Three recently opened hotels redefine the Italian spa.
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New Tuscan Trio
By Gary Walther
May / June 2008
Photograph by Tim Clinch
The hydrotherapy pool at Castello del Nero
The Italian word for "well-being" is benessere. I'm surfing a nice smooth curl of it when I leave the restaurant La Grotta, just outside Montepulciano, on a November afternoon suffused with a golden chill. The rabbit salad with grapefruit, avocado, and a sheen of balsamic vinegar had been divine—and so contemporary that I could have been in Santa Monica. The pici with duck sauce and lentils (pure comfort food) unequivocally declared that I could be only in Tuscany: Pici is one of the region's most venerable forms of pasta. And the wine, a 2004 Boscarelli Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, went marvelously with it, even though the pinch of Cabernet it contained and the barrique aging it had undergone showed that the winery was right up to date.
La Grotta, frankly, had been a detour on a trip intended to sample a new breed of spa that has sprung up in Italy, the boutique experience spa. But the delectable oscillation between culinary past and culinary present I enjoyed at the restaurant was not unlike the experience I would have at the three hotel spas, L'Andana, down on the Tuscan coast near Grosseto, and Castello del Nero and Villa Mangiacane, both just south of Florence.
All three wrap you in them: They occupy buildings of historical significance that their owners have gone to great lengths to restore. Indeed, it took nearly as long (two years) to prepare the paperwork required to bring back Castello del Nero, built in the 12th century, as it did to execute the actual reconstruction (three years). The austerely grand Villa Mangiacane, a derelict only eight years ago, dates from the 16th century, and the adolescent of the group, L'Andana, was built in 1800 as a hunting lodge for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Savoring historical ambience is one of the great pleasures of staying at all three.
But when it comes to spa, this trio is decidedly now. None of them has much truck with Italy's dominant spa tradition, the terme, or hot mineral spring. The Italian peninsula is studded with terme, a product of the volcanic ferment belowground. Terme are part resort and part clinic—some have considerable medical staffs—where the daily round involves bathing up to five times, as well as taking treatments for specific ailments. These three spas, in contrast, are international in outlook—two, at L'Andana and Castello del Nero, were developed by Espa, the leading practitioner of this genre—and recreational rather than medicinal. They're also boutique size, nicely mortised into their hotels but not places in which you could spend half a day.
These three hotels share one other striking characteristic: All were developed by foreigners smitten with Tuscany. Castello del Nero is the passion of American Robert Tratta, a time-share developer who lives in London. Villa Mangiacane is owned by South African businessman Glynn Cohen. L'Andana is co-owned by an Italian family and Frenchman Alain Ducasse, who became the first chef to hold three Michelin stars at two restaurants simultaneously before turning to hotel development.
L'Andana takes you into the "other Tuscany," the Maremma, the province's coastal plain and hills running north from Grosseto. This was once the heart of the Etruscan Empire, but it subsequently lapsed into a long twilight, known for cattle breeding, poverty, malarial marshes, and tightly carpentered hill towns. The Renaissance never got here. Today, having been left behind by history, it has that by-product of neglect, authenticity.
L'Andana lies in a dead-flat plain cross-stitched with dikes and drainage canals and backed by an amphitheater of forested hills. The hotel's name means "allée" and refers to the property's grandest aspect, a half-mile-long parade of alternating cypress and umbrella pines. It's so formal and imposing that you feel the urge to salute while traversing it the first time.