Bathing Caps, Druid Robes and a Grotto

Montecatini  Alto.

May 2015 — It just sounds romantic and ancient, taking the waters. We have no idea what to expect but it will surely be memorable and relaxing. And maybe a little uncomfortable. We will be in bathing suits and bathing caps along with hundreds of strangers, after all.

As we enter and pay, we are handed a large plastic bag containing a plush terry robe, slippers, a towel and a bathing cap. 

We meander through several hallways to a locker room where we all change into our suits, lock up our unmentionables, don our robes and slippers and head somewhere. There is no guide so we confidently fake it. 

Coming into view is a giant crystal clear pool dotted with the latest in flowered bathing caps. We have green caps with a wide white stripe including the logo of where we are, lest we wander off the grounds, so someone will be able to guide us back. 

There are bodies of every shape and size – many in bikinis or the dreaded male speedo. No one cares. No one is looking. The Italians have a healthy body image. Which is to say, they simply don’t judge or care. 

We dip first into the heated mineral pool. At the corners are enclaves with seats and jacuzzi jets. This seems like a good place to start. As large as the pool is, it is clearly meant for socializing and lolling and not really swimming. 

We are allowed a limited amount of time in the pool itself and even less time in the hot tub area. Spa police pace back and forth to ensure no one bogarts the jets, even turning them off at random intervals. 

Once we are sufficiently pruney, we slip our robes and slippers back on and search for the grotto the spa is named for. 

Down through hallways containing mysterious unmarked doors and elevators that go who knows where, we finally find an opening with a person waiting to guide us through the next step in our process. 

We can remove our headgear at this point and our terry robe. In their stead we receive a cotton pullover robe with a hood and a tea towel. Adds to the mystery. Adorned in our Druid attire, we solemnly walk into the bowels of the earth – the grotto. We are instructed to be silent. It is a natural hot steam room. Or rooms. We begin in “Paradiso” wandering through rocky openings on an uneven pathway. The ceilings are low and incredibly uneven, extreme caution is called for. 

From Paradiso we reach “Pergatorio” the next level down. Can you see where this is going? It’s a little warmer here and there are a handful of chairs if you think you just can’t handle “Inferno”.

We can handle it. At the bottom of this maze is a giant clock – we are allowed only a total of 50 minutes here – and about 20 of the same wooden chairs we found in Pergatorio. We sit, recline, sweat – profusely. I enjoy it far more than I expected. Feels a lot like Florida in the summer. 

We hear that one of our mates has learned the hard way about the ceiling heights. He’ll be fine, but we come upon a few giant drops of blood on our way out which we know to be his. 

Once reassembled we go to our respective locker rooms to shower and change back into our mundane everyday wear to meet for lunch. 

The cafe is bright and fresh. Behind the counter are bottles of wine and liquor. In the refrigerated cases, gelato and tiramisu. Now this is spa food. I opt for a nice fresh green salad, water and a cappuccino. And a little coffee flavored slurpee thingy that is way tastier than it probably sounds. 

After our soak and steam at the grotto, we venture out to the quiet and quaint hill town of Montecatini Alto. We had traveled up through Montecatini Terme and that looked like somewhere fun to explore – vibrant, bustling – so we are looking forward to wandering the top half.

The Alto, it turns out, is much sleepier. But after the gentle morning we’ve had it is perfect.

Connecting the upper and lower areas of this town is a funicular train. There won’t be time to ride it today, but just the name makes it sound like fun.

On the main piazza – every hill town has one, and a wall – there are little shops with pottery, lots of it, painted with poppies and lemons and the towering pointy Italian cypress trees, of course. Restaurants abound with outdoor umbrella’d seating that is now mostly empty. And cats. Lots of neighborhood cats.

 Near the piazza is a road that slopes gently downward, three story old stone buildings on one side, sweeping vistas of Tuscan countryside on the other. Every painting or postcard you’ve ever seen of Tuscany is likely 100% accurate.

Once we pry ourselves from this view we head slowly back down the hill toward our car, spying more cats along the way.

Near the car a small sunken building with an open door and a cat on its stoop catches our attention. On a table outside are two baskets of freshly picked cherries. They are for sale. A few steps into the dim building reveals bottles of freshly pressed olive oil. Purchases are made.

We can hear a rather randy rooster chattering away from somewhere behind the building. Upon further inspection we find him scratching at the dirt among ancient farm equipment. And he’s not alone. His harem is small but devoted.

On our way out we make one last stop at the restroom, which happens to be at the finucular train depot.

Just outside the station is an older Italian man painting scenes of Montecatini. We strike up a brief conversation, he shares his inspirations for each painting, has us guess at a couple. “Where’s this one?” We look around trying to identify the buildings in the painting. If we can’t find it he tells us. He has so much passion for what he is doing that we can’t help but walk away with a few sweet little canvases and lovely memories.


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