The more they raved about Tuscany, the more I doubted. I become uneasy when I leave the city. Give me skyscrapers, concrete, glass and steel and I am in my comfort zone. Empty fields and forests make me anxious. It is too quiet. Now, driving through the rolling green countryside of Tuscany, I appreciate the symmetry of nature, as if a caring gardener was here moments ago. Along the highway, regimented rows of cypress reach for the sky like an honour guard; fruit trees burst with fragrant blossoms, bright poppies and yellow gorse flowers dot the hills. Listening to the Italian Top 40 on the car radio, I feel waves of calm washing over me. Uh oh, I’m being seduced by the Italian landscape.
My destination is the renowned Adler Thermae Spa & Relax Resort in the heart of Val d’ Orcia, a UNESCO Heritage site, to “take the waters,” just as Italians have been doing since the time of the ancient Etruscans. Set between the wine areas of Montepulciano and Montalcino, the Adler is a 5-star hotel that has gained fame for its thermal baths. The thermal waters in Bagna Vignoni are rich in minerals that have positive influences on body, mind and spirit.
Claudia meets me in the lounge, and over a most delicious coffee, presents me with a menu of treatments and experiences from which to choose my program. She tells me about the Five Pillars of Health: Diagnosis, Nutrition, Equilibrium, Exercise and Targeted Special Treatments.
Reading through the dizzying menu of more than 120 treatments such as Body-Styling, Aqua Wellness and Fangotherapy, Ayurveda, Massages, Facials, Therapeutic Treatments, special tests and treatments, I say, “I will have one of each, please.” They offer not only relaxation and beauty services, but also modern Western medicine as well as homeopathy, herbal medicine and alternative healing methods. Their own team of doctors offers many disciplines including aesthetic medicine, general medicine, modern Mayr medicine, laboratory medicine and nutrition. How about a facial with the stem cells of sour grape berries? Or an anti-aging treatment with red grapes? I feel like I am placing myself in the hands of ministering angels and will come out the other end, renewed. Right now, I succumb to dreaded jet lag. Looking through my sliding glass doors that open to a grassy terrace, I see clouds of steam rising from the thermal pools that are just a moment away down a stone path. Tomorrow I will explore it all.
Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day. The dining room is anchored by an ancient tree that grows in a room that is open to the sky. Later, I see that its secret is a retractable glass roof. And there are many more surprises in this room. Fresh vegetables and fruits from nearby gardens make my eyes light up. Organic? It has been ever thus. I will become addicted to the heirloom tomato salad during my stay; I will taste every one of the local cheeses before I leave, especially the Pecorino crusted with grape skins; and I will find the array of local charcuterie irresistible. I will make sure to try a slice of each of the healthy seeded breads still warm from the oven, along with sweet butter and kitchen-made fruit preserves. Eggs with bright orange yolks tell me the chickens here are roaming free, eating grass. This meal is deserving of a tipple of Prosecco in my squeezed-to-order orange juice.
A post-breakfast hike is in order, and I just follow the signs along the nature trail and over the grassy hill until I reach Vignoni Alto, a fortified hamlet of historical significance. After many friendly “buon giorno’s” to locals and tourists alike, I make my way back. The “Forest Panorama Sauna Venting” awaits. When the ice cubes with essential oils hit the braziers in the Finnish saunas, they impart the scent of mountain pine, orange and herbage that has a dreamy detoxifying effect, similar to “forest bathing” in Japan.
After 20 minutes rest, I am eager to submerge myself into one of the steaming thermal pools. As I make my way down the stone steps, I realize that this is what it’s all about; this is the core of European spa culture and is far different from its American counterpart.
If you accept Mies Van der Rohe’s insight that God is in the details, then Andreas and Klaus Sanoner have made Adler Thermae heavenly on many counts with their near-religious devotion to fine points as well as their respect for nature, the countryside and culture. Recently, they added a winery to their collection of spa hotels. They say, “the Tenuta Sanoner winery ultimately tells of the love and respect that we have always felt for the earth and the countryside. It is also expressed by the fact that we use biodynamic cultivation methods and try to work in the greatest possible harmony with nature.” The brothers are the eighth generation in this family business, and are not influenced by fashions or trends. They have implemented the things that they would like to find as visiting guests. The focus is always to foster a personal connection with guests; to be special.
A visit to this boutique winery to experience a wine tasting and lunch on the terrace is a highlight of the day. We see mile after mile of vineyards, as we taste the fruit of the land. My favourite is Aetos, Sparkling Rose Brut Millesimato 2016. The bright salmon-pink colour, fine bubbles and elegant bouquet make the perfect drink for a lunch of local meats, cheeses and vegetables on this sunny Tuscan day. It is the Italian way: sharing good food and wine creates instant friendships.
An unusual discovery awaits me at the spa. A steep flight of stone steps, through a heavy, ancient door takes me into the Salt Grotto. In the dim light, I see a shallow pool of warm thermal water enriched with Dead Sea salt that brings deep cleansing and harmony to the skin. I can float weightlessly in this pool, and am so deeply relaxed, I almost doze off. Now I am ready for my Bioelectric check up with the VEGA check. Hands, feet and body are attached to a machine that does a print out for about 5 minutes. To our surprise, my print out is void of markings. Diagnosis: in great shape. That does a lot for my sense of wellbeing. Machines don’t care and don’t lie.
In the bar, between 4:00 and 5:00 pm, hot chocolate, coffee and tea are served along with fresh fruits and a variety of teacakes. It is a friendly diversion before dinner.
The Major Domo of the dining room is maitre d’ Manfred. He thoroughly understands his role and takes sincere pleasure in pleasing his guests. With the memory of a computer, he knows our names, where we like to sit, our allergies and idiosyncrasies. The staff knows the menu and the wine recommendations reflect an understanding of bouquets and appropriateness. They know which is the perfect wine for say, a captivating millefeuille of salmon and artichokes, grilled ribs, a whole grilled fish tempered only with olive oil, herbs and lemon, or shellfish in a mantle of sole. Deceptively simple, menus for lunch and dinner change daily and include vegan. This kitchen is brilliant. No calorie counting here—and yet, each dish, including pasta, is prepared in a healthful way, and at every meal, the “energizing salad bar” is a different market garden of freshness. One night there is the steak with personality, steak Fiorentino from the huge white Chianina cows, grilled to order.
Oddly, I never feel that I have eaten too much, and meander to the array of a dozen gorgeous desserts: chocolate cakes, cheesecakes, cream cakes, fruit pies, crisp crusted fruit tarts that stand like dewy fresh jewels that seem to say, pick me, pick me. Just a tiny slice, please. The luster does not dim, day after day.
Some guests have come for detox, weight loss programs, medical treatments, or to find a healing balance. As for me, it is a relaxing, purifying holiday of health and gourmet cuisine. At home, a pleasant surprise of no jet lag. I am energized, my enthusiasm renewed, and I’m imbued with an inexplicable feeling of wellbeing. Yes, there must be something in the water.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.