Enjoy a little me-time in Italy because it’s okay to focus on yourself sometimes. Photo / Getty Images
Arrivederci bambinos, mama’s going on holiday and she’s not taking you. Enjoy a little me-time, because it’s okay to focus on yourself sometimes, writes Dianne Bortoletto
The modern definition of luxury means time, space and no obligations whatsoever. That’s also the luxury of solo travel, yet I rarely do it because I also happen to like travelling with my family.
That said, I could predict that too much of a good thing, like travelling to the major tourist sights in Italy with three generations of women in my family, for three weeks, would mean I’d be yearning for some alone time to decompress after they depart.
For this seasoned traveller, it still required a thesis amount of research to find the perfect place for me to relax, possibly because I had a list of non-negotiable criteria. I wanted to be in a tranquil town, not a bustling city. It had to be accessible by train and be convenient to the destination I was leaving, Modena in Emilia Romagna, and my next destination, Grosseto in Tuscany. A pretty place with enough for me to see and do, and close enough to other towns without the need to hire a car. The accommodation had to have an element of luxury or be totally luxurious. And most importantly, it had to be away from hordes of tourists.
On the negotiable criteria list, perhaps there’d be a nearby cooking class, use of bicycles or a spa for a massage and facial. And although I was willing to splurge, ideally somewhere I could afford without the need to sell a kidney. It needn’t be grandiose, gold-gilded, with fussy waiters in bow ties, no, no, no. Just a place that felt welcoming, beautiful, comfortable and luxe.
I had booked and cancelled three other resorts in Tuscany and one near Rome before I found the perfect luxury spa hotel off the beaten path in Emilia Romagna.
Two hours by train from Modena, Helvetia Hotel and Thermal Spa is just a five-minute walk from the train station in a small village called Porretta Terme. An hour by train from Bologna, the unassuming town is nestled among the Apennine Mountains and surrounded by trees.
As the name of the hotel suggests, Helvetia Hotel and Thermal Spa has two thermal pools, two saunas, a steam room, a day spa for treatments and a Jacuzzi and solarium on the roof terrace. One sauna is housed inside an old World War II air raid bunker.
The thermal baths of Porretta were discovered two thousand years ago. Legend says that a sick ox, unable to pull the plough, was set free by his owner. The ox drank from a thermal spring and returned healed and strong, which led to the discovery of the healing properties of the waters, and the bovine becoming the emblem of Porretta Terme.
“Terme” translates to spa, hot springs, and bath. I didn’t know until I arrived at Porretta Terme that its springs are considered some of the best sulphurous and salso-bromo-iodine thermal waters in the world. The waters are fed by 12 thermal springs containing 28 dissolved salts and minerals said to cure 26 diseases in a natural way.
During the Renaissance and the 19th and 20th centuries, nobility, artists and the wealthy would visit Porretta Terme in droves. The popularity of the town may have crumbled but stunning medieval architecture still stands.
Situated along the Reno River with a population of about 4700, Porretta Terme has a pretty little centre with surprisingly grand buildings. Consisting of just a couple of narrow streets and a piazza, it’s big enough to have a choice of bars, shops and restaurants but small enough for everything to fall within a one-kilometre radius. I counted four gelaterie during my walks, more than enough options for my four-night stay.
When I arrived at Helvetia Hotel, I was the only native English-speaking guest, which lasted a couple of days until two American women arrived accompanied by their Italian friends. One of the Americans who has lived in Florence for twelve years had never heard of Porretta Terme. When she asked me how I found it, I just shrugged and said, “Research” (and I tried not to look as smug as I felt).
I checked in and chilled out. All-inclusive, I didn’t have to think, negotiate busy streets, or make decisions on where to eat or where to go. It was the perfect base for four days of rest and rejuvenation. Reasonable too at a cost of €167 ($293) per night, full board. And that’s after I upgraded my room from the 20sq m “superior” to the 28sq m “deluxe”, well worth the extra €15 extra per night.
“Operation Decompression” had commenced. Immediately, I changed into my swimsuit, wrapped the white robe around me, slid on the provided jandals and went straight to the pools. On that Monday afternoon, I floated in the thermal waters and detoxed in the 40-degree bio-sauna, the 80-degree Finnish sauna, and the 45-degree steam Hammam, all by myself.
My stay included a complimentary wellness treatment. I opted for the classical Swedish massage and added a biotec radiance renew facial, both heavenly.
On the roof terrace, there was not a German-towel-reserved sun lounger in sight. I lay blissfully basking under the Emilia Romagna sun. I sank into the Jacuzzi, marvelling at the mountainous views, rolling across the jets as they hit the pressure points around my neck and shoulders. And I didn’t have to share the Jacuzzi with a soul.
Speaking of soul, Porretta Terme does have a quirky side. There’s a mural trail featuring 13 large artworks dedicated to soul music, which seemed a little out of place until I learned that for the past 35 years, the tiny town has hosted some of the biggest names in soul music at its annual Soul Music Festival held each July.
However, the one thing about solo travel I struggle to embrace is having dinner alone. Especially in Italy where breaking bread with loved ones around a table is part of the nation’s DNA. At the hotel restaurant, I needn’t have worried. Appropriate restaurant attire for breakfast and lunch is the supplied fluffy robe. Clothes were required for dinner, and I was pleased to see several others sitting at a table for one. Some looked like hikers and adventurers taking advantage of nature trails and mountain biking the area is known for, and others were like me, just looking for a place to relax.
The full board options were excellent. Focussed on wellness, the hotel restaurant offered healthy options as well as traditional Italian dishes. Drinks weren’t included, but after three weeks of drinking my body weight in Aperol spritz, a few days sans alcohol was a welcome reprieve.
Each night before dinner, I climbed up to my favourite place, the roof terrace, to watch the changing colours of the sky as the sun set behind the Tuscan-Emilian Apennine mountains.
This serene slice of Italy was the forgotten spa town of my dreams. If my research to find the perfect place to pamper myself was for a thesis, I’d award myself top marks.
For more things to see and do in Italy, and more ways to relax, visit italia.it/en