Thermal spas are a fabulously European concept, combining historic architecture, steamy, turquoise waters, and a reassuringly relaxed attitude to dieting: yes, you can drink wine and scoff carbs! (you don’t get that at Champneys…). We check out two in Tuscany, one of Italy’s most picture-perfect regions.
Bagni di Pisa
Where: In the centre of the tiny town of San Giuliano Terme, twenty minutes from Pisa.
The hotel: A converted, 18th century noble residence, which used to be the summer house of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Needless to say, it’s not poky; it’s got 60 rooms (eight of which are suites) spread over three floors, a bar named after Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, who used to stay here, a restaurant from where you can just see the Leaning Tower, and an olive grove in the grounds.
The vibe: Italian chic. Think marble floors, pale grey and white walls, jewel-coloured velvet furniture, and corridors lined with bright green plants in huge stone urns, hung with antique black and white prints – talk about Instagrammable.
The rooms: Comfortable, with a nod to the past. Rooms feature hand-painted wardrobes, beds are draped with silk fabrics, and bathrooms are marbled, while the suites have original painted fresco ceilings.
The spa: There are actually two spa areas here, one in each wing (guests can use both). ‘Ponente’ has an indoor and outdoor pool filled with water from the local hot springs, so it’s rich in minerals - great for the skin. There’s also a small sauna, a steam room, and a gym. ‘Levante’ has a main pool equipped with powerful jets for pummelling away any flabby bits, and two smaller pools. There’s also something called the Salidarium, or the salt therapy room, and a small grotto - a hollowed-out area of natural rock, which acts as a natural steam room due to its high temperature.
The treatments: Book a session in the grotto; the heat’s meant to regulate blood pressure and eliminate toxins, while the steam is meant to help you breathe more easily. There’s a small thermal water pool which left our skin feeling like velvet afterwards. Feeling adventurous? Try a salt therapy treatment. You lie on a heated marble platform, covered in a sheet, as the therapist piles salt all over you, then leaves you to relax for twenty minutes. While it does feel a bit having your annoying little brother bury you in sand on a family holiday, it’s strangely soothing, and, again, it’s meant to draw out toxins. As long as the hotel restaurant doesn’t recycle the salt for the dinner table, we’re fine with it.
The food: Yes, the menu caters for anyone who is veggie, vegan, or trying to eat clean, but it also has a reassuring amount of pasta dishes (try the pici alla Toscano, thick, slithery strands of spaghetti served with a rich beef and tomato sauce), as well as plenty of meat, like Bistecca alla Fiorentina, and fish options. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, try the tiramisu; it’s the creamiest we’ve ever had. There’s an extensive wine list, natch; order like a local, and try Chianti Classico, a rich, fruity red.
The look: Floaty summer dresses or palazzo trousers with Bardot-shouldered tops, sandals, and wide-brimmed hats by day; LBD or tailored tops with black skinny jeans and heels by night.
The lowdown: Rooms start from 150E/£131 approx per person (suites from 284E/£247 approx), including breakfast, and access to the spa, thermal pools and fitness facilities. To book, visit bagnidipisa.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where: Just outside the village of Monsummano, halfway between the medieval walled town of Lucca, and Florence.
The hotel: This used to be the home of an artistic family, the Giustis. Dating from 1849, the main building is made from rustic, local, sand-coloured stone. Another wing was added in the 1920s, which looks more classical, and it’s set in 40 acres of beautiful gardens. Inside, there are 64 rooms, a bar, restaurant and poolside cafe. The hotel’s USP, however, is its huge underground thermal grotto; a vast, naturally-heated cave (it gets up to 37oC) with a small lake of mineral-enriched water.
The vibe: Country-house casual. Giant ceramic vases are scattered around the lobby and the bar, filled with beautiful arrangements of local flowers, which contrast with the smart, red and white upholstered chairs, sofas and stools in the bar and lounge areas. Some public areas are hung with ancient, gilt-framed mirrors and elaborate glass chandeliers.
The rooms: More minimalist than at Bagna di Pisa, they’re decorated in shades of white and cream, and some have small balconies.
The spa: This is a proper medi-spa, which attracts visitors, as well as the hotel guests, and you can follow treatment programmes lasting up to seven days. There’s a small hydromassage pool, and a bigger outdoor pool, both filled with warm thermal water. They have 26 treatment rooms, and a gym.
The treatments: These range from medical – such as inhalation therapy, to help with decongestion – to pampering. We try the mud wrap, where mud treated with mineral-rich water is smeared all over you, you’re covered in cling film, then wait for it to sink in. The weirdest thing we tried, however, was ‘floating therapy’, in the underground lake. It’s meant to increase your dopamine levels – ie make you feel happy – as well as decrease stress. These results were achieved almost immediately as we got the giggles the minute the therapist cradled our neck in the crook of his elbow, supported our legs with his other hand, then started, well, swooshing us around in the water. It felt a bit like when your mum used to bath you as a kid, but actually it was pretty relaxing, and even a bit trancey. If you switch off your inner, uptight, easily-embarrassed Brit, you’ll be fine…
The food: Again, the menu caters for vegans, veggies and clean eaters, but has lots of local Tuscan dishes; try the pappa al pomodoro, a rich, tasty, tomato and bread soup. The signature cocktail is the Nobody’s Perfect, made with prosecco, mandarin syrup, Aperol and cranberry juice; trust us, you’ll be feeling less than perfect the morning after if you have more than three…
The look: We’re taking inspo from the stylish Italian mammas who sit by the pool for a gossip; all you need is a fifties-style one-piece, cats eye sunnies, a floral swim cap, and a red lip. In the evening, go for tailored separates or a sundress.