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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Books and their covers: Rana Pescatrice

Prince Charming

Flashback: The pungent odor pervading the air led my curious nose to happen upon Venice’s fresh fish market, the Mercato di Rialto, in the midst of the vending commotion.  I was enraptured by the colorful sights, textures, and smells lifting up into the neoclassical loggia structure, and the bustle of busy shoppers and curious tourists was almost too much for my camera lens to take!  At a certain point, I pointed my camera at the “pescivendolo” (fish seller) to capture some fish-gutting and chop-sui action when the monocle eye caught a hideous slimy slug-like fish plopped on the display table!

I jumped back in disgust and strange wonderment at the Jabba the Hut-like creature staring at me with its googly glassy eyes, oversized head, fatty wide mouth and its antenna protruding from its head.  It almost looked like a sci-fi “Eatn’ Park” cookie with its big old gaping smile.  I exclaimed to my sister, “Oh how NASTY, don’t tell me that anyone takes this home and eats this creature!”  We both agreed that neither of us would ever ingest Jabba, but my sister had the courage to touch its dark slithery skin.  I took a picture of the poor fellow, so brutto (ugly) when compared to its other fished marine companions.  I read the name, “Coda di Rospo” or (Toad Tail).

Fash Forward:  I accompany my boyfriend and his family to a lovely rustic restaurant in Arenzano, a quaint Ligurian costal town located just above Genova.  This was a casarecco (home-style) place with a limited menu written on a hanging chalkboard, an automatic guarantee to leave contented with a loosened belt.  As I squinted to see the menu, my eyes fell on “tagliatelle with ragu di pescatrice.”  Given that I love ragu’ sauce of any kind, my boyfriend encouraged me to try this fresh homemade pasta with a fish stew sauce.  Yumm!

This course was served, and the pasta drenched in its savory seafood sauce literally melted in my mouth!  This phrase may seem trite, but there is no other English way to say it!  Although I don’t claim to be a food expert (yet), I am a connoisseur of the gastronomic experience.  My stomach started singing hallelujah, I ignored my company, and I floated to the seventh culinary heaven where I tried to make it last, forever.  It was only until later that I asked my friend, “What was the fish used in that delicious ragu?”  The response shocked and appalled my ears!  Rana Pescatrice is another name for Coda di Rospo!  Dust my ears deceive me?

Fun Facts: The Rana Pescatrice or the Monkfish, can be found both in Northern European and Mediterranean waters under the alias of Lophius piscatorius, and his counterpart, Lophius americanus, hanging around in the Western Atlantic Ocean.  Both species offer up quite popular dishes, so much so that it is now difficult to find.  The monkfish is known variously attractive pet names such as a goosefish, angler fish, bellyfish, frogfish, all-mouth, or sea devil; it is a bottom-dwelling creature where its spine ends in a flexible, extendible cord, which it dangles to lure unexpecting prey.

Monkfish used in the kitchen provides delicious meat that is dense, boneless, sweet and often referred to as “Poor man’s Lobster” for its delicate flavor and texture.  Besides its liver that is primarily sold to the Japanese for sashimi, the muscular tail is the only edible part of the fish (Its head is too big!), and it splits cleanly in two nice filets.  The membrane surrounding the meat must be removed before cooking! This ugly duckling also happens to be a great meal for weight watchers!  It is a low-fat, low-cholesterol source of Protein and Vitamin B.  Who would have known?!

Due to over-fishing, the Rana Pescatrice is difficult to find in Italian restaurants, and I imagine also in the USA.  However, I have heard it may pop up in your Whole Foods market.  In any case, I would like to introduce a recipe for a ragu sauce of “Rana Pescatrice” with fresh Tagliatelle pasta:

Ingredients:  (for 2 people) 45 min.

  1. 200g Monkfish meat
  2. ½ onion
  3. 1 small carrot
  4. 1 celery stalk
  5. 8-10oz Dry white wine
  6. Fresh thyme and parsely
  7. Ex Virgin Olive Oil
  8. Salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Vegetable or fish broth.
  10. 10. 200g of fresh Tagliatelle pasta.

Before starting, make sure that the membrane of the tail fillets is removed, and if possible, save the head to boil in order to create a fish broth.  If not, a vegetable broth will work well.  Cut up the fillets in small cubes and put aside.  Mince the onion, carrot, and celery stalk and place in a skillet that is lightly covered with 2 spoons of EV-Olive Oil.  When the chopped vegetables are simmering and softening, reduce the flame and add the monkfish cubes.  As the meat is cooking in the stew, turn up the flame and add some white wine.  When the wine has evaporated, add 1 ladel of fish broth to flavor the sauce.  Regulate the salt, add fresh ground pepper, and add chopped fresh parsley and thyme.  Let the sauce evaporate and cook together on a low heat for another 5-10 min and turn off the flame.  Add sea salt to the boiling water in the pot. Cook the fresh tagliatelle for a small amount of time (2-3 min), one minute prior to being cooked al dente.  Drain the pasta, add it to your skillet, and restart the flame.  Have the noodles cook in and take on the flavors of the sauce.  Serve.

I enjoyed this recipe because it recalls the ragu that I ate in Genova.  It is light and very tasty! One may substitute it with a white fish such as cod or halibut.

I have learned my lesson, a lesson applicable to all of our daily judgments based on appearance.  Mary Shelley would not be pleased with me, and this is one Frankenstein that deserves a chance!  This fish might not be the bell of the ball, but it certainly is yummy!  My initial revulsion has past, and I am opening up to the awkward beast with open arms, into my kitchen, stomach, and ultimately, my heart.  Next ugly fish served…Scrofano, better know as the Scorpion Fish!

Agritourism’s Allure

A journey from the buzzing city of Milan culminates with a rugged gravel road that winds up to the hill’s summit. As we continue to ascend, the outstretching vistas of the Umbrian landscape slowly reveal their natural splendor in the late afternoon sun. The warm autumn colors contrast with the soft purple-blue undulating waves of the peaks receding into the distance. Textures abound with olive groves spotting the terrain, green wispy pines sprouting vertically, and vineyard lines glowing yellow and red after the season of the vendemmia, or the grape harvest. Off into the distance, we can indicate cities such as Perugia, Assisi, Todi, Orvieto, and Spoleto: vibrant witnesses to the region’s Etruscan roots and rich cultural heritage.

At the end of this road, our car finally rumbles into the parking lot at our destination: a small 13th century quartz monastery complex, complete with a humble stony church, the old observer of time over the bucolic landscape. As guests on our weekend getaway, we receive a warm and casual welcome, and we are given a tour of the surroundings. Even though the panorama is overwhelming, I am eager to explore the quaint building whose materials reflect their local origins. The refurbished sleeping rooms are complete with rustic creamy stone interiors finished with handcrafted wooden rafters, a cozy fireplace, small Byzantine replica paintings, and a bella vista of the hills beyond the window frame. A delightful breakfast is on the house in order to energize guests for a day full of simple relaxation, hiking, or a full itinerary of the scattered medieval borghi and castles to be discovered in the area.

At night, stars and Orion sparkle over the distant lit webs of civilization, and the muted indigo blues are inhaled as we return from our daylong journey, fatigued, but not in spirit. Entering inside from the night air, we find ourselves in the old renovated stall of the monastery with five other couples whose conversations hum above lit candles. Soft music serenades tables furnished with local Umbrian wine from Trasimeno, while the typical plates of the “contadino’s” or farmer’s kitchen are served in four courses. At this particular place, vegetarian cuisine is offered, to the great joy of Albertina, the name that I gave to their beautiful bovine beast who roams the territory. Even though I am a fan of meat, especially when close to the motherland of the Florentine steak, there is no need for dismay. Especially during the season of the prized white and black Tartufo (Truffle), this cuisine provides a pleasant change from heavier meals.

Located in the natural park of Monte Tezio, “il Romontorio” is a restructured agritourism establishment that offers a peaceful R&R experience in the heart of Umbria. Although this particular destination purposefully requires a more rugged journey, many similar places are scattered throughout the region.

You might ask, what is agritourism in Italy?

Agritourism or agricultural tourism is an increasingly popular phenomenon in Italia that appeals to local rustic tradition, hearty appetites, and the discovering of the simple pleasures in life while surrounded by the quiet environs of nature. An agritourism institution distinguishes itself by providing a combination package of enjoyable, didactic and unforgettable experiences that create a greater appreciation for the labors of passion, seasoned expertise, and time-tested processes which reveal the goodness of earthen fruits locally inherent to the landscape and to the culture itself.

Agricultural tourism was initially born years ago as a form of simple hospitality and accommodation offered to travelers by peasantry of the rural countryside. It was organized in old farmhouses where these farmers or ranchers would offer joint sleeping arrangements as well as provide a chance for the visitor to experience the produce of its land and livestock. Even in these primitive years of agritourism, the desire of travelers to come in contact with nature far from the city limits was the primary catalyst driving the service. Following the agricultural crisis after WWII, the activity became a more diffused method for farmers to preserve their way of life. In the face of modernism and changing economies, agritourism has gradually renovated its look to promote a more organized and comfortable conception of hospitality focused on the regional characteristic and cultural setting and tailored to the needs of today’s tourists. The regions that are most populated by agritourism are Tuscany, Tentino-Alto Adige, and the Veneto region, but you can discover many in every region.

Today, agritourism continues to thrive in Italy as an attractive destination that is prescribed by law to be solely managed by independent farmers or agricultural companies in their preexisting rural edifices, utilizing and promoting their individual agricultural initiatives to the general public. In many cases, the line that separates certain family-owned trattorias and agritourism outposts can be thin and easily misleading. However certain guidelines can help us distinguish the two relatively rustic experiences. While a trattoria may provide you with a delightful gastronomic evening of casalinga home-cooking, it is solely a dinner destination, sending you home with gluttonous contentedness and an exploding waistline. Agritourism is inspired by its roots, and in addition to its culinary and cultural attraction and orientation, it offers you the complete hospitality package that usually includes lodging to its travelers.

It is a home away from home that boasts of providing you with a unique opportunity to sample site-specific homemade products, which includes meals that present you with delightful recipes constituted primarily by the yield of their business and traditional kitchen flares. They are required to offer you the unique products characteristic of the territory, seasonal ingredients, and of course its approved specialties by authenticity branding: DOP, IGP, DOC, etc—all titles attesting to the controlled and protected origins of the products, based on regional, natural, and human processes to maintain the quality of the famous Italian stamp. Wow! Complicated, but rightly so–these Italians are masters of their trade, trained by ancestral techniques; it’s not packaged American transfat cheese folks!

One of the most alluring aspects of this stay is that visitors may have the opportunity to have up-close and personal encounters with the land and its goods. This usually family-owned business takes charge of organizing tastings of company products, for instance, wine from their vineyards that rest safely and preserved in stone wine cellars!

On a more didactic level, many agritourism farms offer services to welcome students and interested groups to witness and understand the different aspects of business, including the preparation of many foods, such as wine, olive oil, honey, cheeses, salami, ect. Encountering a product helps you appreciate it on a new level, comprehend its function in our diet, and also value the hands that labored with love for the sake of quality and tradition. In addition to understanding the family business, most places also offer many recreational, leisure, sporting and cultural events that also enrich the vacation. For example, these popular package activities can include hiking and horse-back riding, picnic rendezvous, baths in the swimming pool, bike rides, hunts for chestnuts, mushrooms, or berries, and cultural tours of the area.

If the guests don’t already have enough to do, they can also take advantage of the amazing surrounding cities and sites. The possibilities are endless considering the incredible heritage of the country and the fact that you can always choose to be located close to Italy’s characteristic mountains, lakes, hills or the glistening Mediterranean Sea–or all at once depending on your position! So whether you are an eno-gastronomic specialist, an artist, an impassioned lover of tradition and beauty, or just in search of a quiet and economic getaway in the peace and tranquility of a home away from your own—I’d say it’s a perfect bet!