Autumn still feels a long way away in the ancient baths of Terme di Saturnia in early October. Italian families, and visitors from further afield, lounge in the thermal waters that pour from the ground at a rate of 800 litres per second, and at a constant temperature of 37.5C.
The spa, about 70 miles south of Siena, has a long-held reputation as a place where precious natural materials are used in the pursuit of beauty and wellness – the Etruscans and, after them, the ancient Romans sought out these natural baths for their health-giving waters. But this month, this Tuscan resort has added a new line in pampering: a treatment in which the entire body is covered with 24-carat gold.
The jury is out on the benefits of gold for the skin. Beauty companies cite its anti-ageing, hydrating and nourishing qualities, which improve skin elasticity and generally give it a glow. Some in the medical community disagree and say its benefits are not proven, and that gold may even be an allergen to people with sensitive skins.
Whatever the medical reality, Terme di Saturnia’s gold body treatment is a visual and olfactory delight. And yes, there is a stage where – smeared neck-to-toes with 24-carat gold paste – you bear passing likeness to Shirley Eaton’s ill-fated character in Goldfinger, though happily without the denouement. If you are the flamboyant type, then do bring a camera.
The build-up to that golden smearing takes place over two hours in a spa room with sky-blue lighting and black wood panelling. A year ago Terme di Saturnia created a new area of the spa called “The Ultimate”, where it carries out treatments using precious oils, minerals, amber, blasts of pure oxygen and gold.
The spa’s managers say they decided to offer such “grand luxury” experiences because their clients, and particularly their Russian clients, wanted them. Tellingly, they have seen the requests for gold treatments rise since the commodity market price reached record highs per ounce, an impulse essential to the world of luxury goods. The more expensive something is, the more people want it.
The spa technician – in my case the very professional Cristina, who has worked at the Terme di Saturnia for 20 years – starts off using an all-over body scrub enriched with ginger, camomile, silk proteins and jojoba oil. It certainly feels invigorating and smells delicious. Then comes the first touch of gold.
A layer of gel containing flecks of 24-carat gold plus caffeine, carnitine and the antioxidant co-enzyme A is applied from neck to toes. The aim, I’m told, is to drain and purify. This is followed by a hot oil massage containing more flecks of gold leaf and combined with the ayurvedic technique Pinda Sweda.
Here, tight-bound muslin sacks of lavender, camomile, calendula and melissa are used to massage the golden oils into the skin. The atmosphere in the spa room now is heady. Going back to the possibility of gold being an allergen, I ask whether my skin should really feel as hot as it does? Cristina says the sensation most probably is a result of the heated oil and the heated spa bed.
Whatever the reason, the sensation is forgotten in the final stage of smearing. Ginger and powdered gold are beaten into a paste and spread thickly over the body, giving it that Goldfinger look. I think I may understand why Russians are particularly taken with it. Luxuriousness aside, the room has taken on the hues and perfumes of a Byzantine church, replete with flecks of gold swirling in the air, shafts of blue light and the smell of incense.
Twenty minutes later, the gold masque is peeled away with the pledge of a brighter, tighter skin underneath. Sealed with lashings of body lotion, it feels smoother and hydrated. Cristina kisses me on both cheeks and sends me – reeling – on my way.
Brothers Mario, Sandro and Antonello Manuli from Milan have owned the Terme di Saturnia since 1996 and are credited with turning it into a destination spa and getting it included in the roster of Leading Hotels of the World.
They have also developed the grounds around the spa so it now hosts an 18-hole championship golf course set over 70 hectares of Tuscan hills. Alberto Croce, who played on the European Tour and Senior Tour, holds occasional golf clinics here.
Dieticians are on hand for those wishing to add a detox to their spa treatments, but the less restrained can feast on the gastronomia of the Maremma region, its Morellino di Scansano red wine and Chianina Florentine steaks. Visitors can dine at either of two gourmet restaurants, Aqualuce and Aquacotta, the latter under the auspices of chefs Chicco, Bobo and Francesco Cerea, who are behind a three-star Michelin restaurant in northern Italy.
While there is plenty to occupy you at the baths, for those seeking adventure outside the surrounding area is one of the least discovered by tourists to Italy but its beaches, agriturismi and rustic restaurants with a focus on steak (inland) or seafood (by the coast) are a favourite haunt for weekending Romans.
Out towards the coast, beyond the hilltop hamlet of Capalbio, lie several miles of undeveloped beaches around a secluded bay where the sea is warm enough for swimming from late spring until early autumn. Turning east, inland from Terme di Saturnia, there are the medieval towns Orvieto and the lesser-known Pitigliano, both clinging dramatically to their respective cliffsides.
Rachel Sanderson is the FT’s Milan correspondent
Doubles at the Terme di Saturnia (www.termedisaturnia.it) cost from €500 including breakfast, spa and sporting activities. The two-hour Golden Body treatment costs €420