Wed 15 Aug: Fonteverde Spa resort, Tuscany
So I’ve been feeling very tired and grumpy of late. I was also being very apathetic, having to force myself to do stuff. It took a few days but I then recognised I had been here before and the simple answer was that I needed a holiday (I have a tendency to work too hard when I’m enjoying myself and so have to rely on my body effectively breaking down before I realise).
I’ve had a constant low-level illness since my Puerto Rico ICANN conference in July. I worked through that rather than have a few days off – bad idea in retrospect – and then about a fortnight ago I completely lost two days through the kind of fever and exhaustion I haven’t had since I was a kid.
I say all this to explain why I am writing this currently sat in the bar of a very fancy spa in Tuscany. It’s called Fonteverde, it was built by some ancient figure on the site of a natural spa, and it is very expensive.
I’m not entirely sure how I ended up here except that the idea of a spa entered my head when I realised that I only had five days’ holiday and I had to guarantee myself that I would be completely relaxed and back to full health at the end of it. I mentioned the idea of a spa to a number of friends and they were unanimous – including the men, oddly – a spa was a great idea. (Other ideas and suggestions: a trip to Thailand, a driving tour of France, Sweden, a visit to my mate in Colombia.)
So, naturally, I did a search online and found two sites I really liked: the Best Hotels in the World with a special spa section, and Best Spas of the World. It could have been anywhere – although Mexico and Thailand seemed too far, and I definitely wanted to get out of the country, so not London or Edinburgh. I also didn’t want to go to a spa within a hotel.
Ready-built spas in fancy hotels are all the rage these days – a valuable market sector – but what I wanted was the real deal – hot water coming out the hills as it had done for thousands of years and assorted mind-boggling treatments in the middle of nowhere. An inner-city hotel would just cause me to go out on the town and screw up the whole point of being there.
Fits the bill
The Fonteverde fits the bill perfectly. Although I would be lying it I had planned it that way. In fact, despite there being an abundance of spas in Europe, I seemed to have hit the hot time for going to one. Having left it, characteristically, until the day before, it turned out that they were all booked. I tried 12 – in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Iceland – and they were all booked. The Fonteverde was also fully booked but I checked a second time for some reason and someone must have cancelled because it went through.
So, you get a flight to Rome. Then you hire a car. Drive towards central Rome, then north on the ring road, coming off at junction 10, up the A1/E35 and head into the Tuscan hills. About an hour-and-a-half later, come off at Falco, and then drive for another 45 minutes or so through tiny, windy roads at 30 miles an hour until you find the Fonteverde Hotel and in you come.
In my job, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in some of finest hotels in the world. And I hate nearly all of them, in the same way I hate nearly all airports, and every hospital. It’s all just too much hassle. I am there to do something functional and everyone around you is trying desperately hard to pretend otherwise, which just makes the whole thing more irritating.
Except of course, the whole point of a dedicated spa hotel *is* to relax and unwind. And so despite this being very much their territory and very much not mine (I have never been to a spa in my life, and never even considered it until a week ago), it was all quite calm and very welcoming.
The room is a little small but very pleasant, has absolutely everything you would ever want, and the view… the Tuscan hills roll off in the way that you always suspected they would.
The weather is perfect. It hits about 32-34 at lunchtime when it is a little too hot but not unbearable, the humidity is just fine, a gentle breeze kicks in around 5pm and the evenings are just perfect. As I sat having my dinner on the terrace, it was all too obvious why the Italians are such lovers of food, drink and chat – the evening, gentle and warm, and the scenery, calming and majestic, are crying out for long, relaxed meals and conversations. It would almost be insulting not to.
Language and pain barriers
So I was listed, I noticed, as “Mrs” McCarthy. Clearly the Italians thought “Kieren” was a woman’s name. Plus of course spas are very much a woman’s world. I’d pre-arranged a massage for 6pm on the day I arrived – figured it would be a good start to the holiday. I noticed in the hotel’s spa guide that you can request a masseuse or a masseur and so I made a point of getting to the spa reception desk a little early to point out that I was a “Mr” McCarthy. The woman at the desk understood what I was getting at. So she typed stuff into the computer and said I was booked to be massaged by “Nicola”. I said that’s fine, thanks.
It is not without irony then that five minutes later a normal-sized but clearly strong man appeared in front of me and asked “McCarthy?” His name tag read, quite accurately, “Nicola”. Ah.
I mentioned to him that the hotel has me down as a Mrs McCarthy, and, seemingly relieved, he headed behind the desk to see if he could change things. Wherein of course, it suddenly struck me that I had said “Nicola” was fine. So I don’t know whether there was no one else available, or whether Nicola had been told I had specifically approved him, but he came back, obviously slightly uncomfortable and beckoned me to the massage room (one of many) around the corner. He was a pro, and it was just a body after all. I doubt very much whether I was the first man he had massaged.
I figured as well that my back was in such a state that having a man massage it was probably a good idea. And it’s odd because once you get over someone that you don’t know rubbing your body, you couldn’t care less if it was a man, a woman or a wildebeest. Nicola did fuck up my back slightly though – I did try to warn him but while his English is 20 times my Italian, the phrase “I have a very tense back – can you make sure you warm it up thoroughly before you apply a lot of pressure” didn’t carry across entirely accurately.
It was a thorough job though and I felt much, much better as I slid off the massage table and wandered around the spa a bit. The spa is open to day visitors but hotel guests get a special tunnel down to it and at the top of the spa (bottom of the tunnel) is one of the two proper spa pools – a delightful 38 degrees, I am told. I’m fairly certain non-guests are allowed here, but there are various well-designed impediments to make non-guests feel uncomfortable with just wandering up and in.
So I settled at the top spa for a few hours to soak up a bit of sun and get into the real-deal spa. That’s when I noticed the guests.
You could write a fascinating little play about them. I had expected middle-aged divorcees, mid-30s couples and a few old, rich people. And they are here, no doubt about that. But what I enjoyed was the not-one but two couples where a mid-50s man, out-of-shape but clearly rich and used to having his own way, with a young, really young, girl. Theoretically they could be dad-and-daughter, but you know they’re not.
And second was “the beautiful couple”. There is also two of them – the beautiful couple and the couple that would have been the beautiful couple had the other bastards not turned up. I had run into Beautiful Man when I stuck my head into the fitness centre to see what they had and he was in there with his headphones on doing thrusts with a barbell on his back and staring at himself thrusting at himself in a mirror. “Quattro, Cinco…”
Somehow I knew he was the other half of Beautiful Woman and was delighted when he turned up about 30 minutes after I had been sat down by the spa pool to sit next to her. She had a tiny bikini over an extraordinary body and kept wandering around watching to see if people were watching her out the corner of her eye. It must have been terrible for the other beautiful couple: it’s not as if wit or talent or intelligence is going to help them out.
To get to the end rapidly. I had an extraordinary meal at the hotel restaurant. Excellent, friendly waiters, a maitre d’ who was initially a bit sniffy toward me but did that thing that maitre d’s do and gradually became more friendly, thereby asserting his dominion.
The food was good. Really good. To the extent that it made me wonder whether it was the food or the atmosphere, the wine and the sunset. I had grilled wild boar in pasta with Chianti mustard just because it sounded so bizarre I had to try it. It was sensational. And the dessert, while not a favourite all-time dessert was extraordinary – a fizzy, sharp whisky white topping to a black, dark liquid that I have no idea what was in it, and some chocolate and ice cream.
And then the bar where I was delighted to find a tremendous collection of single malts, had a very large Laphroaig, read some of Alastair Campbell’s diaries on the veranda and then buggered off to bed. Sweet.