October 22


Elements of the Good Life in Northern Italy

By Rick

October 22, 2014

bagni at riolo termeWe could translate the terms benessere (well-being) or buonvivere (good living) literally, but that wouldn’t quite relate their full meanings.  In the Romagna region, it encompasses all the elements of a healthy lifestyle.  Not just a healthy body, but a healthy mind, a healthy community, and a healthy environment.

A few years ago, I stayed at the Grand Hotel Terme Riolo during my visit to the area for La Settimana del Buonvivere.  Right away I began to gain a sense of this holistic approach to the proverbial good life, as it’s defined in Italy.  The lush grounds evoke the heath resorts of past eras, where ladies in modest bathing suits soak in thermal baths, and men drink herbal tonics while reading the paper and discussing politics with their fellow spa-goers. Folks engage in calisthenics, eat simple food, and of course submit to various time-tested natural spa treatments.

This particular resort was built in 1870, but the therapeutic use of the local natural springs dates back to the Romans (the hotel even displays some actual ruins on-site).  The curative waters arise from the Romagna Chalk Vein Regional Park, from the water table at 60 to 80 meters below ground, charged with mineral salts present in the earth’s crust for more than 500 million years.  That sort of time scale makes even the Romans seem like yesterday’s news.

During their journey towards the surface, the waters pass through deposits of limestone, jasper, sandstone, and clay; natural filters which remove all harmful impurities while leaving their biochemical wealth intact. So when they finally reach the surface, the waters are pure and ready for drinking.  Allegedly.

healing waters at terme riolo
I’ll stick to Campari, thank you.

The “healing water” that I was coaxed into consuming was called BRETA; a sulfurous bicarbonate water, extolled as: “Alkaline and earthy—your ally against oxidization and cellular ageing!”  Well, that might be so, but I can tell you that it tasted like a rotten egg omelet, served lukewarm with a side of gas.  I’m sure my liver benefited, as promised, but my appetite was killed for the remainder of the day.  Now that I think about it, maybe that’s the indirect benefit, as an appetite suppressant. If so, it works beautifully.

More enjoyable were the waters that I bathed in—even if the spa employees made me wear a ridiculous bathing cap.  I felt like I should be trying out for the synchronized swimming team for the 2020 Olympics.  The indoor pool area is enormous, with fountains, cascades, underwater lounge chairs, and 42 massage jets of different intensity.  All you are required to do is to float about at your whim and sample the pulsating streams until you find one that alleviates your aches and pains.  My kind of therapy.

The salsobromoiodic waters (don’t ask me to define it) are kept between 32°C and 34°C (90°F and 93°F) year-round, so it’s pleasantly warm, but not hot.  The therapeutic properties stimulate the endocrine system as well as imparting an anti-inflammatory/analgesic effect, and relaxing the skeletal muscles.  When I heard it also worked for hangovers, I didn’t need any more convincing; I dove in head first.

Some of my colleagues opted to follow up the healing waters with a mud wrap.  For myself, I figured I had done enough detoxification for the day and headed to the bar for a Spritz instead.  Good living…it’s all about proper balance.

Image credit: Grand Hotel Terme Riolo
Image credit: Grand Hotel Terme Riolo

Next Stop: The Garden of Officinal Herbs and Forgotten Trees

Sounds like a title of a fantasy novel, no?  But in fact this was one of the most interesting off-beat places that I’ve ever visited in Italy. As the name implies, it’s a garden—but no ordinary garden. Botanists from all over Europe come here to study the medicinal properties of these special plants.  So to the scientific community, this is the Mecca of all things botanic. The locals merely refer to it as the “weed patch,” annoyed by the swarms of diverse insects attracted to the area by the abundant variety of plant life and their flowering nectars.

visiting an herb garden for settimana del buonvivere
Looks like a patch of weeds, but it’s actually a pharmacy.

Speaking of which, there’s a tale about a world famous entomologist who came here once to study a particular insect that he could only find in this exact location. The story goes, he was in his seventies, approaching the end of an illustrious but frustrating university tenure—his whole life spent in search of a mythical and illusive variety of aphid.  In the twilight of his years, he finally discovered it here among the “weed patch.” So one cold winter day he hunkered down in the fields during a pouring thunderstorm, a magnifying glass pressed to his face, desperately attempting to scribble notes on a soggy sketchpad, from which he’d finally pen the epic journal article that would be the defining achievement of his brilliant career. What our guide was reluctant to tell us what that the next day he caught pneumonia and died–even these magic herbs couldn’t save him. The notes were lost, along with his discoveries.

But the climate here is no joke. In fact, it’s one of the reasons for the success of the garden—some plants thrive in the heat, some in the cold. This area is known to be particularly volatile in temperature variation. Even from one side of the hill to the other—only 300 meters apart—it can vary 21 degrees Centigrade (37 degrees Fahrenheit) at any given moment.  How’s does one dress for that environment? Luckily it was a perfect October afternoon for our visit.

We strolled through the gardens and encountered the various species, all apparently jam-packed with medicinal properties. More useful than my Italian was the limited Latin that I picked up from my days as an undergraduate biology major, recalling the terminology of that other language, the language of science and medicine. We learned that the original purpose of this garden was to preserve and catalog these species, but in recent years the focus has turned to incorporating them into a healthy daily diet.

who knew that weeds could make such a salad
Looks like a salad, but it’s actually medicine.

Appropriately, that’s exactly what we did at the end of the tour. Our guide had selected about a dozen plants from the 450 varieties that grow on the property. And with the help of a pinch of salt and a dash of extra virgin olive oil, we used our own hands to create a nutrient rich salad, which we consumed immediately. Yes, it was delicious, but more than that it made me feel good about counteracting out all the salami, prosciutto, and wine that I had been consuming to that point. Of course, I should have eaten about 4 kilos of salad if there was to be any hope in actually balancing the equation of toxins to antioxidants. But it was a healthy start.

To learn more, check out their website, and definitely make a plan to visit if you’re anywhere near the area.  It’s well worth the time, not to mention the health benefits. Then you’ll be able to enjoy your subsequent visit to a prosciuitteria or cantina with impunity.

In fact, I will be writing a future post devoted exclusively to the culinary treasures of this region.  And it will NOT include any weeds or egg-flavored water…as delicious as they might be.

Buon appetito!

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • We stayed in Abano Terme (nearPadua) last May and enjoyed the same kind of ‘spa’ treatment. Pools are lovely and always warm like a hot tub. Also my husband had to wear a cap too. Does the government subsidize these stays as medical treatments? Just wondering if these ‘health’ treatments were part of their socialized medical plans?

    • Sharon, I asked the same question when I was there. They told me, yes, the national healthcare system will pay for a spa stay once a year IF it is prescribed by a medical doctor for a specific ailment. Ex. gout, phlebitis,(In other words, they won’t pay for you to go there just to relax and de-stress.)

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