Romans do it best: Thermal Spas

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” cannot be solely confined to Rome as we marvel over their feats in the farthest corners of the empire.  One of the most impressive structures in Rome are the Baths of Caracalla, where the remnants of the expansive structural complex and lofty vaults pay homage to the once luxurious Roman leisure and bathing centers, fed by aqueducts and equipped with the complete wellness package for run-down Romans!

The Romans were the first to have the genial idea to channel Italy’s natural active springs into fonts of social recreation, hygiene, and a place for revitalization of the body and mind for any Roman, despite his status.  Outside of the Eternal City, trekking to the far-flung northern Italian outposts of the empire at Aosta, they left their mark with Roman ruins such as the triumphal arch of Agustus, fortifications and an outdoor theater.  It was in fact, these same people that first discovered the heated thermal fonts near present day Pré-Saint-Didier in the Valdigne, located in the high alpine valley a few kilometers away from Aosta and other lofty villages such as Courmayeur and La Thuille.

The Terme of Pré-Saint-Didier is a jewel located below the majestic white-capped mountain range highlighting Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) and the protruding Giant’s Tooth seen off in the distance.  It is one of the last Italian villages before entering France under the mountains.

The thermal springs of Pré-Saint-Didier are located in a grotto, a deep and extremely narrow gorge shaped by the rushing waters of the Dora of Verney, and from the heart of the glacial mountains, the water springs forth at 37°C.  The waters of Pre’-Saint-Didier are famous for their relaxing qualities of low mineralization, capacity to soften the skin and to improve circulation. Physical wellness combines with the moral lifting provided by the peace, purity, and serenity of Mother Nature.

The first testimonies of their therapeutic use arise from the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that a thermal complex was developed around the water source that attracted tourists of high European society.  The year of 1834 marks the completion of the main bathing edifice followed by a luxurious casino in 1888, which has since then been integrated into the spa establishment.  The 19th-century architecture with modern accents blends in its natural context with a spectacular view of the sunrise over the mountains.

After stressful weeks of work and the drudgery of January, we decided that now was the moment to escape the busy city to smell the exhilarating air of the mountains at the terme of Pré-Saint-Didier.  It is open year-round, and it is charming covered in snow.

Pré-Saint-Didier at 1,100 meters altitude is a small quaint town crevassed into a pocket between the peaks and undulous rock formations. The use of local materials lends the town an earthy feel that humbly marriages perfectly with its splendid ambient.  The expert craftsmanship of woodwork extracted from the forests is characteristic of the chalets that are all topped with slabs of pietra di Luserna (a special granite found in these regions). We arrived at the sleepy village in the early morning, and the smoke rose up from the peaking chimneys, dissipating into the crisp air of the crystal sky.

The complex opens at eight am, and it is possible to enjoy the day of wellness until eleven pm, when the establishment closes.  For avid skiers that rise early to hit the alpine slopes nearby, it is possible to work out lactic acids and wind down at the spa starting at five pm until close, the perfect warm down to the sporting venture.

Luckily in Italia, thermal spa experiences are swimsuit only affairs, unlike many of their northern counterparts, and I left my nudist worries at ease.  We were provided with a robe, towel and flip-flops, and we were good to go for a day full of invigorating relaxation.

The complex is a beautiful and clean establishment with rustic interior design, and it includes various amenities: there are three outdoor thermal pools, various saunas (indoor and outdoors ranging from 80-100°C), aroma therapy saunas (lower temperatures of 55°C), aroma therapy relaxation rooms, Turkish baths, Jacuzzis, waterfalls, rain rooms, a Scottish shower, mud baths, and more.  Obviously the massage center’s experts provide various activities and courses of wellness.  There are varied rest and relaxation rooms where guests are invited to dose off to soothing tunes and aromatherapy, some including spectacular vistas, for your break from the water.  The wellness buffet is open all day where a wide array of juices and healthy snacks are continually at the disposal of the bathers.

My favorite activity was the aromatherapy sauna where fresh flowers hung over the wooden lounge directed at the giant windows facing Monte Bianco; it was heaven!

One word of advice: the ultimate experience is a couple’s getaway; therefore, if you don’t intend to go with your partner or friends, I wouldn’t advise solo ventures.  The spa at Pre’-Saint-Didier does not have a hotel, but there are many hotels in the area that have discounted partnerships.

In the past, my spa experiences have been few and far between, primarily due to the fact that I have never been able to justify spending the money on a massage or any other treatment.  Where I come from, a reasonably priced one-hr massage in the States costs at least fifty bucks, and a girl named Rita rubs my back as I fret about whether or not I should be wearing my underwear.  I am still not keen on self-pampering, but Italy has begun changing my whole view of benessere, or wellness, in general.

You might cringe when you realize that this whole perfect day of  relaxation and union with the wilderness cost only 48£/person(weekend price), and for example 10£ more for a massage or a professional treatment.  So even though Italy drives me crazy on occasion, after ten hours of spa bliss, I’d be willing to bet that these guys know how to live it up, without discrimination.

My weekend in the thermal waters at the foot of Monte Bianco was an incredible revitalizing experience that provided just the right medicine for January blues.  More than medicine, it was an unforgettable day that is for me just about paradise, mentally, physically, existentially, ly ly ly.  The more I experience in Italia, the more I realize how important it really is to “do as the Romans do.”

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The baths at Pré-Saint-Didier are only one offer out of many in Italy; check them out!

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Arcimboldo exhibit in Milan

"Spring" 1563 oil on panel 65x50cm Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

The spring collection of Milan’s fashion week goes floral:  models with rosy cheeks, budding lips, and silky bouquet coiffers are dressed in lush verdant foliage designs with a daisy field inspired high-neck ruffled collar.  Colorful compositions are striking not only to the eyes but to all of the senses, a tribute to the fantastical imagination which created this natural madness.  In an uncanny union of man’s ingenuity and nature’s diversity, texture and content combine this time, however, to create not fashion, but art.

The renowned fashion houses of Italy may be promoting floral designs and green attitudes this spring, but they certainly did not imagine up the Spring designs of the 16th-century artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593), whose works are being exhibited at the Palazzo Reale in Milan with a great attention to the artist’s Milanese roots and inspired milieu.

"Vertumnus", 1590 oil on panel 68x56cm Skokloster Castle, Skokloser

Considered a rather obscure artist before the MOMA’s 1936 exhibition, “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism,” Arcimboldo was rediscovered for the international acclaim that he received as the Italian court painter for Ferdinand I at the Habsburg court in Vienna, and later, to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court in Prague.

He has become most famous for his grotesque composite portrait heads of flora and fauna that are depicted in his renowned series: The Seasons and the Elements. His bizarre compositions create an uncanny union between the scientific observation of nature and its fantastical application to the portrait bust, imbued with metaphor and fanciful metamorphosis!

The Seasons proved to be very popular among the royal court, and several replicas were requested of Arcimboldo.  The peachy cheeks and cherry lips of Summer are mature and juicy, Autumn’s pumpkin-head is crowned with dangling grapes ripe for harvest, the barren gnarly bark and fungus lips of Winter are worse than his bite, and the budding complexion of Spring explodes in over eighty varieties of vibrant flowering species. This mad celebration of nature has no bounds as the Seasons copious yield makes way for the four Elements, whose allegorical depictions arouse curiosity:

"Water" 1566 oil on panel 66.5x50.5cm Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Fire’s hairdo blazes in red licking flames; Air‘s crown of proud feathered friends reign over its aerial kingdom; the bust of Earth is composed of a tangled menagerie of exotic and indigenous species and taxidermy; the body of Water is teeming with marine life pulled from their watery depths, intertwined with seashell ears and a pear necklace draped around the slimy personified bust!  It is believed that the Elements and the Seasons were intended to be paired with one another: a confrontation between the bizarre creatures and their symbolism.

Arcimboldo’s wild imagination was certainly influenced by his time, and this exhibition highlights his role in the transition from the DaVinci school, strongly present in Milan, and later preparing for the Baroque genius of Caravaggio.

Leonardo DaVinci’s dedication to the observation of the natural world and his sketches of “grotesque” caricature influenced a new generation of thinkers and artists that would seek to show scientific accuracy as well as illusion.  Emphasis is placed on the fervid cultural Milanese atmosphere at the turn of the 16th century, one that harbored a taste for intellectual riddles, satire, artifice, and exotic elegance among the European courts.  The show features over three-hundred works that trace Arcimboldo’s formative years and commissions in the Lombard capital, and proceeds to follow him to Vienna, where he creates for intrigue of the court.

During the age of discovery, the Habsburg family was one of the great patrons of intellectual pursuits and the arts.  Arcimboldo’s naturalist illustrations of flora and fauna created for nature catalogues are featured in the exhibition, and this study as well as the royal family menagerie and botanical gardens, served as great reference to the artist for his paintings.  New species found in the “new worlds” were brought to the court’s collections to inspire exotic additions to his creations.

"Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit" 1590 oil on panel 55.9x41.6cm French & Company, New York

Many of Arcimboldo’s most famous works such as the Seasons and the Elements are displayed in nine rooms of the Palazzo Reale; the show includes gems such as his tricky reversible paintings as well as the portrait bust of Rudolf II depicted as Vertumnus, the god of the seasons, posing like a three-dimensional cornucopia!

A re-elaboration of the exhibition held by the National Gallery in Washington, “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy,” Arcimboldo returns home to once again stake his fame at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, “Arcimboldo-Artista Milanese tra Leonardo e Caravaggio.”  The show runs from February 11th-May 22.  Instead of going to the runway, check out Arcimboldo for fanciful inspiration!

Philip Haas "Winter (After Arcimboldo)"

Italians debunk food “science”

In a recent conversation, my grandmother was describing the new diet recommended by her nutritionist: small portions, all whole-wheat, no cheese, low-fat yogurt, no trans fat, etc.  As she recounted the litany of dieting tips, dos and don’ts with the melancholy of losing old friends, I started becoming very perturbed with this “dietary specialist.”  My blue-eyed grandmother is an honorary Italian-American, cooking up delicious home-cooked meals for my Italian-blooded grandfather for over fifty years.  She is a fabulous cook that has fed her family since she was a teenager with traditional recipes and new tasty experiments, and to me, she is my personal Martha Stewart, without jail time, of course.   Who is this dietary specialist to tell my grandmother to not eat cheese?!

Since when do we need someone to monitor what we put into our bodies?  What is missing from our alimentary common sense that makes us cling to new fads or these “dietary specialists” that claim to know no more about our own bodies than our nosey neighbors?  Two renowned European examples for culinary expertise and slim waists are the Italians and the French, cultures that traditionally don’t skimp on the fat when necessary.  In Italy, as one strolls past the alluring scents of the bakeries, glazed cakes in the pastry shops, and glistening displays in butcher shops and cheese stores, all the while watching these hearty Italians scarf down personal pizzas and bottles of wine, one poses an interesting question: with this delectable food culture, how do they stay so slim!?

We already know the answer to this question: They have a food culture.   The question comes down to education and an innate understanding of the organism (us) related to what we put into our bodies, more or less the history and future of our food.  Italians live by the phrase, “you are what you eat,” quite fitting for the highest omnivores on the food chain, don’t you think?  Italians are born with this close relationship to all of the nutritional sources that make up their cuisine, and it doesn’t take an expert chef to tell you the ingredients of every traditional Italian product or dish; my twelve year-old Italian students could tell you.

Food is their passion, and the regional specialties are connected with the local history and unique landscape.  The quality of the products is craved and demanded, and in many cases, it is controlled by quality and geographical standards established by the EU.  Since I have moved to Italy, I have been ever fascinated with the food culture that is worshiped in this country, and I have now begun my own journey to salvation via the Italian forchetta (fork).  Its great flavor and goodness are found in the pure simplicity of natural ingredients, all of which are distinguishable in the supermarket.

As I gaze at the multitudes of products aligned on the supermarket shelves in America, I am instantly inundated with brands, labels, promotions, varying claims of negated fat, different shapes and sizes!  The head-spinning options create confusion, and I can’t distinguish what is the real substance behind all of this processed “food”!  In the end, I waste a lot of time trying to figure out what it is, what is the difference, and where it is from?!

In contrast, a stroll through a normal Italian supermarket (although increasingly affected by the food industry) is a liberating experience because despite problems in translation, the choices are much more limited, and the lack of superfluous information is relieving to the hungry shopper (for example, most only carry two brands of chips!).  The provenance of foods such as meats and vegetables are clearly identified and are usually local or Italian; it is pleasing to know that this information is clearly made available to the customer.  Italy is also the leading producer of organic or “biologico” products in Europe.  Outside of the supermarket, I always prefer the farmers markets, which are always colorful, exciting, and alluringly nutritious!

Street Markets

Although I tease the Italians for their haphazard sense of organization, we Americans lack the roots and common food sense that these Italians utilize to maximize the quality of their agricultural output and demand for the “made in Italy” stamp.  In return, they eat better, and their food tastes generally better.

It’s all a question of priority: Recognizing good quality, as I said before, is the main characteristic that drives and determines their cuisine, and all Italians flock to a good meal.  Are you looking to go to a good restaurant in the city?  A fail-proof way of finding a gem is by choosing the most crowded restaurant; they Italian patrons are all experts!  In the same way, an Italian will tell you which olive oil is best, which tomatoes have had a good season, and why they will eat pesto only if it is from Pra, near Genova, where the best basil grows.  Can we Americans match this local food knowledge?

Folks, in the end, the Italian style can be boiled down into five main concepts:

  1. Food education: know your ingredients
  2. Food appreciation: demand high quality
  3. Food application: simple natural products in tasty combinations
  4. Food priority: eating good food is important; love the experience
  5. Food consciousness: stop when you are feeling full

Michael Pollan, a leading writer, NY Times journalist, and advocate for food awareness has masterfully delved into the art of eating food, from its origins in the market today to the way in which we can be more aware of our own eating habits.  I highly recommend reading all of his books, starting from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in the order in which they were written.  He focuses on breaking down the spam of food myths, the massive influx of food information and nutrient marketing into simple explanations.

Pollan encourages us to think about how our great-grandparents cooked before our supermarkets quadrupled in size.   One way to stay on the right eating track is to avoid highly processed products that contain bushels of corn syrups, forget about the soda, eat green, and go local for your food!  As many Italians profess: go easy on the butter, use a dash of milk instead (an Italian mom’s secret).

In a world in the midst of an economic crisis, it is surprising that we haven’t taken our nutrition into our own hands, demanded quality products and organic production from our own American soil.  As for these dietary specialists that tell us how to eat, I say ignore them and get back to basics!  Let’s not obsess over weight loss and nutrients, carbohydrates, and fat.  Forget about the food science, don’t look at the calorie count, and eat healthy products!  Let’s enjoy a balanced meal for what it is—good food prepared with love.  Wash it down with a glass of wine, for heaven’s sake!