Tuscany

‘Heaven, Purgatory & Hell’ at an Italian Spa

That enticement drew me to Grotta Giusti Natural Spa Resort…to be found in their 160-year old ancient cave.

For my Mom’s 60th birthday, we ventured from Amsterdam to Paris, Florence and a few relaxing days at the Tuscany spa. Grotta Giusti is a 19th century villa that belonged to the family of poet Giuseppe Giusti. The lush location in Monsummano Terme, about 40 minutes west of Florence, is also a 58-room Small Luxury Hotel of the World.

Since seeing pictures of the grotta, I was interested in visiting. In 1849, miners discovered hot steam coming from the ground on the property. Upon digging a hole, they discovered this incredible cave. Italian composer Giuseppe Verde, a frequent visitor to the spa, called the grotta the ‘eighth wonder of the world.’

Full of stalactites and stalagmites, the lake, Lago, inside provides 100% humidity. As you enter, steam surrounds you and you move through the cave’s ‘Heaven, Purgatory and Hell’ zones to the maximum 34ºC/93ºF. Once in ‘Hell,’ recline in one of the nice wooden chairs and detox. The only sound is falling water droplets. It’s a wonderful relaxation and a 50-minute treatment is said to eliminate toxins and stress. I felt great after two daily sessions.

There is much more to enjoy as you roam the villa and spa in your robe (one of my favorite parts). Upon arrival, you can meet with a doctor who prescribes treatments. In addition to my swedish and anti-stress massages and facial, I was prescribed ‘nasal aerosol and douching.’ After one treatment, I declared myself fine. That was my ‘hell.’ 😉

There are also 750-square-meters of open air thermal pools to soak in…a large, several mini and a waterfall…permanently fed by spa water at 35°C containing bicarbonate, sulphur, calcium and magnesium, all said to help musculoskeletal system, respiratory system and skin conditions.

The old world Tuscan villa decor makes you feel like a Medici. The wellness centre is a bit more clinical and medicinal, but their focus is on longevity.

Bioaquam Café has great salads water-side for lunch. The Bar is perfect for pre-dinner cocktails with their signature Pink Cinnamon. La Veranda has a nice selection for dinner, again with the feel of dining in a Tuscan villa. And after, piano music back at The Bar with a Lemoncello is a must.

Part of the Fonteverde Collection, last year Grotta Giusti unveiled some upgrades to the property which I haven’t yet seen. Here’s a great photo tour of the property.

When in Florence, Pisa or Lucca and looking for a spa stop, definitely plan a visit for what I’d qualify as heaven.

Viareggio, a Tuscan Culture and Coast Weekend

Tuscany + Beach + Sea + Sun + Italian Food = What more could you ask for? It’s all in Viareggio, on the Versilian Coast of Tuscany. Our first trip here, unlike the stop in Lucca, was totally planned. Mapping out our first Italian holiday adventure since moving to Europe, I thought what about a few September days at the beach while in Tuscany? Beach doesn’t typically come to mind when you think of Tuscany but we found it and loved it!

We crossed the mountain headed northeast from Lucca and within 40 minutes arrived to a quiet dark Viareggio and the Hotel President. Excited to see the town the next morning, we awoke early and out our big windows was the perfect view…long beach, beach clubs, a boardwalk, sunshine and sea.

The Versilian Coast is one of the oldest sea resorts in Tuscany runs north to Forte de Marmi and sits between the Tyrranean Sea and Apuan Alps. Viareggio’s name came from the fortress that Pisa, Lucca and Genoa built here in 1172 to defend the coast at the end of the road, via regia. Beach clubs first opened here in 1828 and since its been a hub for Italian family holidays. It peaked as a resort in the 1920’s and while La Passeggiata (‘the boardwalk’) is a bit worn now, you can still imagine the splendor looking at The Liberty Style/Art Nouveau buildings.

The town has been a port since 1913 and now some of the biggest yachts in the world are made here by companies like Perini Navi and Benetti. You won’t believe the size of these things!! Walk down to the pier to check them out sitting in the port and being made in massive hangars.

Viareggio’s most famous event is Carnevale di Viareggio, one of the biggest carnival festivals in Europe. Taking place since 1873, it now draws over one million people each year for its five masked parades full of papier mâché.

Overall there isn’t a ton to do here which makes it perfect! On our second visit we felt like regulars and hit the same spots. We spent most of our time at Bagno Irene, one of over 100 beach clubs lining the sand of Viareggio. Family run like most of the clubs, its been in the family since 1943. You feel the Italian hospitality the moment you walk in. Hotel President has a special rate (for chair, umbrella, use of their facilities) with them so we headed over late morning after the hotel’s yummy breakfast and lazed away the day on the beach surrounded by Italians on holiday. If you need an espresso or beverage, make the short walk to the club. If you’re hungry, they have amazing food. And if you want a beach massage, just look for one of the many great Asian masseuse strolling the beach offering their services (and don’t be intimidated…it’s fabulous!).

After sunset drinks on the beach, we cleaned up for dinner and strolled La Passeggiata. The town is very low key and casual. There are tons of restaurants to chose from…pizza, pasta and seafood are plenty. We like Sa Playa (V.le Margherita, 68) and Tito Pizzeria (Lungomolo del Greco 3). La Passeggiata is also fun to walk in the morning down to the pier to see the fresh catches on display or rent a bike in the park to explore.

So if you’re looking for an incredible Tuscan weekend of culture and coast, Viareggio and Lucca are perfect!

More great Viareggio photos are in the gallery!

Lucca, a Tuscan Culture and Coast Weekend

A missed turn on the A12 in northwest Tuscany led us to Lucca, a medieval gem of a Tuscan town. (Original destination…Leaning Tower of Pisa…we saw it from the road. 😉 ) And while only there for a few hours, we knew we’d return.

Developed as a Roman city in 180 BC, Lucca sits inside still intact 16th century ramparts. With the Apuan Alps in the distance, the town and its 2000 year history are beyond charming and perfect for a day, long weekend or week’s stay anytime of year.

Our first visit was in September which lucky for us is festival month. We stumbled upon the happening main Piazza San Michele where we discovered the most delicious traditional pastry of Lucca dating back to 1893, Frate (like a lemon donut), and yummy fresh anisette crisps being made on the spot. After a short exploration, you can walk the tiny town’s picturesque streets and squares in a few hours, we relaxed at Ristorante del Teatro for an amazing dinner of bruschetta, gnocchi al pesto and tagliatonni pomodoro paired with a local red wine, Montecarlo Rosso.

Our return trip a few summers ago, one of our favorite Italian weekends, centered around the now 13 year Summer Festival Concert Series and trip to the Tuscan Coast. After settling in at the charming Hotel Palazzo Alexander, a 12th century building decorated in noble Lucchese style, we strolled the town’s highlights then took a seat at Il Cuore for an aperitif. Enjoying a prosecco, we soaked in one of my favorite Italian views…the sun shining on Tuscan orange houses dotted with green wooden shutters. Then we made our way over to Piazza Napoleone, home of the Summer Festival hosting well known bands like Elton John, Dave Matthews and James Taylor (our concert!) from late June – July. It’s a spectacular spot for a concert. As we approached the piazza and settled in for a pre-show dinner on Ristorante del Teatro’s patio, the square was getting lively as the town prepared for its mid-point in the concert series. Afterwards we found our seats and to my surprise, I simply bought the more expensive of the two ticket tiers, we were literally in the front row for James Taylor. And the concert was amazing!! James Taylor live in concert in an Italian piazza enjoying local wine under star lit skies. It was truly a magical evening!

We spent the next day enjoying more of the MUST GO‘s (my #1 is definitely the Summer Festival concert series)…

  • The Ramparts: Explore the huge city walls and their 2.5 mile long path either by bike or on foot. You’ll circle the town and enjoy some great views.
  • Piazza Anfiteatro: Once a Roman amphitheater, it’s now an enchanting oval piazza with the ancient arches embedded into the picturesque buildings. A great spot for an espresso and some shopping. I found great linen treasures at a few shops. We also bought a playful Lucca painting by Bianchi Giampiero that always makes me smile when I pass it on our wall.
  • Piazza San Michele: The heart of Lucca is a great place to hang out with the backdrop of the ornate cathedral. To get here from Piazza Anfiteatro, enjoy the shopping along Via Fillungo and Via Roma like Paris, for housewares, and Enotecca Vanni, for a great wine selection packed into small cellars. The third Saturday and Sunday of each month Lucca also hosts 230 antique dealers throughout town.
  • Giacumo Puccini Home: Puccini (1858-1924) was born here and coming 13 September his birth house and museum reopen to visitors. You’ll find him celebrated throughout the year in concerts like those at the 19th century Teatro del Giglio.

Another venture I’d like to do next visit is Strada del Vino e dell’Olio in the Lucca Province outside of town for their D.O.C. wine and D.O.P. olive oil producers! The local Montecarlo wines I had were quite nice.

Next leg of our Tuscan Culture and Coast Weekend…Viareggio!

More great Lucca photos are in the gallery!

Tuscan Spa Bliss

Nestled in the heart of Southern Tuscany surrounded by the rolling hills of Val d’Orcia, you’ll find Adler Thermae Toscana just outside the tiny medieval spa town of Bagno Bignoni. This spa town was the perfect respite along the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim way that once led from Canterbury to Rome, for many including Medici Prince Lorenzo and Pope Pius II. Those same waters now feed Adler Thermae.

I arrived at this idyllic oasis after a train from Florence (90 minutes to Chiusi) and a taxi ride (35 minutes) through the bellissimo countryside. It was mid-March with Spring springing… fresh growth green made the rolling Tuscan hills glow! The stunning setting flowed into the spa. The whole spot exudes tranquility! Everywhere you look there are giant windows and sliding doors framing the amazing countryside, from the gym and restaurant to the guest rooms and quiet rooms. As you stroll the beautiful grounds there are big rocks perfect for quiet meditation as you peer out on Pienza in the distance. Or lounge poolside and enjoy the sun shining down between the clouds upon the 11th century Castle Vignoni perched atop Monte Amiata and a back drop of blue skies and birds soaring.

That’s just one of the many reasons Adler Thermae is a MUST GO...

The Water… located on the site of a former travertine quarry, the waters that feed the spa spend ten years collecting valuable minerals and sulphur compounds on their journey through the bowels of the earth before rising from 1,000 meters deep and emerging at 50˚celsius in the resort pools. The waters benefit your entire body, especially your skin, bones and joints. Soak in the 1,000 meters of indoor and outdoor thermal pools with water features and the many therapeutic steam baths, Grotta del Filosifo (steam bath in the travertine grotto), Salino (Etruscan brine steam bath), Argillae (Estruscan clay steam bath) and Grotto Saline (subterranean brine bath). There are even serve yourself water stations around to keep you hydrated.

The Spa Treatments… from Thalasso (water based) to Ayerveda (ancient healing methods) each treatment uses their own Tuscany organic body-care products. I pampered myself with a few ‘new to me’ treatments…

  • Mud Wrap: Covered in warm healing mud, you’re wrapped in plastic and a heavy heated ‘blanket’ then lowered into a water chamber… but you don’t get wet! Perfect purification.
  • Lymphatic Draining Massage: Gentle strokes massage the glands to remove the toxins. Followed by the Mud Wrap it’s a great detox.
  • Red Grape Anti-Aging Body Treatment: First you’re exfoliated with grape seeds then covered in warm grape seed juice warm and wrapped in plastic and warm blankets to detox for twenty minutes. Followed by a bath in THE best tub I’ve ever been in which rinses away the grape layer. Finishing touch…a short back rub.
  • Acqua Detox: Basically a foot bath that detoxes the body by removing positive ions. The after effects are compared to a refreshing walk on the beach in the ocean.
  • Hatma Balance: A drenching oil and strenuous massage on a crazy table. Very cool experience!

The Restaurant…is simply fabulous!

It’s designed to make you feel like you’re sitting in an Italian courtyard by a giant olive tree. Windows peer out to the rolling hills topped with cyprus trees. The roof is a giant sun/moon roof so you can dine under the stars no matter the season. The amazing staff serves fresh, delicious small portions. And the food is incredible! Dinner favorites included Panzanella (Tuscan bread salad), Pumpkin flowers stuffed with swiss chard, Fussili pasta served al dente with a hint of pecorino cheese and diced mushrooms and peppers, Risotto with chanterelle mushrooms and fresh sprigs of oregano. Save room for dessert… the best tiramisu I’ve ever had or try the yummy semi-sweet chocolate bread cake with butterscotch sauce and chocolate chips. Yum! Retire to the Cocktail Bar after dinner for piano music by the fireplace or a cocktail on the patio under the stars.

The Wine… you’re in Tuscany so you get the best! Dinners are paired with local Montalcino, Montepulciano and Chianti wines. The cozy Entoca offers local wine tastings a few times a week. I had a great tasting of four paired with bread, cheese and salami. As the sign above the entrance says, “In Vino Veritas”, in wine their is truth.

The Fitness Programs…it’s not all relaxing and eating. 🙂 I’d be happy to workout in this gym anytime… well equipped, stunning views and a water fall running through it! ADLERFIT is their weekly fitness program. They also have special weekly programs like Yoga & Orient week which was on during my week. The yoga classes were okay and in Italian but still fun. The Adler Balance programs are also offered tailored to your specific needs around weight, stress, cleansing, beauty, prevention.

One small note about my visit … it was spring break so about 20% of the guests were there with children. Good news for families though is they have a Kids Club!

The rates are extremely affordable for everything you get including the very personalized service from their 120 member staff.

All of this AND you’re in TUSCANY! It was the perfect four day escape to, as their motto says, Let my Soul Fly!

 

Montepulciano, Wine Town

The land of Southern Tuscany is one of quintessential hilltowns, grape vines, olive trees and big Tuscan red wines. Montepulciano is my favorite town to explore!

The walled town on a high ridge thrived in the 16th century and is full of Renaissance palazzo like Piazza Grande lined with the town’s unfinished Duomo. We arrived on a rainy afternoon excursion during our Easter Under the Tuscan Snow just in time for siesta. It was a great opportunity to roam the quiet streets and grab a bite.

While vineyards dot the landscape surrounding town, all you need to do to explore the wine is visit the walled town. Montepulciano exudes wine unlike any other town in Tuscany…streets are lined with enoteca (wine shops) ready for tastings AND there is a network of cellars under town with huge barrels of aging Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. You can do a tour of them or just visit Pulcino (Via di Graccinao nel Corso, 102) where the basement was an Etruscan tomb. Find barrels of wine among some of the artifacts they’ve discovered in the stone.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a fabulous red wine and was the first DOCG (the Italian wine quality assurance label) in Italy. It is less complex and more versatile than neighboring Brunello di Montalcino (the biggest of the Tuscan reds). The wine is made of 70% minimum Sangiovese grape, up to 20% Canaiolo Nero and up to 20% other (the Mammolo grape is most often used which gives this wine a scent of violets). It must be aged two years years in oak or chestnut barrels, three years for those labeled Riserva.

In addition to visiting Pulcino and its underground caves, MUST GO’s include:

  • Il Greppo: This was my favorite red of the trip (just enjoyed a cellared bottle a month ago). Their tasting room is in town (Via di Gracciano nel Corso, 71) and they have an agritourismo and restaurant outside town.
  • Avignonesi: One of the most well known Montepulciano producers, the Falvo brothers were key to reviving the quality of the area grape in the 1990s. They also have a tasting room in town (Via Gracciano nel Corso, 91).
  • Bottega del Rame (Via dell’Opio nel Corso, 64): Check out the Mazzetti family’s store of amazing hand-hammered copperware.
  • Osteria del Borgo: Just off Piazza Grande, we enjoyed a yummy lunch in the rustic wine cave. In nice weather they have an awesome patio with views of the countryside.

Montepulciano has lots of summer festivals like Bravio dell Botti, the last Sunday in August, a competition where 80-kilogram wine barrels are rolled up the narrow streets of town. Visit Strada del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano for more information on everything in the area. And visit the gallery for photos from our trip.