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Nicky Pope visits a Tuscan spa where mud,massage and mineral wraps combine to reduce her waistline and her stress levels. Photographs by James Merrell. There was a certain amount of eye-rolling from my husband when I announced my intention to visit a spa. He has become used, over the past 10 years, to my increasingly desperate attempts to get to grips with the rounded shape I was born with. He has weathered the ups and downs, from frumpy to svelte and back again, with admirable fortitude and lack of complaint.
But because he is able to spend an hour exercising alone, with only Bach to spur him on, he fìnds it hard to comprehend why the less disciplined among us feel the need to hand the problem over to experts.
This time, however, there was no talking me out of it. A year of several big birthday celebrations,partying and generally enjoying myself had had the inevitable results. I decided to go away for a week, on my own. Nothing was going to deflect me from a course of erious self-improvement. It would also provide an interesting experiment in disengagement from the hurly-burly of family life - I couldn't imagine what it would be like.
The Fonteverde Hotel and Spa in Tuscany looked good; I pointed out to my husband the wonderful treatments that were on offer, keeping my thumb over the Sounds of the Mind section where 'a medical team picks out individual brain frequencies and transfers them onto a personal music CD. Helps to strengthen physical and mental equilibrium.' I wasn't too sure how that would affect his mental equilibrium.
At Rome airport, the prospect of spending six days on my own seemed suddenly less attractive. My mood revived, however, on the drive north. The countryside was lush and green in its spring foliage; bright-red poppies gleamed on the roadside.
The Fonteverde Hotel and Spa is set in the beautiful Val d'Orcia, in the southernmost tip of Tuscany, where a landscape of softly rolling hills, some of them topped by castle towers and churches, spreads out towards the horizon.
Away to the south-west is the volcano Mount Amiata, source of the thermal springs that have been exploited since Etruscan times. The hotel lies next to the ancient hill town of San Casciano dei Bagni, known for the springs that well out of the ground here at a comfortable 42°C.
The Etruscans, and later the Romans, appreciated the benefits of bathing in thermal springs. They built temples and sanctuaries for the gods of the sources. Indeed, the Romans were responsible for the word `spa', from salus per aquam meaning "health through water". They valued the anti-inflammatory, analgesic and relaxing effects the mineral waters had on skin disorders and muscular aches, as well as the benefits to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Drinking the calcium-rich water was found to aid the treatment of osteoporosis; it also acted as a diuretic and source of essential electrolytes.
In 1607, the Medici Duke Ferdinand I built himself a beautiful villa in San Casciano, and travelled from Florence for the therapeutic waters, rich in calcium, sulphur, magnesium and fluoride. He set up a spa within his palace for the use of his family and other nobles. The current owner, who is responsible for developing a thoroughly 21st-century hotel and health centre around the original villa, also made his fortune in Florence before turning his attention to building Italy's first modern spa at the ancient site of Saturnia.
On arrival, I was ushered in to see one of a team of doctors who assess visitors and supervise their treatment. She spoke no English, but had a full repertoire of expressive hand gestures and the ability to talk at length without drawing breath. With the help of a translator, Stefania, she quickly sized me up and prescribed a diet: 800 calories a day, to be precise. I went to my room, wondering how I was going to survive six days in a green, towelling bathrobe, with nothing to eat and no one to talk to. The instinct to bolt was extremely strong.
The next morning, as I made my way to the first of my treatments, it was reassuring to see that my fellow guests appeared to be enjoying themselves. Clear-complexioned and relaxed-looking, they had the air of spa regulars. I was also delighted to spot, around the lower pool, a group chatting animatedly with something decidedly alcoholic-looking in their glasses, and sharing a bowl of nuts. Although I never caught sight of Claire Forlani (Meet Joe Black) or Joshua Jackson (Dawson's Creek), who were filming locally, or Donatella Flick, there were many others to provide interest at mealtimes. One man had made sure all his bases were covered by arriving with a bodyguard and a life-coach.
Inevitably, his mobile phone was never far away.
At Fonteverde, access to the spa and treatment areas is down a long, softly-lit corridor lined with ancient artefacts found during the redevelopment of the hotel, which was completed two years ago. I had been booked in for daily dermacellular therapy combined with spa phytofango therapy, and anti-cellulite treatment on alternate days.
On offer in the rooms and pools is a serious range of medical, body and facial treatments, massage, spa therapies and water circuits. Downstairs are the mosaic-lined steam room, saunas and Etruscan baths, and the Liquid Sound pool, where you float in thermal waters laced with specially selected essential-oils, and watch a dazzling display of stars twinkle and change colour above you. The two large, outdoor, thermal pools are kept at 36°C and contain no chemicals.
A separate department is dedicated to Oriental disciplines, including acupuncture, shiatsu and reflexology, Ayurvedic massage, including Dhara (where warm oil is dripped in a steady streamon to your forehead). Here, the incomparable Dipu dispenses his famous massage, which has been known to reduce grown men to tears, but for which they return time and again. `Everybody hates me when I do massage,' he said, cheerfully; but I could have embraced him when, at the end of my session, he diagnosed the source of pain in my back and leg as a compressed vertebra in my neck. Endless visits to doctors and physiotherapists in England had failed to detect this.
The charming Luisa, who had been assigned to give me my treatments, was utterly dedicated and serious in her work. Although we couldn't exchange the usual chit-chat, due to mutual incomprehension, we quickly settled into a companionable silence that was extremely relaxing. Having established which way round to wear my disposable paper thong, there was little else to do but lie back and enjoy myself. Dermacellular therapy involves gentle suction with what looks like a large vacuum-cleaner hose. Moving up and down your body in large sweeping movements, it encourages drainage and tones areas of `adiposity' (fat), hoovering things into shape. The sound effects are curious: it emits slurping noises as it disengages from your flesh. I wondered if this was a side-effect of my adiposity, and imagined the contraption breathing faint air-kisses on my daughters' stream-lined limbs (there is a lot of time for the mind to wander during these treatments).
Following a short rest, I was painted with `fango' (mud enriched with plant extracts and minerals), wrapped in plastic, and draped with a green blanket. Having established early on that `Lie Down' translated as `Sit Up', I was nevertheless rather disappointed when Luisa whispered `You have one minute to relax' as she slipped out of the room. Glancing at the clock I realised that I had a good 10 minutes nodding-off time left. Bliss.
This procedure was repeated each morning, though the anti-cellulite treatment (also painted on) leaves the skin on your buttocks looking like that of a lager-lout who has fallen asleep in the sun. Mercifully, it fades within a couple of hours.
One problem for those confined to 800 calories a day is that the food in the Ristorante Ferdinando I is famous all over Tuscany. Set in the now glassed-in portico of the medieval villa, the restaurant is a sumptuously appointed theatre for the production of a dazzling array of dishes. The daily menu is split into `Lite' and `Regular' sections that feature mostly local Tuscan delicacies. There were guests at the hotel who were evidently there solely for the serious business of eating; many more arrived in the evenings and at the weekend just for a meal (Rome is a two-hour drive away; Florence and Siena are closer). I watched as waiters passed bearing dishes of langoustines, veal fillet in rosemary crust, fresh tuna, rabbit loin, scallops, all presented with a flair and flourish of which Ferdinand himself would have approved.
A woman at the next table leaned over to me, `The problem is the food,' she said. "It's too delicious."
I couldn't help but agree, even from the vantage point of my diet. Each day I was presented with my own personalised menu card, and I was amazed and impressed at the range and imagination of the chef who could imbue a tiny portion of sea bass with so much flavour, and a pineapple portion layered up with so much artistry into the shape of a rose. I never left the table feeling deprived or hungry. Each day, a long table was laid in the main dining room with a feast of vegetable dishes and salads - aubergine and courgettes sliced thinly and grilled, artichokes, spinach, roasted peppers, steamed fennel, and a selection of leaves and salads, grated carrot and radish. Luigi and Fabbio, who had obviously been assigned to keep me on the straight and narrow, were always there to point out dishes that were suitable for me, and to steer me gently but firmly away from those that were not.
Most mornings I started my day with a walk, which left the hotel at 8.30am. This formed part of the daily fitness programme, which also includes exercise classes in the gym and pool. Wc would wander out into the countryside at a leisurely pace, watch the local farmer mow the grass beneath the olive-trees, delight in the views of Monte Amiata, and see for ourselves how the thermal water bubbles up out of the earth, warm to the touch. Water, in all its glorious applications, is certainly the central theme of the Fonteverde Terme & Hotel. The magnificent centrepiece of the spa's water treatments and circuits is the Bioaquam hydromassage pool. This mosaic-lined pool is equipped with 22 jets of differing force set at varying heights which are each activated at the press of a rubber button. You can massage different areas of your body for as long as you like, and a zig-zag corridor massages knees and legs.
Swimming on, you pass through a flap to the open-air area. Here you can sit on a stone throne with your neck, back and legs engulfed in frothing jets of thermal water while enjoying a view that Leonardo would have recognised.
After six days at Fonteverde, I came away refreshed in mind and body, deliciously toned, and also pleased that I had survived 800 calories a day and my own company so effortlessly. I now intend to sell my collection of diet books and videos which have been collecting dust for decades and start saving for my next visit. I have lost a stone; I feel rejuvenated. `Keep going,' my husband thunders (rather ungallantly). I think I will.