Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.

BLOG

Photo by Luciano Zironi
2 comments

Friendship: Just Add Water (Hot Spring Water, That Is)

Welcome this month’s edition of the Italy Blogging Roundtable on the theme of “friendship”! Take a look at posts by Georgette JupeJessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

There’s no getting around it. It has been a really tough couple of months at our house. One of those stretches marked by suffering and death, disappointment and heartbreak. One of those stretches that reminds you that sure, you can think positive and manifest and believe that things will turn out for the best as much as your New Age heart desires, but sometimes things don’t go the way you want. Sometimes you have to walk away from a dream. Sometimes crappy things happen to good people.

Photo by Luciano Zironi

It has been one of those stretches during which our dinnertime routine of holding hands and listing three things we are grateful for was punctuated by long silences, as my sons and I stared at each other through our haze of ennui and tried to remember how lucky we are. “Well, the weather is nice today, I guess,” one of us would finally venture, and we would all nod to reassure ourselves that even if our light was dimming, the sun continued to shine.

Which is why when genuinely wonderful things did happen, they took on the sheen of a miracle. My sons had saved up to buy a GoPro camera, sealed the deal for a used one online, and were then stiffed out of their savings when the seller absconded with their payment. Not a week later, they received a card stuffed with cash signed by over a dozen friends from across the globe (including a Roundtabler whom I will not mention by name – ahem – Georgette) who heard about their plight and banded together to help them out. The message on the card read, “The best revenge…friends!”, which I loved for the clean truth of it. When the universe seems to be plotting against you, it’s your friends who thwart its nefarious plans, driving an hour to bring you a home-cooked meal, parachuting in for a girlfriends’ weekend, sending packages of Reese’s peanut butter cups from across the Atlantic, and giving you a life raft to cling on every single evening at the dinner table when listing things to be grateful for.

Photo by Luciano Zironi

It is thanks to two friends that I finally discovered the revengeful bliss to be found at the hot springs in the Tuscan hamlet of Bagno Vignoni. Rountabler Jessica had sent a spa gift certificate to me and our mutual friend Linda of The Beehive in Rome A YEAR AGO, and sundry scheduling problems and lazy-assery had kept me from going until Linda finally cracked the whip and reminded me the expiration date for vouchers was nigh. So I took a break from life for a day and spent it instead stewing in the warm thermal baths at Hotel Le Terme, sweet sweet revenge against the tempest-tossed first months of 2017.

 

Hot Springs

 

Being a Midwesterner, the idea of hot springs was completely new to me when I moved to Italy, and there are very few (and somewhat underwhelming) in Umbria, so it took me years before I ventured into Tuscany and became an immediate convert. Italians, on the other hand, have been “taking the waters” since Roman times, and thermal spring treatments are considered a therapeutic necessity, so much so that the national healthcare system covers annual visits. The mineral waters in natural hot springs are considered beneficial for everything from the respiratory system to joint pain, but many spas tout the curative effects of their waters for specific ailments.

Tuscany is famous for its many hot springs (though you can find them from Piedmont to Ischia), some of which are in open countryside where you can bathe for free, but I much prefer to spend a day in a spa facility where there are a full range of services. Generally, the entrance fee for the most basic thermal baths includes access to changing rooms and showers, lockers for your personal belongings, at least one thermal pool for soaking, a snack bar, and a staff of massage and physical therapists offering treatments that must be reserved ahead of time and paid for separately. You will have to bring your own bathing suit, towel, robe, and flip-flops, and you do not need to book ahead of time.

Photo by Luciano Zironi

The more luxurious spas, including Hotel Le Terme in Bagno Vignoni, offer higher-end facilities and services, including gourmet restaurants, a wider range of massages and treatments, numerous thermal pools with varying temperatures, waterfalls and massage jets, robes and flip-flops, and manicured gardens to relax in. Many of these are part of a larger hotel complex, so you can book an overnight stay and a multi-day pass into the adjacent spa.

I had assumed that thermal spas were an exorbitant indulgence, and populated only by the rich and beautiful. Instead, most are relatively inexpensive in Italy – even the most luxurious and well-known offer half-day passes between about €35 and €50 per person – so are a modest splurge, once you factor in the cost of an extra massage or meal. And because thermal treatments are considered therapeutic in Italy, you will find fellow bathers can include anyone from young children there for a day with their families to ward off chest colds to senior citizens soaking away their aches and pains…so you don’t have to worry about feeling out of place if you don’t have a perfectly toned and tanned physique. Or if your legs haven’t seen a razor for the better part of the winter. Or you haven’t managed to shop for a new bathing suit in so long that the one you own gets all saggy-ass when it’s wet. Not that I would have personal experience with any of these situations.

 

Bagno Vignoni

 

This postcard-perfect hamlet in the Val d’Orcia isn’t the closest hot springs to Assisi (our go-to are the decidedly less lovely but very kid-friendly springs in Rapolano…and yes, my kids are Italian at heart, so often request a day at the hot springs like little mini-Roman emperors), so I had never made it there. Honestly, the long drive was one of the reasons I had put off cashing in Jessica’s lovely gift certificate, but I discovered that the route is so lovely that it flew by. I had left with time to spare, so took the highway 75 north past Lake Trasimeno, but then left it behind and exited on the panoramic SP 327, a breathtakingly gorgeous route through the iconic Tuscan countryside of the Val d’Orcia. After a little less than an hour of driving through rolling hills and thick oak woods past the pretty hill towns of Montepulciano, Pienza, and San Quirico d’Orcia, I parked at the free (though slightly hidden) lot outside the walls of Bagno Vignoni and got ready for some serious soaking and girl talk.

Photo by Luciano Zironi

Bagno Vignoni has been known for its hot springs since Roman times, and thermal baths are pretty much the only thing going on in this tiny and picturesque hamlet. In lieu of a main square, there is a large rectangular pool of thermal waters (which is no longer used for bathing), around which are a number of quaint restaurants with outdoor tables, a few tasteful Tuscan souvenir shops, and – oddly – one of the best tiny bookstores I’ve ever visited in Italy. In the valley beneath the town, you can soak for free in the Parco dei Mulini springs, but if you want to channel the elegance of illustrious visitors to Bagno Vignoni over the centuries like Pope Pius II and Lorenzo the Magnificent, book in at one of the spas in and around town.

hotel le terme bagno vignoni

We were there on a blustery, rainy day at the end of April, so the covered pools and internal steam room and bath at Hotel Le Terme were perfect for us. Otherwise, the nearby Hotel Posta Marcucci has recently renovated their spa, which now includes a large outdoor pool and surrounding garden overlooking the Val d’Orcia countryside. For a real treat, book in at the five-star Adler Resort just outside of town, one of the most famous spas in Tuscany.

librorcia bagno vignoni

After our morning soaking and chatting, we took a walk around the center – which is so tiny that in five minutes you have seen it all – and stopped for a delicious Tuscan lunch at Il Loggiato just below the Librorcia bookstore. And suddenly it was afternoon, time to head home and pick up where I left off, but this time feeling a hundred kilos lighter, feeling pampered, feeling loved. Feeling the sweet satisfaction of the best revenge…friends!

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

puppy in umbria
3 comments

Of Dogs and Death

Yesterday morning, I sat on a hillside with the soft spring breeze on my back and watched my 15 year-old son dig a grave for his dog.

When I had seen him throw the pick and shovel over his shoulder and trudge towards the woods, I had begged him to let me come and help. “No, I want to do this alone,” he had said, and set his shoulders as only a teenager can do. “Then let me just keep you company so you won’t be alone,” I had insisted. So there I sat, a few meters away, and watched him wrestle with buried field stones and tree roots as he hacked at the hard earth beneath a towering oak, pausing occasionally to wipe at his eyes until, finally, he let the tears run in two steady streams down his cheeks and drip onto the newly turned soil.

I waited in silence on the slope above, just far enough to respect his heartbreak and just close enough to share it. The sun rose directly above as a trio of yellow ladybugs made their way onto my knee. I carefully rounded them up in my palm to make a wish: “Let him never feel pain. Let him never feel pain. Let him never feel pain.” They scattered into the wind, their magical powers no match for the weight of my son’s grief.

IMG-20170401-WA0004

 

——————————–

I remember the day I watched my sons die. How I stood rooted to the ground as their bodies were thrown high into the air, two rag doll shapes silhouetted against the sun, and swore I would never let them suffer again.

“Please!” they had begged me that hot August afternoon in Puglia. We had spent the day at a zoo-slash-amusement park, an ethically questionable form of outdoor entertainment that my sons had loved with an enthusiasm only ethically questionable entertainment seems to evoke in pre-teen boys. “Please let us ride the ‘Jet Figther’!” I was skeptical, pausing in the shadow of this hulking beast of loop-the-loop coaster. How rigorous could the safety standards possibly be when they hadn’t even managed to spell the name of the ride right? And, in all honesty, my younger son met the minimum height requirement only because he was badly in need of a haircut.

But I relented, and they ran off merrily with ticket money clutched tight in their fists. I watched from below as their car ran back and forth along the track, circling higher and higher, until it finally made the entire loop and shot off the rails at the other end, throwing passengers helter-skelter into the sky. The riders’ screams filled the air and I screwed my eyes shut, amazed at how casually I had sent my sons to their death. Me, who had spent their entire lives shielding them from pain. Me, who had slept on the couch for five years to delay the inevitable breakup of our family. Me, who had forced their father to drag our resident badger from his final resting place in the middle of our country highway and hide him in the tall weeds so they would never know about his sad end. Me, who had made sure that despite an economic crisis and failed business, music lessons and sport teams and pizza nights continued as if they world was and would always be a secure and predictable place.

happy dog

My reverie was interrupted by the sound of thundering footsteps, as my sons ran to me, breathless with excitement and pride. “Did you see us, Mamma?” they asked, “Did you see how brave we were? We didn’t scream even once. The grown ups all screamed and screamed, but we weren’t scared at all!” They jumped up and down and threw their arms around my waist, surprised and emboldened by their own courage. “Can we go again, Mamma, please?” I looked down at the tiny half-moon marks my nails had left in my palms from having kept my fists clenched so tightly during their ride. “Yes,” I said. “Of course.”

And that’s what it is, this beautiful and terrifying adventure of parenting. That’s the choice we have to make, every single day. We can send our children out into the dangerous world, letting them risk body and heart and mind, and find that they are stronger and bolder then we – and even they – ever expected. Or, we can distract them with cotton candy and merry-go-rounds, and never know what people they could have been or what lives they could have led.

—————————————-

We buried him that afternoon, my sons and I. We stood by his grave piled high with unearthed fieldstones and cried, my sons for the dog they had loved and lost and I for all the loving and losing I knew they would encounter over the course of their lives. All the risk and disappointment. All the sorrow. I cried because I knew I had to send them there, to that dangerous roller coaster that could derail in an instant, and let them sail up into the sky, two bold and fearless shapes silhouetted against the sun. Not to fall, but to fly.

 

our last photo

 

This post is a late addition to the Italy Blogging Roundtable, which focused on pets this month. It was just too soon to post before today. It may still be too soon, but these are my thoughts. Take a look at posts by Georgette JupeJessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) 

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

Pages:1234567...114»