Suzanne Morphet samples hydroponic therapy at the regal Tettuccio Spa in Tuscany.
‘Here,” says my guide, Armando, handing me a glass of what looks like ordinary tap water. “Have a taste.”
Oh, ew, it’s so salty and unpleasant and that one sip is all I can manage.
Yet many visitors to the Tettuccio Spa in the town of Montecatini Terme will drink this water every day for a week or more at a time.
It’s called hydroponic therapy and here in the heart of Tuscany — about halfway between Florence and Lucca — “taking the water” means just that. You drink it.
As far back as Roman times, people came here to immerse themselves in the hot water bubbling out of the ground, rich in mineral salts. It was thought to treat everything from back pain to scabies.
As word of “the water cure” spread, scientists became interested in its chemical composition and in 1417 a man named Ugolino Simoni da Montecatini — regarded in Italy as the father of medical hydrology — published the first of many papers on its therapeutic properties.
“The water is very, very good for the liver and to lower cholesterol,” says Armando. But the chief complaint of visitors today? Chronic constipation. The “cure” is drinking a glass or two of Leopoldina water, the strongest of four types on tap, while strolling the landscaped gardens every morning for a week. According to the spa literature, Leopoldina “acts on the intestines to stimulate peristalsis”.
These days though, most people would rather take a pill for their problems, Armando says with a sigh. “The young don’t come, it’s mostly old people, Russians and Germans,” he adds, and only a couple of hundred a day compared to the 5000 that once came.
Fortunately, for those of us who don’t need or want a purgative, Montecatini Terme offers something else — amazing architecture and a glimpse at a storied past.
This part of the town’s history begins in the second half of the 18th century when the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Peter Leopold, decided the area should be a thermal resort complete with grand buildings, broad avenues and green parks. Along with architects from the Royal Office of the Grand Duchy, Benedictine monks from an abbey in Florence were given the task of turning what was mostly marshland into a modern spa resort.
In perhaps one of the earliest examples of “build it and they will come”, the plan worked. By the end of the 18th century, Montecatini Terme boasted three spa facilities with names indicative of their splendour — Regio, Leopoldine and Tettuccio. There was also a building known as Bibite gratuite, or “free drinks”, as the Grand Duke felt that even the less wealthy should benefit from Montecatini’s waters.
By the early 20th century Europe’s Golden Age or Belle Epoque had dawned. Peace and prosperity reigned and Montecatini Terme reached its pinnacle of fame. Luxurious new hotels including Grand Hotel & La Pace (Peace) were built to accommodate the growing number of visitors. Many of those visitors were Italy’s intellectual and cultural elite, people such as Giuseppe Verdi, Ruggero Leocavallo, Giacomo Puccini, but also international guests such as Madame Curie, the Polish scientist, who came to study the water’s properties.
By the mid-20th century Hollywood stars Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn and many others showed up, along with Europe’s rich and famous, including French fashion designer Christian Dior, who died while staying at Grand Hotel & La Pace.
In this century, with fewer people wanting to drink its salty water, Montecatini has embraced sports tourism — it was awarded the title “European City of Sport” in 2017 — but its renown as a spa town is simply too good to give up and several facilities are being rebuilt to give visitors modern spa experiences. In the meantime, stroll around town and you’ll be amazed by the historic architecture and other references to its glorious past.
Begin, as I did, at the Piazza del Popolo, the centre of town and a great place to enjoy a gelato, then head up Viale Verdi, stopping to see the Town Hall with its frescoed ceilings and contemporary art, pausing to admire the terracotta medallions on the exterior of the Excelsior spa, and greeting Verdi — or at least his statue — outside Teatro Verdi. (Verdi took the water” in Montecatini Terme for 18 years.)
Stroll past the big park on your left and several “Grand” hotels on your right and finally you’ll reach Tettuccio Spa.
Of all the eye-catching buildings in Montecatini, none commands your attention more than this one. Modelled on an old Roman bath, it looks part spa, part temple. Elegant Ionic columns support a domed roof in one section, encircle a pool in another, and form a long colonnade — the “drinking gallery” — where the curative waters flow from marble stands.
Above the taps, mosaics depict women in diaphanous gowns pouring water from jugs and breastfeeding naked babies.
The total effect is stunning, and even though I don’t drink another drop of the therapeutic water at Tettuccio I never tire of coming here.
Montecatini is easily reached by train and makes a great base for day trips to Florence, Lucca and Pisa. Hotels, wellness packages, cycling tours and more can be booked online at montecatinipromozione.com.