There’s more to Italy than just food and wine, as our travel correspondent Pippa Park happily finds out
The Italian charm of Tuscany is well known the world over. Robust red wines, a cuisine bursting with rich flavours, sexy dark haired locals with irresistible accents and that infamous hospitality. What I was unaware of before my trip is that it’s also the ideal destination for wellbeing.
I fly into Pisa airport with a group of jaded city girls, all looking to be thoroughly revitalised. Our first stop is the beautiful Grotta Guisti Golf and Spa resort. I feel the stresses of modern life slipping away as our car crawls slowly down the winding drive to the foot of the 19th century villa, once home to the poet Guiseppe Giusti.
The grand building guards the entrance to what Mr Giusti regarded ‘the eighth wonder of the world’; a millennial thermal cave. It’s the largest of its kind in Europe and has an underground lake that plummets to depths of 200m.
Italians come from far and wide to experience these prosperous waters, which feed into the hotel bathrooms. In fact, their benefits are so well sung during our stay that we fully expect to return home looking ten years younger.
Rooms are simple, decorated in unmistakable Italian style with traditional wooden shutters. My phone and laptop remain switched off the whole time, allowing me to connect with the girls and indulge in the silence technology usually steals.
To start our healing process, we’re prescribed mud treatments to detox and cleanse our skin. After a gentle exfoliation, warm clay is applied liberally to my body before I’m wrapped up in cling film and towels. Unlike many spa treatments that focus only on pampering, here at Grotta Guisti the focus is on results and I feel they take a more medical approach to spa life. Dressing gowns, slippers and embossed swimming caps (all found in your suite) are the dress code of choice for lounging around the pool and spa.
A whopping 750m squared outdoor pool boasts hydro-massage jets and a natural waterfall massage feature, plus it’s a balmy 34 degrees and rich in beneficial minerals like bicarbonate, sulphate, calcium and magnesium. After testing all the massage jets in turn and dosing up on some Vitamin D, we’re impatient to visit the hotel’s biggest attraction – that millennial lake.
Down in the caves guests can enjoy natural steamy saunas and, after a few breathing exercises to adjust to the high temperature, dip into the water. At the entrance the cave walls are close together and their rugged edges mean swimming is not advised. Instead we cling to the sides with our hands and feet, a bit like a tree frog. Gradually the tunnels open out into a cave and you can truly appreciate the eerie stillness.
Adventurous guests can scuba dive to the bottom and get a feel for the fascinating rock formations, or if you’re not quite as brave you can choose the ‘floating experience’ which involves an instructor gently manipulating your body into relaxing positions while you float on the surface. Scuba diving and floating costs €100 and lasts 50 minutes.
The restaurant at Grotta Guisti caters for those fresh from their nutrition plans so all courses include a lighter, low calorie option. It’s still Italy though so there’s no shortage of wine, pudding, bread and other treats. Guided walks lead from hotel entrances into the Tuscan countryside with physical challenges on every signpost, like squats, lunges and planks.
When you’re feeling restored and ready for an outing, the traditional city of Lucca is just a short taxi ride away. Thick Medieval walls still surround the town centre and their walkways are ideal for cycling and walking. Lucca is the perfect size to explore on foot and has a vibrant café culture, as well as an enchanting cathedral. A warren of pebbled streets and shops lead away from the main square, where you can find tempting gelaterias, fashion stores and market stalls selling everything from antiques to artwork. Wherever you look there’s a lot going on, yet somehow it maintains a calm and unrushed pace of life.
After a few nights unwinding at Grotta Giusti, we set off through the wholesome countryside, passing lakes, castles and twisted olive groves, to reach our next destination, Bagni di Pisa Palace and Spa. That’s right, a palace. Health and wellness once again takes centre stage, although this time with a little more indulgence. This is reflected in the bottle of Prosecco that appears at check in, the chocolate truffles in our room and carefully selected spa products that appear by our bedsides at turn down. Bagni di Pisa has a team of certified spa and health professionals who specialise in weight-loss and wellness programmes.
The impressive architecture and gorgeous Italian décor turn our heads at every corner. Frescoed hallways, terracotta accents and marble floors set the precedence for a thoroughly decadent visit. This isn’t surprising given some of the bolthole’s former guests, like George IV of England, Mary Shelley and the Cardinal of York.
On finding my suite, I push open the heavy door into a stylish living room. A corridor leads off to a magnificent marble bathroom and the biggest bedroom I have ever slept in. It’s a palace fit for a princess.
Come cocktail hour we’re presented with a lavish selection of antipasti. Our greedy fingers wrap around delicate cured meats and reach for pecorino cheese dipped in local honey. Dinner is a very civilised affair; every course packed with big flavours and washed down with a few glasses of the local Chianti Classico, a wine I won’t forget in a hurry.
To revive us the next morning, the girls and I test out the indoor pool, which is reminiscent of a Roman bath, before enjoying the showers, sauna, steam room and ice room. Finally we settle on the picturesque rooftop terrace, next to the outdoor thermal pool, where we’re called one by one for facials and massages.
My masseuse tailors the treatment especially to my needs by using different products and targeting areas where I hold tension. Several masks, oils and hours of expert kneading later, I walk out of the treatment room in a thick daze and settle in the quiet area with a refreshing fruit tea. I don’t have long to relax, however, as it’s soon time for lunch with resident dietician Laura Bettarini. She assesses our eating habits and suggests ways to cook healthier at home. The health philosophy at Bagni di Pisa centers around an innovative scientific approach, called PNEI. This stands for Psycho Neuro Endocrine Immunology and is the principle of considering a person as a physical and psychic whole. Rather than just being a health retreat, they strive to initiate a lifestyle change in guests.
En route to the airport the following day we stop off in Pisa, before breezing through customs and taking our seats on the plane, feeling renewed and looking, not quite ten, but at least five years younger.
With special thanks to The Italian Hospitality Collection
Rooms at Grotta Guisti start from €200. Pippa stayed in a deluxe park view room at €345 per night. www.grottagiustispa.com
Rooms at Bagni di Pisa Palace and Spa from €208. Pippa stayed in a suite at €547 per night. www.bagnidipisa.com