The Eagle Soars in Tuscany at the Adler Thermae Spa Resort
What mystery lies in a thermal spring? Who first spotted a swirl of vapor coming from a natural pool whose source lies buried deep in the earth? Who discovered bathing in such waters can alleviate ailments, restore balance, even soothe an aching heart? Such were our thoughts on a chilly, drizzly afternoon as we bobbed along a vast and bubbly waterway, past eerie alcoves of gray rock and steamy clouds of mist. Moments before, we had emerged through sliding glass doors that magically parted when we floated by in an adjacent indoor pool. The water’s temperature, inside and out, was the same, a constant 98 degrees Fahrenheit.
It was the end of our first day at the Adler Thermae Spa Resort, a five-star hotel and wellness resort in the Tuscan valley of Orcia, which, since opening four years ago, has enjoyed a nearly continuous state of full occupancy. Many factors (as we would swiftly come to see) account for its success, not least among them thermal baths, which are fed from a hot spring that runs beneath the little village of Bagno Vignoni up the hill on the other side of the road.
The healing powers of these waters have been known for eons. Etruscans and Romans from the time of the Empire bathed in it. Pilgrims traveling from Canterbury to Rome regularly stopped along the way. Alexander the Great, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Charlemagne, a host of popes took the waters at Bagno Vignoni. So did Saint Catherine, who, as a young girl, in the late 14th century, came to the village from her home in nearby Siena along with her mother, who hoped to talk her strong-willed daughter out of entering a nunnery. And in the last year of the 20th century, when Klaus Sanoner’s doctor suggested thermal waters to help alleviate a back problem, he, too, came to Bagno Vignoni.
Klaus Sanoner is from a long line of hoteliers. With his brother Andreas and mother Elly, he owns and operates the storied Hotel Adler Wellness and Sport Resort in the Dolomites, close to the Austrian border. Now, as a guest in the local hotel at Bagno Vignoni, he learned that a piece of land just a short distance from the village had been put up for sale. He walked down the path that led to the site. The rolling Tuscan countryside revealed itself to him in all its delicate loveliness, and he thought that if the waters from the thermal spring were diverted downhill, how ideal the setting would be for a spa resort. The land was owned by a Florentine count. Sanoner met him; the two men hit it off. The count said there is a travertine cave and quarry on the property. If you want to buy the land, you must agree to keep it. Sanoner agreed.
In 1999, work began. Five years later, a 21st century resort was standing on the ancient site, and the Adler Thermae Spa and Wellness Resort was welcoming its first guests.
“It was an instant success,” says Claudia Zancolli, who has been the Adler’s public relations director for the past six months. We are sitting with Claudia, a petite and lively brunette, in the hotel’s expansive lounge, drinking invigorating herbal tea, trying to resist a second slice of sublime almond cake, and looking through a wall of French doors. On the other side, a broad terrace overlooks an undulating landscape. In the distance, a line of perfectly spaced cypress trees mark the horizon. The vision is decidedly, exquisitely, Tuscan. But within, the spaciousness, clean straight lines, and unadorned modern furnishings are more suggestive of a Scandinavian aesthetic. The feeling is one of a comfortable lodge with a wood-burning fireplace in the adjacent library, honey-colored horizontal wood panels on the walls, floors of gleaming wood and rugged stone, streamlined leather sofas and armchairs in shades of butterscotch, crimson and cream.
When we had checked in a few hours earlier, we were given a schedule of activities, a newsletter documenting the week’s events, a booklet describing beauty and massage treatments, and a map that detailed the way to steam baths, saunas, relaxation rooms, and gymnastic areas. It seemed a lot to digest. But now as Claudia describes the resort’s design and intent, we begin to get our bearings. We realize we are starting to do what guests at the Adler are supposed to do — relax.
“Thermal spas used to be geared to the curative,” she tells us. “But over the past 20 years, the concept has changed so that you come to a place like this, not to be cured of some malady, but for a holiday. From what I understand, the spa experience in the United States is different; it is goal oriented. You make a diet and a fitness plan. But this is a place for vacation. You don’t come here to suffer. You come here to maintain health, to get energy by indulging in treatments that appeal to you. But you also eat good food, go around the area for wine tastings and to see the sites of the region. Your goal is to make yourself feel good.”
She continues, “There used to be a spa not far from here. The owner was a Californian. People went there because they could not follow a diet on their own. They had to be awakened at 6 in the morning to jog. They couldn’t have coffee; they couldn’t have bread. I don’t have anything against that. But this is something entirely different.”
Certainly the scene before us was something entirely different from anything we’d ever seen. Except for Claudia (who was dressed in the navy blue suit uniform of the front office professional), we were the only people wearing street clothes. The rest were in white terrycloth bathrobes — men and women, children, too, people of all ages and all sizes. Yet before the day was out, we had caught on. And for a good part of the rest of our stay, we were part of the bath-robed crowd.
“There is no pressure to be dressed up,” Claudia had told us. “The atmosphere is home-like, high quality, but comfortable.” Accordingly, most guests spend their days going from one activity to the next with little care for dress, aside from what a particular activity might call for: bathing suit, outdoor sportswear, workout outfit, and — more often than not – the ubiquitous bathrobe.
The sheer choice of activities and treatments, within the spa and throughout the glorious grounds, is staggering: guided walks; trekking and biking on pristine paths and through shaded woodlands; basketball; badminton; volleyball; soccer; tennis on expansive sports grounds; indoor and outdoor yoga; tai chi; Pilates; Zen stretching; gymnastics; cardio power and training; swimming in the stunning pool that branches out from the thermal waters; bathing in the thermal waters; body contour treatments; massages; mud applications; eighteen different kinds of facials; manicures and pedicures; hair treatments and hair styling; a steam sauna with Tuscan herbs; an Etruscan sauna with salt steam; an Etruscan brine steam bath; an underground salt bath; a Finnish sauna across a little bridge; fifteen kinds of Oriental massages, including Watsu, which is administered while floating in a pool; and ten Ayurveda treatments. (After studying the ancient holistic healing system in India and completing her education in Munich, Annemarie Sanoner, sister of Klaus and Andreas, initiated and oversees an Ayurveda program at both Adler hotels.)
“Ayurveda has a mystical quality,” said Minnie Romano, leader of the spa’s team of more than twenty trained therapists. “The therapists who perform these treatments return to India every winter to enhance their knowledge. They try to understand the person they are working on, the mental situation at the moment.” Minnie, who looks like she stepped out of a Giotto painting, was standing behind a large U-shaped desk along with other therapists attending to bath-robed guests waiting to make or review appointments. Others were relaxing in the adjacent lounging area or strolling down the hall to the steam bath wing, each a small chamber of quiet and mystery. It was a typical afternoon scene at the Adler.
She continued, “We don’t regard our clients as customers; they are our guests, and a lot of them are repeat guests. Many come three or four times a year. We develop a relationship with them, keep records of what they like. At the same time, we get ideas for other treatments and activities that would be good for them. It’s part of our job to advise our clients, to give them instructions.”
“The service and quality is uppermost here,” says general manager Anton Pichler. “The therapists are very highly selected. There is a staff of 120 people for 210 to 220 guests. So there is that close ratio.”
The youthful, Austrian-born general manager had worked in spas in Switzerland for five years before moving on to the Adler. “When I first came here, when I saw the pool area and the lovely gardens — it was wow! I thought it was a dream. You can’t see the property from the road, but from all the rooms of the hotel, you have these beautiful vistas of the countryside. It’s a magical landscape. The hotel looks like it’s always been there: the sandstone edifice, the tiled roof — like a Tuscan villa. Every door you open is a delight to the senses.”
Anton Pichler had joined us for a glass of wine in the travertine cave which had been incorporated into the hotel proper and which now serves as a wine bar and cellar where over a thousand bottles are stored. The acclaimed Brunello, made from the Sangiovese grape that for centuries has been grown in the nearby Montalcino region, is the most desirable. With its fruity aromas and flavors of blackberry and cherry, it can easily become a favorite and was our choice with dinner each night of our stay.
Breakfast and dinner are part of the Adler experience (with lunch available for an extra charge) in the arcaded dining room which seats 200. The large space is made intimate by stone archways and a raised level along the perimeter lined with great windows. On the many warm and pleasant days and nights, the enormous skylight which covers the central portion of ceiling is retracted, and one has the illusion of dining in a Tuscan garden.
It is through the dinner hours that Claudia’s comment about the Adler spa resort being a place for holiday becomes clear. The crowd is primarily Italian and multigenerational, with many families and children of all ages (the hotel also offers a full children’s program that includes meals). And while the daytime might be devoted to the serious pursuit of (alternately) fitness and relaxation, nighttime is the time to let loose and enjoy. Concurrently, while bathrobe attire might be acceptable throughout the day, everyone dresses for dinner.
Anyone who has been to the “The Borscht Circuit” (the one-time popular resort region that was the setting for the film “Dirty Dancing“) will be jolted by a bolt of déjà vu upon entering the Adler dining room — and not just because of its size. “People don’t come here to be put on a diet. They come here to eat, and they eat a lot!” Claudia had said, and the six-course dinner menu with at least four choices in each category reflects such an ethos. Only instead of matzoh ball soup, the constant is pasta – freshly made, and in all its splendid manifestations. And in the place of an Irving Cohen, legendary maitre d’ of the legendary Concord Hotel, there’s the charismatic Aldo Lorenzo, recently arrived from a resort in the Algarve.
Like Irving Cohen, Aldo faces the challenge of seating demanding guests at a table that will make them happy. He also has to convince some non-Italian diners that the menu is for real. When our server told us that what appeared to be a multi-course tasting menu was actually a choice of full-size portions, we were certain something was lost in translation — until Aldo assured us indeed, that was the case. Moreover, the menu changes every night.
At a time when the tourism industry is dominated by corporate ownership and operation, a family-run resort is somewhat of an anomaly. It lends the Adler a distinctive sensibility, a feel of the personal. Although the Sanoners continue to live in the Dolomites near their historic property, Klaus and Andreas are frequently at the Tuscan resort; Elly Sanoner comes some four or five weeks during the year “for a rest,” as she put it.
Our visit coincided with Mrs. Sanoner’s. We met her on our way to the salad bar, passing a table where two elegant, elderly ladies were seated. They smiled, we struck up a conversation. They were Mrs. Sanoner and her sister. Mrs. Sanoner asked how we liked the food. It was only after dinner when we met them for coffee in the lounge that we learned who they were. “I am 85 years old and I’m still working at our hotel in the Dolomites,” Elly Sanoner told us. “It has been in my husband’s family for a long time — he was the seventh generation. When I married him, I had not time to think about how to handle a hotel. I just got into it. Now, 56 years later, I am still working in it and loving it.”
Adler Thermae Toscana
I-53027 Bagno Vignoni
San Quirico d’Orcia (Siena), Tuscany, Italy
Tel. +39 0577 889 000
Fax +39 0577 889 999
Photographs by Harvey Frommer
More on the “Borscht Circuit at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/catskills.htm
(“It Happened in the Catskills” by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer)