Things You Might Not Know About Italian Spa Culture

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I will always remember the time I went to Montecatini, a spa town outside of Florence. I pulled up to this beautiful gate and saw an elegant driveway that led to one of Italy’s famous spas.

Fully expecting hot water thermal springs I was quickly initiated into the non-hot water type of spa. Here it was all about drinking the waters which includes tasting water pulled from taps that looked like beer spigots. You have to taste it to believe that anyone in a sane state would ever believe that this stuff is actually good for you. And so my introduction to the whole spa deal in Italy came full circle.

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I had previously taken the waters at Saturnia and recently at the delightfully trendy Fonteverde Spa in San Casciano. But here is what is interesting about spa culture in Italy – it is paid for by the government! This is because Italians actually believe that taking in the waters (i.e. drinking awful tasting rotten egg water and lounging in sulfur baths) is going to make a huge difference to our health and longevity.

The Italian government allows a week every year to indulge in these ancient spas. Every tax payer has the right for one cycle according to the National Health System. In order to access this, the tax payer needs a prescription by a national health GP. Tax payers between the ages of 6 and 65 are charged a fee of 50 euros for the entire treatment. If your income is less than 36,000 euros, you are entitled to the spa treatment for three euros.

Yes, that’s right, three euros.

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The board and lodging expenses are fully paid by Social Security. It is still not quite as liberal as the “old days” when you could get as many “paid holidays” as you liked within your “nine week vacation allotment.” Also, each spa configures its own scientifically based period for the treatment cycle. Water or mud treatments apparently have a different time period with different spas. So you may be entitled to 14 days according to the specific treatment that you are looking for and who would not look for the 14 day treatment?

All hotels located in a spa location have an agreement with Italy’s Social Security to host the tax payers that have been prescribed spa treatment. This includes 5-star deluxe hotels as well as 3- or 4-star hotels.

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In other words, it is a wonderful paid vacation that even with the chronic economic situation in Italy is still ongoing. Nice!

Recently at San Casciano, I pulled up to this groovy 5-star retreat and saw a classic Italian moment. There was a wealthy looking guy with his younger companion both in their robes, both smoking cigarettes and with a glass of wine in hand. The notion that spas could have a wellness component that involved working out, yoga, and meditation is a just a mind boggling concept that is not understood in Italian culture. Here lounging in a hot bathtub fed by ancient sulfur springs while taking in the sun and taking time out for a quick cigarette is still all the rage.

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So as I was having dinner of pasta with wild boar complemented by the inexpensive and delicious Montepulciano wine, I asked myself, “Who has it right?” I am making my reservations for next year already.

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