Sharp Monica

An honest voice in Italian paradise.

Pistoia: Grotta Giusta

Jason’s colleague, Antonella, supports the many cultural sidetrips that his students enjoy during their time at GIF (Gonzaga in Florence).

Antonella is from the area, and is a well-humored and very fit woman older and wiser than I, but not old enough to be my mother. She has mentioned many times that she is, as am I, an aficionado of le terme – the hot springs found throughout Italy, up and down the spine of the Apennines. There was much back and forth, and finally we settled on February 27, weeks in advance.

When the day came, both kids were home sick from school. Fortunately, our regular sitter Chanusha was able to be on scene much earlier.

I met Antonella in Piazza Beccaria on the sunny midmorning, and we set off for Grotta Giusti, in Monsummano Terme. Our destination is in the province of Pistoia, about 40 km north of Firenze, but at seemingly much greater distance as we snaked our way through the A1 autostrada and watched seemingly endless stretches of fields and low hills, then higher hills, roll out before us.

We arrived after an our of nonstop chatter about all and sundry, in large part Antonella explaining The Italian Woman or The Italian Mamma, and my observations in first rushing, then faltering, Italian.

At the terme there was inexplicably a line of 50 or 60 people in front of us. It turned out the terme had been closed for the preceding week for regular maintenance. “It is the convenzionati,” Antonella stage whispered, referring to the Italians lucky enough to get doctor’s prescriptions to go to the spa for a day. (I am not kidding – this is a thing. NHS, indeed.) A woman in front of us turned around and said, “I am not a convenzionata. I am just here for the spa, signora.”

Grotta Giusti, albergo storico

It turned out that the spa had been closed for a week for seasonal cleaning, so the line in front of us had been full of people with medical prescriptions for the spa. Additionally, the Grotta Giusti was exceptionally free on that day and the following – it normally costs 40 euros for 50 minutes in the grotto. Hence, people from around the region had arrived on Monday morning to take advantage of the reopening and the grotto freebie.

A lengthy conversation at the front desk further revealed why the line was moving so slowly. They really addressed your every question and need at intake. Antonella had a long conversation about her annual membership. They made a new card for her. I made an appointment for the intriguing “massaggio Californiano.” We picked up our robes and slippers, and slipped the gettone into the turnstile to get into the dressing rooms.

“They must make the gettone,” Antonella said. “Otherwise no one would wait in line – they would just let themselves in.”

Since we had waited in line for 45 minutes, we were starving, so recharged at the bar with espressi and cornetti prior to hopping into the enormous, steaming pool.

The setting of the piscina was superb. Thin lines of steam wafted up continuously from the water. In every direction blue sky, fluffy clouds, sun, and a small mountain rising behind the albergo, still shuttered for the winter season due to renovations. 

The huge pool at one end was dedicated to all manner of hidromassaggio jets: with small alcoves for sitting in as the jets focused on different parts of a sore body. Antonella keep up a friendly patter as we discussed, among other things, the entire Zecchino d’Oro songbook and how vintage bathing caps were back in style. Large, colorful turbans, tufted with taffeta, festooned with butterflies. One in a Pepto pink caught my eye as a slim woman determinedly swam long laps in sunglasses.
“Lei e inglesa,” Antonella whispered.
“I love her cuffia,” I said.
“Lei e nonna,” Antonella hissed.
“Impossibile!” I hissed back. “Look at her.”
I felt in that moment that we were having a very typical spa conversation.
When the Englishwoman climbed out of the pool, everyone in the pool stopped talking to look at her. She wore a bikini that a teenager might have hesitated to don. She seriously looked like a supermodel. She was ripped down the front.
“Lei e una tartaruga,” Antonella observed. So I learned the idiom for “six-pack” in Italian: a turtle.
The Englishwoman slipped into her scarlet high heels. Her lipstick was still fresh in spite of her 100 laps. She was prenaturally composed. She was aware that every eye was on her as she sashayed over to her chaise and towel. Even the muscled Russian in the hydrojet bench next to me, and his youthful companion, were impressed.

We moved around on the different jets for almost two hours, and remarked when we finally swam out how relaxed we felt.

A quick lunch with everyone else on site that day, and I was off to my massage. Verdict: excellent. Also, very long. And I felt very moisturized as the masseuse had skimped in no way on the oil. I felt like a Christmas turkey ready for the oven (this is a good thing, in my book). Minus the garlic of course.

We had reserved for the grotto at 3:30. Here is where everything got very cultural very fast and I was doubly glad for Antonella. “Your skin will feel like a pesca!” she told me repeatedly. That sounded great – I am all about peach skin.

We were handed organic cotton tunics with hoods and told to strip down and put them on. Our damp terry robes went into an incredible industrial-looking robe closet that was metal and superheated so that our robes would be warm and dry when we returned. A system for everything – we got a hook number and a bag to put our damp swimsuits in. Of course Antonella had come prepared with 3 or 4 swimsuits because Italians believe you will die if you stay in a damp swimsuit for any time at all, and so they always change into a dry one right away.

The grotto was far underground, a maze of caves heated by the thermal waterfall. Marble plaques alongside the ramp indicated that no less than Verdi and Garibaldi had found relief in this steamy Tuscan underbelly.

“Garibaldi!” Antonella laughed – “there are not enough plaques to place in all the places he sat in spa in Italy. That man was never OUT of a spa.”

Lago di Limbo

Down, down, down we went.

The first large room, Paraiso, was slightly warm and well-lit.

Down more ramps and paths, the tunnel excavated just high enough to let a tall Italian man through (attention Germans), and we arrived at Purgatorio. The air became warmer and more humid. The cotton tunic felt soft and strangely sensual in the steaming heat.

To our left, the Lago di Limbo – clear underground lakes used for various forms of aquatherapy, their blue pools gently steaming, impossible to tell how deep. Down, down still more ramps and paths, and we arrived at our destination: Inferno.


¬†Inferno was 34C and 99% humidity, so, an Oklahoma summer, pretty much, but it smelled better. Teak deck chairs lined the walls, and small yellow lights had been placed overhead in the cave’s eroded crannies, shining an eerie light into the hollows and spaces overhead. As promised, the heat was very subtle.

We found two chairs and situated ourselves, placing our feet on the footrests, and leaned back to take in this wonderful 19th century cure.

Antonella quickly fell asleep. I could not get the Oklahoma reference out of my mind. Plus I was enjoying the peoplewatching, and inwardly groaning as various Inferno attendees took pictures with their unsilenced devices, so periodically we heard the whisht of a digital shutter snap. My skin grew more and more peachlike. My tunic became damp, and I surveyed the cavescape, populated with white-hooded penitents.

I started then (and unfortunately) thinking about recent earthquakes. I looked up at the ceiling and wondered what would happen down here if an earthquake happened. All the formations in the cave appeared pretty intact and uncracked. Still, I wondered. I am not predisposed to claustrophobia, but in that moment I began to feel very claustrophobic indeed, shrouded and next to my shrouded, gently snoring companion, the air getting thicker and more vaporous. I examined the hairs on my forearm and decided that I had reached maximum peachness. I quietly slipped out of my chair and headed back upstairs, leaving Antonella at her rest.

I waited for her for some time at Paraiso, then decided I would go back up the remaining ramps to return my body and soul back to Terra.

The attendee was waiting for me, smiling broadly.

“How was it? Did you enjoy the Inferno? OH MY GOD get out of that damp tunic at once or you’ll die.”

He quickly handed me a dry towel and ushered me into a thermal shower to preserve my life. As I emerged, I saw the sala relax was empty, and helped myself to some “te vita lunga.” I settled into a lounge chair and admired the hanging gardens. I could see why a person might want a regular daily prescription for this place.

Antonella came up from Inferno. “Monica!” she yelled. “You left me down there!”

“You looked so relaxed,” I said. “Non volevo disturbarti.”

The attendee quickly placed Antonella in a shower then, so our conversation was cut off.
Our robes meanwhile had dried to a perfect crispness in the industrially heated wardrobe. We changed and headed back to the dressing room.

Driving southeast back to Firenze, “Monica, guarda!” Antonella said, holding her cigarette in her left hand and pointing in her rearview.

A rosy sunset lingered over the hills of Monsummano Terme.

Stock photo, but close to this.

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