I felt thrust back a century or two, perhaps into the setting of the Count of Monte Christo. Lounging in the majestic sitting room, in the stately old mansion that now houses Grotta Giusti Spa but was once the seat and residence of a family from the Italian gentry, I cannot help but ponder the history these walls must have seen. Outside I can see the Tuscan countryside, with its rolling hills and slender stone pines. We are nowhere near the ocean. Yet I am just about to go diving—inside the mountain. In fact, I am about to go to Hell.
The spa gets its mineral waters from some hot volcanic springs that come out of the mountain right under the complex. From the ground floor, we go down a ramp that leads into a cavern draped in stalagmites and stalactites. After we pass through a curtain, it is already significantly warmer and quite humid. I am being told that starting from the entrance through to the deepest part of the Grotta, three different zones are crossed, each one increasing in heat, which some humorous tradition has been named Paradise, Purgatory and Hell. These zones are like saunas with different temperatures, and other guests draped in robes heading in or out, as we are being briefed for the upcoming dive, give us the usual puzzled stares.
But yes, we are going for a dive in the pools and crevices beneath the chambers where the guests sit and sweat in natural steam baths. The thermal mineral waters flow at a temperature of around 34°C (93°F). The resulting vapours create a steam bath, which is said to be effective against respiratory, circulatory, gynaecological, osteomuscular, nerve and skin complaints. Other techniques are also used, such as mud baths, inhalation, vaporisation and aerosol therapy.
T-shirt and no fins
Several factors make this an unusual dive. First of all the water is too warm to wear any kind of suit so we are all just wearing t-shirts. Secondly, we won't be wearing any fins as we essentially will have to walk and climb underwater. I am still not quite sure how cool I feel about the upcoming adventure, as I do have a bit of an issue with cramped spaces in overhead compartments as a result of once almost getting stuck in a wreck. But as it turns out it is not really an overhead environment, as there will be air above us at almost any given moment, and soon I surrender myself to what is turning into a surreal and certainly unique experience.
For nearly an hour and a half I walk and crawl along dramatic formations, sliding through crevices as if I could levitate. It was easier and far more pleasant that I thought it would be. In fact, my biggest concern was not bumping my dome port into some protruding rock when going through some of the narrower passages.
We decided to give in to total indulgence and went for a massage afterwards. The therapists were very professional starting off with a short talk about my main issues, sore points and old injuries. As if any of all that talk was necessary, she found them all right soon enough—ouch, eek, aah! It was complete bliss afterwards.
The long dive in warm water having already thoroughly warmed up my muscles and joints seemed to make the massage even more efficient as she could dig right straight in where it mattered. After the session I wobbled—my gait hardly qualifying as walking—out of the massage room and went for a shower. Getting dressed I noticed that I had worked up quite an appetite, and having a quality restaurant just upstairs, I knew where I was heading next.
The classy surroundings makes you want to dress up nicely and promenade down for dinner in style, although, as it turned out, it also acceptable to dine in your robes. As strange as it may sound it did not seem out of place, perhaps because even the robes were classy, and after all, it was a spa.
Italian cuisine shouldn't need any further introduction, and here we are, in the middle of Tuscany where they produce some of the best wine in the world. Needless to say, I was in for another treat and I had burned off the calories to make room. As in any upscale restaurant, the menu was short and dominated by local specialties as it should be, and I found myself spoilt for choice. Under such circumstances, I usually ask the waiter for his recommendations, because even though I am quite fond of Italian food and am familiar with many dishes, there always seem to be some new dishes to explore—often something that is just in season for a limited time.
We are clearly in good hands. Chef Giuseppe Argentino knows the secrets of the Tuscan kitchen and how to combine fresh local produce to make light gourmet meals. What I in particular favour about dining in the countries around the Mediterranean is that time seems to cease to exist once you are seated in a good restaurant. Dishes are never rushed but come in timely intervals, allowing one to more fully enjoy each one, and enabling the diner to have proper conversations with significant others or friends, enjoying the evening in a relaxed manner without checking a time piece ever so often.
Health and well-being
The Spa also has a fitness centre, offering Pilates and Qi-gong, and outside there is a golf course and an exercise track in the nearby landscape so you can both please your inner health nut and enjoy being a foodie. Grotta Giusti is surrounded by 45 hectares of parkland, a natural environment of incomparable beauty characterised by age-old trees, fertile hills and fragrant flowers.
One can reach the spa building directly from the hotel, and thus access the extensive facilities providing traditional treatments such as mud baths, respiratory therapies and massages, and a modern health farm featuring an oriental area, a well-equipped gym, numerous recreation areas and a centre for aesthetic medicine. The complex is completed by the cave and the outdoor thermal pool with a surface area of 750 m2 – complemented by underwater massages – and a spectacular waterfall. The water supplying it, containing minerals such as bicarbonates, sulphates, calcium and magnesium, maintains a temperature of 35°C.
It is possible to receive traditional treatments such as mud baths, ozonised baths in thermal water, thermal showers and respiratory therapies carried out under the constant supervision of specialist medical staff. These services are carefully targeted towards physical and psychological well-being and the improvement of one’s physical appearance.
It is a great escape for some days either as a conclusion of a business trip or en route to or from some of the many great dive sites along the Italian coast. A combination with diving the nearby island of Elba springs to mind, or as pleasant stop-over on the way further south. It is, however, not a place I could personally envisage spending more than three to four days in a row simply because at some point you will be sated with relaxation, massages and great meals, and there is only this one dive site.
But then again, if diving is not the main purpose for a vacation in the area, it would be a great base from which this historic county could be leisurely explored. Sitting inside the triangle between Bologna, Florence and Pisa, there are plenty of great excursions to historic places within a relatively short distance, not to mention a range of good dive spots. While the place may come across as being a bit on the posh side, you also get what you pay for, and I find all the indulgences that come along with a little splurging will make for a most pleasurable and memorable stay. I am quite inclined to pay another visit next time I am in Italy.
For more information, or to book a stay, visit: www.grottagiustispa.com