Tuscany: a spa too far?

by Clare.Jones

Tuscany might be better known for its food, wine and summer villas - but it's also home to a unique underground spa experience

Shuffling down stone carved steps wrapped in a pristine white robe whilst dodging stalagmites and stalactites might not sound like your run-of-the-mill spa experience. The Grotto Giusti di Monsummano, located in the heart of Tuscany, definitely offers a slightly more adventurous approach to your wellbeing.
Proclaimed as the ‘eighth wonder in the world' by the composer Giuseppe Verdi, this cave grotto extends for 200 metres underground. It was first discovered in 1849 by labourers working on the Giusti family house. After finding hot vapours rising from the soil, they explored a little further, only to discover an extraordinary cave system complete with a pond of warm water permeating the whole grotto with humid vapour.
Early explorers reported feeling strangely better after spending time in the grotto. Now the house provides luxurious accommodation and the cave has become an unusual underground spa, its natural steam properties attracting sufferers with ailments such as arthritis and rheumatism.
Crisp lawns and an elegant façade lead to the main reception and everything looks as you might expect for a spa resort hotel that is included in the prestigious list of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. There’s leisurely lounging in the sun on offer beside the thermal pools, whilst in private treatment rooms you can rub, scrub and pummel your worries away. But it’s what lies below that is really interesting.
Following a shady carved corridor, we started the descent, our eyes adjusting to the dimming light. An attendant relieved us of our gowns and we stepped out in our swimwear, heading deeper into the cavern, with only a towel for armoury. Three zones allow you to acclimatise to this subterranean hothouse as you move from heaven, purgatory and on to hell, where the temperature sits at a pretty sticky 34 degrees.
Wooden slatted chairs and loungers have been neatly assembled in the various caves, allowing you to stretch out, unwind and drip. There’s a humidity level of a near constant 100 per cent, allowing all those bad toxins in you to make their escape. Perspiring quite so heavily amongst strangers somehow didn’t seem so bad. Just close your eyes and think of the good it’s doing you.
Perhaps slightly less enjoyable is the post-grotto treatment. After about 60 minutes, you will emerge and be guided to the hydro-massage. After all that relaxing downstairs you can be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking you are now about to embark on a rather more serene aqua encounter, with perhaps the odd floating candle or two. Instead, I was escorted into a plain concrete room and positioned in front of a firing squad. A steely attendant, armed with an industrial hose and a definite sadistic glint of pleasure in her eye, let rip, blasting me head to foot in a piercing, pummelling spray of water.
The idea of this form of hydrotherapy is to utilise the pressure of the water to work out the tension in your muscles and to increase circulation after all that time spent lolling lazily in the grotto. That might well be the idea, but I emerged a drowned rat, strands of hair splattered across my face, coughing and wheezing and just ever so slightly terrified by my stoic sprayer. Maybe this part was a spa too far!
Getting there
Ryanair flies to both Florence (40km away) and Pisa (55km away).


Clare Jones is a travel writer and photographer who loves a good adventure and has been lucky enough to make this her work travelling across the globe for a variety of magazines and newspapers. She is co-author and photographer of the international best-selling BBC books Unforgettable Things to do before you die, Unforgettable Journeys to take before you die and the recently published Unforgettable Walks to take before you die. She has also co-authored the AA titles, Extreme Places and the flagship Key Guide to Spain. She has been on assignment in over 50 countries and five continents exploring them on foot, by kayak, under sail, by mountain bike as well as skiing and climbing. One of her most testing adventures was a three-month sea-kayaking expedition from Vancouver to Alaska, as part of the first British all-female team to undertake this 1000-mile epic journey. She is a Winston Churchill Fellow and was honoured with the Mike Jones Award for accomplishing this journey. She is also sponsored by Salomon. Her work has been featured by a variety of publications, including the Sunday Telegraph, The Times, Mail on Sunday, The Scotsman, and The Herald, USA Today, Geographical, Health & Fitness and Traveller. Clare is also an assistant television producer and has worked on several BBC documentaries.