I learned the town name in Italian means Volcano Crater. No wonder there are so many thermal pools, spas, and steam baths scattered around this geo-thermal hotbed of activity. Poised between Florence and Pisa, there are thermal services, pools, caves, and most anything of the spa variety you can imagine. My BFF and I went there to chill out for the holidays to experience the lovely holiday markets, the Gluehwein (hot spiced wine) and of course the pasta and all the spa’ing a person can take. We discovered things we never thought of and other things we wish we hadn’t. It’s all about discovery and being open to try new things. That’s when two brains are better than one when we try to figure out the procedures and how to manage ourselves in new environs in another language….though I learned all you really need in Italian is Grazi and Prego and that pretty much can take you anywhere.
Our first spa experience was what we later termed the sanitarium or insane asylum. Seriously, it was so sterile and clean and minimal and the people all wore white smocks, it was a little weird. We stayed for five hours to take in all the pools and water therapy we could handle. We were led upstairs to a completely empty floor….a bit like the movie The Shining. Seriously, nobody was on the floor except one housekeeper and the attendant who kept running between our two rooms to give us our treatments. No mood lighting, no candles, no soft music, just bright lights like an operating room, cold tables, and opened doors as she kept running back and forth between us.
We both got the special mud pack treatment and the magical mud/cream facial along with a massage. No warming of the massage oil at this crazy place….she slathered cold cream on you with startling precision and then gave the most lack-luster massage I’ve ever had…it did nothing for either of us. It was hard not to laugh because it was so weirdly sterile and antiseptic and not at all relaxing. We were slathered in mud that had incubated in the special waters for up to two years, then swaddled in wrapping. We felt like mud burritos when we were left to cook in the mud. All you could hear across the hallway was us laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Our next thermal experience was like nothing we’d ever experienced as seasoned spa-goers. This thermal vapor cave was discovered in 1849 and recognized as the 8th wonder of the world at one time. There is a resort and thermal spa built around this cave with stalagmites and stalactites that is the length of a football field. They give you little slippers and white canvas robes with hoods that look monk-like. Then you descend into the cave with one end called Paradise which is the “cooler” end and the other end is Inferno/Hell which is much deeper into the mountain and is considerably hotter in this natural sauna steam bath buried into the mountain.
In Hell you find teak deck chairs and a smattering of people just resting in silence and sweat in the dimly lit cave. You sweat for 45 minutes and then emerge from the depths to a shower and a fuzzy robe, then you’re ushered to a nap room that is surrounded by an inside jungle with vines Tarzan could swing on.
From there we were led to our sea-salt scrub and shae butter candle massage. They light the candle and drip the hot shae butter upon you for an amazing massage in an appropriately lush and lavish dimly-lit setting with spa music, heated beds and blankets and aromatherapy. After you feel like putty, then you’re guided to the outdoor thermal pool with individual bubble seats, waterfalls, robe and towel warmers and spectacular scenery surrounding the grounds.
We spent 6 hours at this place and luxuriated in every minute. It was a far cry from the sanitarium spa. Buyer beware – do your homework before you plunk down cash for services that are downright startling. Oh well, nothing that some red wine, great pasta and a little tiramisu won’t fix to help erase our memory of the insane asylum. It’s all about taking care of yourself and inviting new experiences. We had a good laugh at our own expense and know better next time when we research spas and treatments. What are you doing to try new adventures, unique experiences and to take care of yourself? What are you doing to add a little uniqueness, wonder, and excitement to your life? What are you doing to live Hartfully and renew yourself? Next stop was leather shopping in Florence. More on that adventure is customized leather later.
There’s always been a certain charm of Europe that grabs hold of you, a sense of great architecture, grand design, great food, amazing culture, and women who know how to wear a scarf effortlessly. I particularly like to be in Europe for the holiday season. It’s done so well, so elegant, old-world charm, light-handed, and all your senses are immersed in holiday cheer. Not the unabashed, neon, tinsel-town fakeness in America.
So my BFF and I decided to spend this holiday in Italy and Belgium to surround ourselves with Christkindlemarkts, gluehwein, kaesestanger pretzals, and French fries with mayo in a cone and little forks as only the Belgians and the Dutch can do so well. When we arrived in Bruges, one of our favorite towns in the world that we thought couldn’t get any more charming and quaint. Well… cue the horse-drawn carriages clip-cloppping down the cobblestone street, the smell of chestnut roasting on an open fire (no kidding), and the smell of chocolate, the sight of 18th century canal homes decked out in greenery, simple white lights and red ribbons, ice skaters on the square encircled by holiday market stalls, and holiday music piped through the streets. Bliss, simply bliss from all angles. All we needed was reindeer and some snow. It did spit rain, so we ducked into a 15th century convent turned hotel for high tea by the roaring fire in the walk-in fireplace along the canal. We were the only ones in the sumptuous drawing room replete with champagne, tea, and crumpets – just what we needed to complete the holiday mood.
Several trips and years ago we had decided to up our game in several areas of our lives. It’s funny how little things can be improved and when you string together all the areas you have stepped-up, it turns out your life has been up-leveled in interesting ways. This trip was no exception. We continued to step up our scarf game because they are plentiful in Europe, take up no room in the suitcase and don’t break. I’ve come to know that eyeglasses are much more creative and interesting in Europe than in America. Why can’t American’s have imagination when it comes to eyewear. There is no comparison. This trip was no different when we met a woman whose dad has been the creative force behind some wild and crazy designs since the 60’s. Of course, we couldn’t leave the country without a pair of hot pink and purple frames to add to the collection.
One this trip we decided to step up our balsamic vinegar and chocolate game. Visiting a tiny artisanal vinegar house in Modena was a perfect entre into the world of fine balsamic vinegars. They produce only 2000, 100ml bottles per year and the entire operation is in the attic of their 1800’s home. The sweet, tart scent of vinegar wafted throughout the home where they took such pride in aging their stash for 12-25 years completely naturally. Of course, we had to buy bottles at $65 – $130 each. The complex taste is out of this world and the consistency of heave syrup is divine. I had long stepped up from the watery balsamic of the grocery store to specialty vinegars, but had no idea this amazing concoction existed. It rocked my world.
The same held true for chocolate. The Europeans have the Americans beat to shreds in chocolate-making, bread-making and many other things. When we strolled the Galleries near the Grand Place in Brussels, the high-end chocolate shops looked like fine jewelry stores with Mary chocolates holding the seal of the royal family. Another divine sensory overload. Eat your heart out Hershey’s.
The cherry on top was the sensory overload in the Grand Place at night with a light show set to holiday music while eating a warm waffle and turning in circles to not miss a thing trying to catch a glimpse of the fabulous buildings from the 1600’s bathed in flickering lights timed perfectly with the music. It was magical, it was marvelous, it was setting the bar very high for holiday experiences European-style. Yet another area where we had up-leveled our experiences and our awareness of bigger and better things available.
What kinds of things have you up-leveled in your life? How have you stepped up in different areas of your life? What are you consciously letting go of in order to make room for newer, better things, experiences, ways of being, doing, having? From things such as pens, furniture, fabrics, foods, jewelry, books, what you watch on screens, how you choose to use your time, dishes, thoughts, habits, colleagues, job/work, friends, behavior, bed linens, towels, lingerie, bags, paper, lotions and self-care products to hotels, villas, restaurants. Treat yourself to some up-leveling at any level this year. One small thing or big leaps and be conscious of what works for you and how it feels and what feels right for you. It’s all part of continuous improvement in all areas of your life. Make an effort to notice your space, your closet, your kitchen and refrigerator. What can you improve to represent who you are or who you want to become?
I’ve decided I probably need to be in Europe the month of December from now on. It feels like home. I’ve always tried to stay off the road and out of the malls and stores between Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Day in America. It feels bad for me and I refuse to get caught up in the self-imposed stress of running around for sales and buying obligatory gifts that you wouldn’t normally be buying. The rushing around and fake blow-up decorations are a big turn-off for me. What feels more right is the old-school way of celebrating the holidays is how it is done in Europe. One more way of stepping it up and stepping out to enjoy what feels best for me. What do you do to feel your best and take care of your soul, your psyche, your body and your mind?