Hotels and spas congregate around these termi, and often there are clinics attached, where Italian clients present a doctor’s prescription for consultations, physical therapy and other interventions.
I have an Italian friend who meets her sister every year for at least a week at one of these establishments. Their relaxing regimen consists of soaking in the pools, massages, mud treatments, conversation and naps. And meals, of course.
I asked what they ate, thinking there might be special spa menus. Looking puzzled, she said, “Whatever we like,” and went on to describe typical Italian meals. Her reply confirmed what I suspected—an Italian spa experience has nothing to do with deprivation.
I’ve never done a full-on spa experience in Italy, or anywhere else, for that matter. But several times I’ve visited San Giovanni Terme Rapolano (south of Siena), with a spectacular view of the hills and town. As a day tripper, I pay 13 euros for access to pools, grounds and a locker.
That’s it for amenities. Everyone brings their own towels, shower soap and terry bathrobe to wear while moving from one pool to another.
After scouting out a lounge chair, I start with the coolest pool. Like some others, I scoop up mud from the pool bottom to smear on my face. Pleasant enough to bask in the sun as it dries, though the mud falls short of producing the smooth and radiant skin promised in online testimonials.
Next comes a slightly warmer pool and finally the warmest one. Don’t even think about swimming, not even a gentle crawl from one spot to another. Instead, everyone sits, leans against the pool sides or glides slowly through the water.
Then back to the lounge chair for reading and crowd watching. Standard attire is a bikini for women and skimpy briefs for men, regardless of age or body type. (Why is it that Italians carry this off better than other nationalities?) I notice, too, that tattoos are rare even among young people.
Time for lunch in the cafeteria-style dining room and terrace. There are panini but I always go for an insalatone—a big salad with lots of yummy ingredients. This time it’s one with grilled eggplant, beets and a generous pile of tuna.
Salads satisfying enough to serve as a piatto unico have become more common over the past few years—perhaps popularized in part by Americans and other foreigners. Italians aren’t keen on putting lots of different ingredients on a plate, but I’m guessing they find a composed salad–which separates components from one other–more acceptable than a big toss.
There’s time for more reading and a doze, and then my relaxing spa day is over. But the salad idea goes home with me, to be recreated (with a few tweaks) as a great mid-summer meal.
Spa Salad with Tuna, Beets, Eggplant and Mozzarella
Serves 4 people
1 small eggplant or 2 medium zucchini, ends trimmed
4 medium fresh beets, ends trimmed
Extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, or to taste
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large or 2 small heads Boston lettuce or other tender greens, torn in bite-sized pieces
1 carrot, peeled and cut in shavings with a vegetable peeler
2 cans (6-1/2 to 7 ounces) good-quality tuna, drained*
2 tomatoes, cut in thin wedges
8 ounces fresh mozzarella ball, cut in cubes, or bocconcini
Shredded basil leaves (optional)
1. Halve the eggplant lengthwise if it’s a fat one. Cut crosswise in ¼-inch slices. Place the eggplant in a colander in the sink and mix with 1 teaspoon salt. Let stand for a half an hour or so, until it softens and gives off some liquid.
2. Meanwhile, place the beets in a saucepan just large enough to hold them in a single layer. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until tender when pierced with a knife. Drain and cool until warm.
3. Combine ½ cup olive oil in a jar with the vinegar, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and shake well.
4. Peel the beets, cut in cubes and place in a small bowl. Moisten with a tablespoon or two of the dressing.
5. Rinse the eggplant slices and lay on paper towels; blot dry. Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet or grill pan (well-seasoned cast iron is best) until almost smoking. Brown the eggplant on both sides. Cool and turn in a bowl with a tablespoon or two of the dressing.
6. Combine the greens with the carrot shavings in a large bowl. Toss with dressing (you may not need it all). Using tongs, heap greens on four dinner plates.
7. Arrange the eggplant, beets, tomato wedges, tuna and mozzarella around and over the greens. Dress mozzarella with a little olive oil plus salt, pepper and the basil leaves (if using).
* If the tuna is canned in water, mix it after draining with a little olive oil and fresh lemon juice.