largely unchanged since the 13th century, and was part of a popular route for pilgrims on their way to Rome who paused in the village to bathe in the thermal waters, renowned even then.

Less than a half-mile away lies one of Europe’s most relaxing spa resorts, the Hotel Adler Thermae. Arriving in time for dinner, we find the glass ceiling of the dining room rolled open to the star-filled evening sky.

The food is amazing, but we’re here for the spa. The winding stone and glass space celebrates the European tradition of steam bathing, mineral soaks and thermal waters, with a centerpiece mineral pool that flows from indoors to out. We rise early to enjoy the water, lolling contently near a central, rock-themed waterfall where we can enjoy views of the ruins of a nearby castle.

We spend two days indulging in daily rounds of themed herbal steam baths, punctuated by relaxing moments in a cave in one corner of the property converted to a dreamy grotto. Inside the coolness of the cave, we nap beneath the stalactites while listening to the soothing music of a floor-to-ceiling waterfall that flows along one wall. On the morning of our departure, we enjoy a couple’s bathing session in a private seawater grotto where the salt-laced waters keep us effortlessly afloat.

We catch the train from the nearby town of Chuisi on Tuscany’s easternmost edge, heading for Montecatini Terme, reputed to be one of Italy’s most elegant and prestigious spa towns. We’re staying at the staggeringly majestic Grand Hotel & La Pace, a hotel so stunning that not only are the glitterati regular guests, but the former King of Italy kept a suite here for exclusive use during his frequent visits.

We borrow bicycles from the hotel and pedal past the tall wrought-iron gates at the entrance to the town’s central spa park a scant block away. Within, broad paths lead from one stone-columned, carved marble bathing house to another — each more architecturally imposing than the last.

For centuries, travelers made the journey here to drink from the wide variety of mineral springs, and to bathe in the thermal waters. Today, you can stay at any hotel or bed & breakfast in town and make your way to the spa park to participate in a round of visits to the numerous springs, housed in structures straight out of a Roman fantasy. Despite the opulence, there’s a municipal system in control, and only a small fee is required to enjoy “taking the waters” in these public spas.

Pool in Montecatini Terme

Pool in Montecatini Terme © Hibiscus81 | Dreamstime.com

The Terme Excelsior bathhouse stops us in our tracks. This amazing structure resembles a cross between an ancient monument and an opulent palace. The exterior is decorated with statues of blissful-looking women holding pitchers; inside are murals, frescos, pools and columns.

In the central space, a long bar stretches from one end to another, with glistening faucets spaced a foot or so apart along its length. Each faucet delivers a different mineral water, and spa-goers spend the day sipping the healing elixirs and resting beneath the arched marble ceilings, or leisurely strolling the gardens and grounds of the spa park. Even though sampling the waters was fascinating, we agree a visit just to view the uniform-clad attendants who guard the long counters of faucets would have made the visit worthwhile.

After returning our bikes to the hotel, we made a tour of the town on foot. The noise of the crowds competes with the beeping of scooters and car horns, and the requisite shouting between drivers. Shopping seems to consist of migrating from one high-end designer boutique and jewelry shop to the next, and it’s not long before we’re exhausted just watching other people spend money.

A small osteria off the main plaza calls, and we find an outdoor table and order wine before returning to the hotel to relax and enjoy dinner at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Michelangelo. We dine on creatively prepared regional fare from a menu that takes great pride in game meats and locally sources fruits, vegetables and cheese. Between courses, we gaze upward at the ceiling, where a gloriously romantic Renaissance fresco is displayed.

In the morning, we begin the ritual of packing. It won’t be long before it’s time to say arrivederci — though there remain a few thousand museums to wander through, regional dishes to try and side roads to explore in lovely Tuscany. We’re both weary, but happy. A warm breeze lifts the blossoms that just began to appear on the fig trees in a nearby garden, and the words la dolce vita come to mind. The sweet life. I think I understand.