Spa treatment Š Northern Italy
Though Italy and Austria may share a border, you canÕt imagine that theyÕd tick many of the same boxes if they were speed dating. However, this odd couple have more in common than youÕd think Š namely the South Tyrol, ItalyÕs most northerly province.
I know - yodelling and leiderhosen donÕt necessarily skip to mind when you think of Italy, however, though part of Austria until 1919 and distinctly Alpine in character, the area of South Tyrol, featuring the spectacular backdrop of the Dolomite Mountains, is indeed Heidi-hi at the thigh slapping top of Italy. Yes, there are cows and meadows and dense swathes of virgin forests; and yes, the countryside is dotted with pretty chocolate box chalets; and yes, the first language most people greet you with is German (though, in my case, this may have something to do with assumptions based on bottle blonde hair): but read the bilingual road signs and see that, despite appearances to the contrary, you are still in Italy Š only just over an hour north of Verona.
As you would expect with all those snowy mountain peaks, winter in the South Tyrol offers enough bracing, outdoor activities to drain the Duracel Bunny. You can ski, snowshoe, Nordic walk, and ice climb your way to exhaustion. In summer, sheltered by the Alps, the area has temperatures that hit Mediterranean heights and is an ideal holiday destination for healthy outdoor-pursuits such as bicycling, hiking and hang-gliding. But, thankfully, for those of us whose idea of bonding with the environment is being glued to a chair in a room with a view, the Italians have not forgotten the hedonistic pleasures of La Dolce Vita. For softies such as myself, the South Tyrol also offers the perfect horizontal antidote to all those dizzyingly vertical limits Š a huge variety of luxurious spa hotels. Tucked away amidst the peaks and valleys, each hotel has a range of pampering spa treatments from the strange to the sumptuous, all guaranteed to put you in touch with your inner Cleopatra.
The Hay Bath
Why is this woman covered in grass? asked my daughter, examining the brochure for The Hotel Heubad. Good question, girlie, and one which I was asking myself as I lay, stark naked on a bed of long stemmed hay which had been soaked for an hour in hot water, while having more clumps of the stuff spread all over my limbs. You just canÕt take yourself too seriously when you have grass in those parts that rarely see the sun, let alone your lawn clippings. But itÕs when youÕre rolled into a white linen cocoon and lowered into the warm hydrotherapy bath that you can really start to feel like Worzel Gummidge.
This treatment, which is offered everywhere throughout the South Tyrol, dates from the time when farmers used to take their cattle to the high pastures for the summer months. Despite hard physical work, often carrying heavy bales of hay on their backs, they found that after a night asleep on a haystack, all their aches and pains had vanished and they awoke refreshed. Since then it has been used to combat rheumatism and generally perk up the weary traveller Š even if the heaviest thing youÕve carried in recent memory was an overstuffed handbag.
The Hotel Heubad was one of the first inns to offer hay bath therapy, and for more than a hundred years Kompatscher family have been continuing the tradition in their rustic, family run hotel. The place is achingly cuckoo clock cute but with a modern spa and swimming pool, and sharp bedrooms with toothpaste white designer bathroom, all nestled at the foot of the rugged Alpe di Suisi.
Meanwhile, IÕm still rolled in wet grass thatÕs been cut, IÕm told, from a high altitude, though IÕm more interested in where itÕs going than where itÕs beenÉ. Madame Kompatscher, has tenderly wiped my face, and tucked me up like a baby to be infused for twenty minutes in the warm grass. Then she introduces me to her uncle (actually her baby grandson Š slight language hiccup) and whispers that she will be outside if I needed anything. I am instantly asleep. So what if I was green as a Martian and had grass in my ears. I felt transported back to childhood and all those other al fresco activities you indulge in whilst you are young, and the whole process made me feel enormously cared for and soothed.
The Melum Massage.
Just five minutes walk from the Heubad Hotel, The Hotel Romantik at Turm, also in the little town of Fi¸ allo Sopra is a baroque fantasy come to life. Dating from the 13th century, the building has been used as a fortification, a law court and a jail, and is now a pretty, hugely quirky, and as the name suggests, romatic hotel with 50 individually styled rooms. The suite in the old tower with its gilt empire bed and panoramic views of the surrounding countryside has to be the ultimate sleeping beauty bedroom, though you might want to avert the eyes of the three foot carved figure of John The Baptist from the foot of the nuptial bed. Food is also a feature of this hotel. Chef Patron Stefan Pramstrahler cooks sufficiently hearty, gourmet meals to fuel all that exercise that you are not taking.
The hotel has an enormous art collection with paintings by Picasso, Klee, Dix and Kokoshka, and there are religious artefacts everywhere. Meanwhile the spa is just a few minor organ chords away from pure gothic kitsch. Here you can sweat it out in the pine sauna, or steam yourself in the flower vapour room before cooling off in the aromatherapy showers. There is also an outdoor swimming pool connected to the indoor Jacuzzi which, in winter, steams like dry ice amidst the Christmas card scenery.
The treatments on offer are all high on self-indulgence and romance. You can sit in the Keiser bath with your nearest and dearest, sip champagne, then chill out on the heated beds in the twinkling lights of the salt cave. I had the wine bath Š a massage and exfoliating treatment on a hot stone bench, using pressed grapes and grape seed oil, followed by a long soak in a hot tub, washed down by a glass of red wine. I also had the hotels newest treatment Š the Melum Š a massage with hot, and I mean hot, apple and pine oil, while lying on a heated water bed, listening to the sound of birds and waterfalls, and surrounded by more candles than even Mary Shelley could have envisaged. All in all itÕs definitely the sort of place for bodice ripping, so take along a willing accomplice.
The Beer Bath
The therapist at the Hotel Shgaguler didnÕt speak very much English but since all I had to do was don the paper knickers, lie face down, and have unguents rubbed all over my skin - the universal language of massage seemed to be sufficient for our communication needs. Who needs Esperanto? The Hotel Schgaguler in the Brugelesque town of CastelRoto is a family run design hotel with a sizzling new spa that feels like a series of activities for the sensory impaired. It is full of buttons and levers that seem to gush water at you from every conceivable altitude - the solitary button in the middle of the room that deluged me with icy cold needles from the unnoticed shower in the ceiling certainly got my circulation moving. In the huge whirlpool, water bubbles and jets from all directions, and you can lie on your back and simmer like asparagus while gazing out at the snow capped crevasses of the looming Mount Sciliar. The spa has two kinds of sauna, a steam room, an ice cave, and a rasul spa, where you can lie on a heated stone slab and rub coloured clay all over your, presumably, very close friendÕs body, as well as a kneipp bath Š a foot bath alternating hot and cold water. Here, as well as the usual range of Tyrolean treatments, the speciality is the beer bath. Once again, the skin is exfoliated, this time using hops and brewers barley which apparently boosts the immune system. You might think that you end up smelling like the day after a very good party but in fact the texture is like that of oatmeal and the scent is unobtrusive. Once covered from head to toe, you are wrapped tightly in a linen sheet and lowered into a warm water bed where you float poach gently for twenty minutes until itÕs time to shower it off, leaving you with silky soft skin and a longing for the cloud soft duvet in the designer bedroom apartment upstairs.
Facial Therapy Coocon.
ThereÕs not much point to having a body that is plump, pert and pouting with Pamela Anderson perfection if the face still looks like a raisin. However, high in the Dolomites in the edibly delicious picture postcard town of Ortisei, in the area of Val Gardena, the Adler Wellness and Sport Resort takes care of all those parts that other spas donÕt reach. Firstly, it stands right at the ski-ing heart of the mountains and the hills, even in late spring, are still alive with the sound of nylon clad thighs rubbing together, while the day of choice is off-the-shoulder salopettes. The hotel is a mini city with an extensive spa complex featuring the Disney sounding Iquana waterworld, a spiralling three story series of whirlpools, saunas and steam rooms and the place where I finally uncovered, as it were, the etiquette of the spa. To bare or not to bare, that is the question. Apparently the German speakers feel that only the birthday suit is appropriate and that swimwear is unhygienic. However, the more conventional Italians donÕt always feel comfortable stripping off for strangers, even when hot coals are involved. So you get culture wars Š the German speakers complain about the Italians being ŌdressedÕ, and the modest Italians are shocked by the Germanic nudity. As a lone woman in a room full of naked men and women, I had to ask what the form was Š obviously itÕs not a good idea to look too hard. If in doubt, and ultra shy, the rule is kit off, towel on Š otherwise, itÕs everything goes, and a whole new topic of conversation over dinner.
The Dolasilla spa has a whole body bible full of treatments. I had a wine mask Š yet more grape husks encompassing the whole body, then another water bath, all followed by a knock out massage that left me feeling limp and very, very clean. However, the facial cocoon which involved a face and head massage and a mousse mask, then being wrapped up like a mummy and left with muzac for twenty minutes was fantastic. What do you think, asked the therapist afterwards, peeling back the layers afterwards, like the reveal on an extreme make-over. To be honest, I couldnÕt focus my eyes enough to see if I even had a face, I was so spaced out. That was probably the best result I could have hoped for. Rejuvenating miracles probably take at least a fortnight.
Up at the mountain top resort of Vigilius which is reachable only by cable car from the little village of Lana, you do literally feel as though even the cable car ride up the mountain side is part of the retreat. Corny though it may sound, your cares seem to slip off you as you ascend, and the clamour of the outside world is left behind. The hotel is designed by Matteo Thun to blend with the environment and offers completely unrivalled, wraparound views of forest and hill tops and mountains, with nothing between you and nature but a perfect pantone sky. In the deeply sophisticated bedrooms the only sound is bird song and the odd crunching of footsteps through the snow, while at night the silence is so intense you could probably pick up Pluto on your fillings. Though to be fair, the guests who stay here probably donÕt have fillings. They make the beautiful people look a bit shabby Š all that glowing with health and wealth that you only wish would rub off on you with the massage. The hotel is full of sun-warmed blonde wood in the same way that Scarlett Johanssen is blonde Š cool, hip and gorgeous. The hotel does not have a gym Š relying on the fact that nature is your gym and all you have to do is step outside, and the swimming pool as heart-stopping mountain top views that really bring the outside, inside.
Their spa specialises in something called Applied Kinesiology where they test your muscle response to various visual stimulae and build your individual treatments around the results. Whether it works or not I donÕt know, or particularly care. But apparently I really, really, really needed a massage with lymphatic drainage and who was I to argue with the science? Morbido, Morbido, murmured Manuella my masseuse. Am I Dead? I asked. No, soft, let your body go soft, she whispered. My dear, my body was mush, as was the rest of me when, next morning at 6am, I walked out onto their Paradise Garden, a deck overlooking the valley below at about 1500 feet above sea level. There, all to myself, was a broad swathe of milky white clouds skimming the sharp white Tobolerone teeth of the Dolomites in a blue sky straight from Paramount Pictures in wide screen. It took my breath away, and that wasnÕt just the altitude. The hotel is like an aesthetic Shangri-La Š but instead of getting old when you leave the valley, you come back down to earth, re-energised, with a spring in your step. Well, thatÕs my story and IÕm sticking to it. Back in London with the view from my bedroom window across the West London Bowling Green to the local mental asylum, I knew, with a sinking heart, that I certainly wasnÕt in the South Tyrol anymore. And that really did almost bring tears to my eyes.