Snowboarding and spa treatments in Tuscany
An indulgent snowboarding and spa break in Tuscany lets our writer and her sister hit the slopes before recovering and ‘taking the waters’
The cosy scent of woodsmoke hangs in the evening air as we sit on the terrazzo, sipping prosecco and gazing out across the Lima valley. Kasia and Jason, our hosts, urge us to try the traditional pairing of local garfagnana cheese drizzled with Tuscan chestnut honey.
It’s a salty-rich-sweet combination that seems to be the missing link in my diet.
I’ve come with my sister, Justine, for a snowboarding weekend in Benabbio, 500 metres up in the Appenines in Tuscany.
The promised combination of a Saturday on the slopes followed by a recuperative Sunday taking the waters at Bagni di Lucca thermal baths seems the perfect way to relive our snowboarding glory days without overdoing the exercise.
We’re staying at San Rocco, a 17th-century, 10-bedroom baroque villa that oozes history. Parts of it date from the 14th century, when it was a pilgrim’s rest for travellers on the Franciscan Waywith a chapel, dedicated to San Rocco, standing opposite its main gate.
Taken over by a merchant family from Lucca, the villa was bequeathed to an orphanage in the 1960s but by the late 1980s it had fallen into disrepair.
Then, in 2004, Jason’s father, an English surgeon, bought San Rocco as “a weeping pile of bricks”, according to his son. He employed local builders to undertake a sympathetic restoration, using chestnut beams from the local forests and handmade terracotta tiles for the roof and floors.
The result is a beautiful mix of lavish, opulent and quirky antique furniture, Tuscan travertine limestone and slipper baths, with murals painted by artistic friends decorating the walls. Jason and Kasia have thrown open their doors to guests and house parties, as well as to visitors on courses ranging from yoga to guitar-making.
Vladimir, an ex-hunting bloodhound, is often slumped on a chaise longue after spending hours chasing boar in the forest.
My room is a haven – there’s an antique but comfy four-poster bed and an en suite with rolltop bath and views out over the formal gardens and olive groves.
The relaxation definitely starts here. Justine and I catch up on sisterly gossip by the fire in the kitchen as Kasia prepares our meal – a delicious vegetarian lasagne made with radicchio – and over a few glasses of the local almondy-red carmignano, we fall into easy conversation with our hosts. Jason, also an author and publisher, fills us in on the quirks of life in Benabbio, including the time his opera singer friend brought a horse in for breakfast in the dining room, and their San Franciscan neighbours, who can often be seen of a morning walking Luigi the dog and Knucklehead the parrot.
Kasia serves homemade, melt-in-the-mouth biscotti, which we dip in vin santo, and then we succumb a little too enthusiastically to the delights of mirtillo: blueberry grappa made by Srdjan, Jason’s Serbian friend.
Catherine’s sister Justine soothes aching muscles at Bagni di Lucca’s thermal spa
The next morning, as Jason takes us on the 45-minute journey up mountain roads to Abetone, my usual pre-slope nerves are eclipsed by a grappa hangover.
But up on the pistes, all is perfect. The crisp mountain air clears my head, the 54km of trails are virtually, inexplicably empty and the snow is just right for no-longer-so-sprightly boarders: powdery and forgiving with a slight meltiness on top.
The sun is blazing, and we even venture speculatively into the snowpark to eye up the kickers and the half-pipe. Lunch is a freshly made cheese panino and a coffee at a mountain cafe – and it’s only €5 apiece.
We have a few pangs at handing over our boards at the end of the day, but there’s more of Kasia’s home cooking to look forward to, and my bath and four-poster bed are beckoning.
The next morning, aching muscles have set in and we’re only too keen for an indulgent soak at the thermal baths, down the valley in Bagni di Lucca, a shamelessly pretty town set on the banks of the wide Lima river.
It has long been famed as a spa town: Napoleon, Shelley and Byron are among those who took the waters.
Bagni di Lucca also lays claim to the first casino in Europe, dating from 1839. It was reopened recently, and is worth a visit for the crazy sight of its gorgeously panelled and chandeliered main hall rammed full of Vegas-style, bleeping slot machines.
Then it’s on to the spa, for a dip in the thermal pool, in a small, private room dotted with fresh orchids, candles and – joy! – little Italian pastries, followed by a soothing massage.
We spend the afternoon in picturesque Lucca, joining the locals on their Sunday afternoon passeggiata, a stroll along the Renaissance city walls.
Then we enter the maze of cobbledstreets, where you can’t turn a corner without stumbling into a beautiful medieval church or ornate tower. Jason takes us to one of the most arresting, the 45m Torre Guinigi, with a hanging garden of oak trees on its roof.
That evening, back in Bagni di Lucca, we’re introduced to another local character, Roberto, owner of the Corona hotel, feast in his restaurant on homemade ravioli and exquisite sea bass and drink in more tales of life in the Lima valley.
On our final morning, Kasia and Jason complete the grand tour of their soul-reviving refuge by showing us the vast yoga studio, and the 14th-century room where pilgrims would come to rest.
We pat Vladimir one lasttime and find it’s hard to tear ourselves away. Snowboarding in Tuscany? I’m a big fan – but that’s not all San Rocco is about.
When I’m back home drizzling miele di castagno over the garfagnana cheese that I’ve stocked up on, it won’t just be the empty pistes of Abetone that my mind will wander back to.