Italian Lakes (2013)

INSIGHT: SPA HEAVEN

Brescia’s sulphurous thermal waters, known since Roman times, are particularly appealing on cool days.

In keeping with Italian practice, most authentic thermal spas are clinical-looking medical spas that are mired in the past and manned by doctors in scary white coats. However, Aquaria, in the Terme di Sirmione, by Lake Garda, is a glowing exception. The setting is delightful, based around a succession of pools and water jets beside the waterfront.

Italians distinguish between thermal spas (terme) and well-being spas (centri benessere) , where water is not an intrinsic component of the treatment. As a rule, thermal spas are more suitable for specific cures and longer stays, while well-being spas are aesthetically pleasing, pampering, and offer a range of massages, facials and beauty treatments. But in the best thermal spas, such as Sirmione, the distinction is blurred. Swimming in the bubbling, cocooning pools is particularly soporific in winter, when the steam rises off the water and swimmers are transported into a dream-like state reminiscent of an Antonioni movie.

Italians swear by water therapy and the healing properties of specific types of water. Aquaria ( www.termedisirmione.it ) is a seductive, soothing thermal spa where you can idle away a morning slipping from one open-air plunge pool to another or being wrapped in mud, while the trace elements supposedly work on your cellulite. As for the science bit, the mineral-laden waters, rich in sodium chloride and trace elements such as iodine, potassium and magnesium, heated to 36–38°C (96–100°F) gently exfoliate the skin, and induce deep relaxation, but are especially beneficial for anyone suffering from respiratory complaints, vascular problems, rheumatism or arthritis.

Purely well-being treatments can be sampled in the region’s boutique hotels. In Brescia itself, Il Santellone resort ( www.ilsantellone.it ) is a true spa journey, taking in the “Roman route”, from the Roman Baths, Caldarium and Tepidarium, to a serene setting that reuses Romanesque columns and artefacts. Set in a stylishly converted monastic complex, the spa embodies a mood of peace and harmony. But with delicious unguents slathered over one’s naked body, indulging in wine or chocolate therapy can feel like dabbling in the Dark Arts.

Closer to Lake Garda and Lake Iseo, Palazzo Arzaga ( www.palazzoarzaga.it ) combines a golfing break with a spa escape, typically a his-and-hers option; the spa complements the Clarins approach with its own exotic, oriental treatments. The radical oriental-themed spa, Centro Tao ( www.centrotao.it ) in Limone sul Garda, is based on balance, yin and yang, Chinese medicine and oriental spa therapies. Near Lazise, the Hotel Principe di Lazise (www.hotelprincipedilazise.com ) offers the Aquavitae spa, with an array of treatments using the luxe Culti products, and a focus on ‘oriental paths’, inspired by ayurvedic medicine. Cappuccini ( www.cappuccini.it ) is a 16th-century former monastery in Franciacorta with classic spa treatments Italian-style, meaning a “package” including too many (potentially clashing) “cures” at once.

Despite the decadent setting, in Spumante-producing Franciacorta, Henri Chenot’s rigorous French spa is the antidote to pampering. The spa’s philosophy is pretentious, but well intentioned: a potentially life-changing “cure” to put the sinner on the straight and narrow. There is only one obstacle in the path of the Cartesian grand projet . Set in the countryside above Lake Iseo, L’Albereta ( www.albereta.it ) is a renowned gastro-hotel, with both an Italian chef and M. Chenot, the French celebrity spa guru. It seems wilfully cruel that one guru should be proffering gastro fare while the other punishes guests with strict “cures for weight loss, stress and anti-ageing”. Possibly yin and yang, but definitely very French.

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The steaming outdoor pool at Aquaria.

Terme di Sirmione

Milan’s Best Spas

Best spa for glamour and professionalism: Club 10 in the Principe di Savoia is Milan’s grande dame of spas, where you could swim in a rooftop pool before your treatment, and possibly spot Donatella Versace in her favourite hotel (www.dorchestercollection.com ).

Best spa for Japanese expertise: Le Terme di Kyoto at the Enterprise Hotel with panoramic views of Milan that places emphasis on cutting-edge treatments ( www.planetariahotels.com ).

Best spa for stylish shopping: Bulgari Spa , on a private street in the heart of the shopping district, is beautifully designed, exclusive and renowned for facials ( www.bulgarihotels.com ).