Curing Stendhal’s Syndrome with a Spa Break in Tuscany
Bagno Vignoni, Tuscany, Italy
After Venice-Verona-Bologna-Pisa-Assisi-Florence, my clothes were dirty, my feet were whining, and famous works of art and architecture were so jumbled in my mind I no longer knew Boticelli from Bellini. Stendhal’s syndrome-sickened by beauty-had struck in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence leaving me dizzy and overwhelmed. I did not go on to the Pitti Palace for I could not absorb one more glorious painting, fresco, dome, bridge, or sculpture. I had a chocolate gelato and stared jealously at enthralled tourists who had paced themselves. With chocolate drips on my last clean shirt, I boarded the train for Siena. Two days later, I was slumped in Siena’s train station with a ticket to Rome in my hand, feeling like a survivor of a forced march through the Middle Ages. The shirt I had laundered with shampoo was damp and attracting gnats.
I needed a vacation from my vacation before I could unpeel the layers of Rome from Vatican City’s new regime to Etruscan artifacts. The Eternal City, my lifetime dream, the minutely researched and diligently planned two-weeks of awe. I was awed-out.
Thanks to a brochure at the train station, I arrived in Rome three days late, but physically and mentally refreshed. It was a brochure about a spa in Tuscany claiming to be the essence of peace and harmony. I am not a spa person. Where is the art, the architecture, the history? Spas are for people of leisure, not people with an annual vacation. But maybe spas are also for the weary. I called Adler Thermae Spa, and, in fluent English, the hostess told me to get on the next train to Chiusi. A car would be waiting.
The spa curves gently in Tuscany’s Orcia Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and out of sight of a lightly traveled country road a century removed from tour busses. Cars are parked underground like Industrial Age embarrassments. The spa was designed to have low impact on the environment and preserves the Tuscan vista with its villa design and gardens. Thermal springs flow down the hill behind the spa, filling a pond in the sauna complex and the swimming pool. A stream meanders through an exercise room with treadmills. Siena’s steep streets had been enough exercise for a season, but the room and its garden view made me pause. If my gym in Chicago had such ambiance, I would be a size eight.
I exchanged my dirty clothes for a spa-provided terrycloth robe and slippers and was assured all I would need in the way of wardrobe were my bathing suit, robe, towels, and something casual to wear to dinner. Other guests, wearing robes and looking serene, sauntered past me, their slippers whispering on polished wooden floors. After consulting with a spa director, I was scheduled for a manicure, two massages, and a dawn yoga session on the grounds of a nearby abbey. I declined the mud wrap, the algae wrap, and skin peelings both vigorous and gentle. The Etruscan mud bath was of historical interest, so I asked for an explanation, not an appointment. Nurturing muds are used to massage different body parts, each mud beneficial in its own esoteric way. A Cleopatra milk and honey wrap sounded sticky. The evening primrose wrap was tempting, but it would leave me scrimping in Rome.
The view from my terrace, bed and bathtub was a masterpiece. Green fields sloped up hills topped with terra cotta smears of ancient towns. I did not need a guidebook to identify the master. Lying on the bed, I watched shadows and sun veil and reveal a castle on the hill. With no train to catch, no map to decipher, and no nagging itinerary, I continued to absorb the view while I soaked in a floral-scented bubble bath. The castle turned from ochre to purple to twinkles of light. From my lounge chair on the terrace, I watched the crescent moon scythe stars from its path. Instead of reading Dante, damp and creased in my backpack, I watched God compose a lyric.
The next morning, I jumped into the indoor-outdoor pool, prepared for the astringent shock of cold water. But the pool, filled by thermal springs, is warm. I floated to a waterfall, then on to one of the Jacuzzi coves. My bathing suit almost blew off, but the water jets straightened every kink in my spine and loosened muscles that had been tourist-tensed for two weeks, I investigated the steam baths and saunas and selected the olive wood sauna because it smelled so good. After my sauna, I could relax in a travertine grotto called the Philosopher’s Cave, on a waterbed in a silent, glass-walled room or beside the thermal where I stayed, with my feet in the water, until lunch. The harmony of bird song, waterfall, and thunk of a wooden waterwheel deepened my post-sauna daze.
My seventy-five-minute, Watsu massage was described as “relaxing Shiastu treatment in 35° C water.” It was in a private thermal pool with a thatched roof and surrounded by flowers. My masseur was a young Italian who said that I must trust him and not do a thing; he would do it all. He kept my nose above water, and the massage gently worked all joints. He spun me around in various positions and floated me around and sometimes I was simply weightless in the moist smell of roses. I tried to assign a number to Watsu on my personal pleasure scale, and then he massaged my toes. I had no more thoughts until he slowly seated me on an underwater ledge. I opened my eyes a few minutes later. He was shoulder high in water, hands tented beneath his chin. He bowed his head. I had nothing to say. I do not know a word for giving birth to every worry I ever had.
My next massage was described as “a unique massage that joins several techniques, among those the reflexology, Shiastu and Reiki.” They failed to add “delivered by a hockey puck.” The masseur flexed gladiator-size muscles and told me that when it hurt, I should breathe deeply. It was better than getting hit by a train. I recovered in the herbal steam, pastel shadows, and soothing music of the Artemisia sauna and selected my next aquatic remedy, Grotto Salina, an underground Etruscan bath with salt steam.
On my last day, my mystical dawn yoga session in the garden of an ancient abbey ended with a tour of the religious house that had sheltered medieval pilgrims on their way to Rome. Even so, I was feeling art and history deprived. I strolled 300 meters to Bagno Vignoni, population 35. The town square’s medieval and renaissance buildings face a thermal pool used since Etruscan times and a favorite of Lorenzo the Magnificent. I had seen his tomb in Florence. The marble statue by Michelangelo of Lorenzo with his finger crooked above his lips formed as clearly as a postcard. Was Lorenzo contemplating his next political coup or a trip to Bagno Vignoni? I was surprised I remembered anything in Florence so clearly. Poetry is defined as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Perhaps Stendhal would have written the same of art if he had recuperated like Lorenzo.
The main village activity is soaking feet in a stream of thermal water while reading the newspaper or knitting, then having coffee at the village’s one bar. I waded down a thermal stream, sat on the bank, put my feet in the stream, and collected more postcards from Florence. I walked around the village reading signs in four languages. Saint Catherine of Siena’s mother brought Catherine here to try to dissuade her from entering the convent. On the square is a shrine to Saint Catherine with fresh and wilting flowers pushed through the iron grill and strewn on the floor. I recalled seeing Catherine’s head in Siena. I remembered the rest of her bones are in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. According to my revised itinerary, I would tour that church right after visiting the Pantheon. I had an espresso at one of the coffee bar’s two outdoor tables and envisioned walking through the Forum, past Trevi Fountain, up and down the Spanish Steps, onto Piazza Navona, along the Tiber and to St. Peter’s Square.
The peace and harmony promised by the brochure were not an exaggeration. I was rested, relaxed, and ready for Rome. The train leaves Chiusi Station every hour. It was time move on.
Adler Thermae Spa is a 40 euro taxi ride from Chiusi, the nearest train station; a 45-minute car ride from Siena; and a two-hour car ride from Rome. Prices for a three-day, half-board package range from 494 euro to 557 euro. Massages and beauty treatments are extra. The spa serves Tuscan cuisine with vegetarian and low calorie choices and has a well-stocked wine cellar specializing in the locally vinted and world renowned Brunello. The spa, spa grounds, and Bango Vignoni are accessible for people who use wheelchairs. For a complete list of spa features and services, visit their website at www.adler-thermae.com.