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 The Eagle Soars In Tuscany At The Adler Thermae Spa Resort

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

What mystery lies in a thermal spring? Who first spotted a swirl of vapor coming from a natural pool whose source lies buried deep in the earth? Who discovered bathing in such waters can alleviate ailments, restore balance, even soothe an aching heart?  Such were our thoughts on a chilly, drizzly afternoon as we bobbed along a vast and bubbly waterway past eerie alcoves of gray rock and steamy clouds of mist. Moments before we had emerged through sliding glass doors that magically parted when we floated by in an adjacent indoor pool. The water's temperature, inside and out, was the same, a constant 98 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was the end of our first day at the Adler Thermae Spa Resort, a five-star hotel and wellness resort in the Tuscan valley of Orcia which since opening four years ago, has enjoyed a nearly continuous state of full occupancy. Many factors (as we would swiftly come to see) account for its success, not least among them thermal baths which are fed from a hot spring that runs beneath the little village of Bagno Vignoni up the hill on the other side of the road. The healing powers of these waters have been known for eons. Etruscans and Romans from the time of the Empire bathed in it. Pilgrims traveling from Canterbury to Rome regularly stopped along the way. Alexander the Great, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Charlemagne.  A host of popes took the waters at Bagno Vignoni. So did Saint Catherine who, as a young girl, in the late 14th century, came to the village from her home in nearby Siena along with her mother who hoped to talk her strong-willed daughter out of entering a nunnery. And in the last year of the 20th century, when Klaus Sanoner's doctor suggested thermal waters to help alleviate a back problem, he too came to Bagno Vignoni.                     

Klaus Sanoner is from a long line of hoteliers. With his brother Andreas and mother Elly, he owns and operates the storied Hotel Adler Wellness and Sport Resort in the Dolomites, close to the Austrian border. Now, as a guest in the local hotel at Bagno Vignoni, he learned a piece of land just a short distance from the village had been put up for sale. He walked down the path that led to the site.  The rolling Tuscan countryside revealed itself to him in all its delicate loveliness, and he thought if the waters from the thermal spring were diverted downhill, how ideal the setting would be for a spa resort. The land was owned by a Florentine count. Sanoner met him; the two men hit it off. The count said there is a travertine cave and quarry on the property. If you want to buy the land, you must agree to keep it. Sanoner agreed.

The opportunity seemed unique. Land in this region scarcely came up for sale. The area was protected; nothing could be built without permission and generally that permission was limited to farmhouse restoration. Nevertheless, the Sanoner brothers drew up a proposal.

In 1999, work began. Five years later, a 21st century resort was standing on the ancient site, and the Adler Thermae Spa and Wellness Resort was welcoming its first guests.

Thermal waters at Bagno Vignoni - click to enlarge
Thermal waters at Bagno Vignoni

Diverted to the Adler Thermae Spa Resort - click to enlarge
diverted to the Adler Thermae Spa Resort

 "It was an instant success," says Claudia Zancolli  who has been the Adler's public relations director for the past six months. We are sitting with Claudia, a petite and lively brunette, in the hotel's expansive lounge, drinking invigorating herbal tea, trying to resist a second slice of  sublime almond cake, and looking through a wall of French doors. On the other side, a broad terrace overlooks an undulating landscape, In the distance, a line of perfectly spaced cypress trees mark the horizon.  The vision is decidedly, exquisitely Tuscan. But within, the spaciousness, clean straight lines, and unadorned modern furnishings are more suggestive of a Scandinavian aesthetic. The feeling is one of a comfortable lodge with a wood-burning fireplace in the adjacent library, honey-colored horizontal wood panels on the walls, floors of gleaming wood and rugged stone, streamlined leather sofas and armchairs in shades of butterscotch, crimson and cream.

Public Relations Director Claudia Zancolli - click to learg
Public Relations Director Claudia Zancolli

She continues, "There used to be a spa not far from here. The owner was a Californian. People went there because they could not follow a diet on their own. They had to be awakened at 6 in the morning to jog. They couldn't have coffee; they couldn't have bread. I don't have anything against that. But this is something entirely different."

Certainly the scene before us was something entirely different from anything we'd ever seen. Except for Claudia (who was dressed in the navy blue suit uniform of the front office professional), we were the only people wearing street clothes. The rest were in white terrycloth bathrobes -- men and women, children too, people of all ages and all sizes. Yet before the day was out, we had caught on. And for a good part of the rest of our stay, we were part of the bath-robed crowd.

"There is no pressure to be dressed up," Claudia had told us. "The atmosphere is home-like, high quality but comfortable." Accordingly, most guests spend their days going from one activity to the next with little care for dress aside from what a particular activity might call for: bathing suit, outdoor sportswear, workout outfit, and -- more often than not -- ubiquitous bathrobe.

The sheer choice of activities and treatments, within the spa and throughout the glorious grounds, is staggering: guided walks, trekking and biking on pristine paths and through shaded woodlands, basketball, badminton, volleyball, soccer, and tennis on expansive sports grounds, indoor and outdoor yoga, tai chai, pilates, Zen stretching, gymnastics, cardio power and training, swimming in the stunning pool that branches out from the thermal waters, bathing in the thermal waters, body contour treatments, massages,  mud applications, eighteen different kinds of facials, manicures, pedicures, hair treatments, hair styling, a steam sauna with Tuscan herbs, an Etruscan sauna with salt steam, an Etruscan brine steam bath, an underground salt bath, a Finnish sauna across a little bridge, fifteen kinds of Oriental massages including Watsu which is administered while floating in a pool, and ten Ayurveda treatments. (After studying the ancient holistic healing system in India and completing her education in Munich, Annemarie Sanoner, sister of Klaus and Andreas, initiated and oversees an Ayurveda program at both Adler hotels.)

"Ayurveda has a mystical quality," said Minnie Romano, leader of the spa's team of more than twenty trained therapists. "The therapists who perform these treatments return to India every winter to enhance their knowledge. They try to understand the person they are working on, the mental situation at the moment." Minnie, who looks like she stepped out of a Giotto painting, was standing behind a large U-shaped desk along with other therapists attending to bath-robed guests waiting to make or review appointments. Others were relaxing in the adjacent lounging area or strolling down the hall to the steam bath wing, each a small chamber of quiet and mystery. It was a typical afternoon scene at the Adler.

Minnie Romano leads the therapist team - click to enlarge
Minnie Romano leads the therapist team

Part of the fitness team: Raffaelo and Virgina - click to enlarge
Part of the fitness team: Raffaelo and Virgina

She continued, "We don't regard our clients as customers; they are our guests, and a lot of them are repeat guests. Many come three or four times a year. We develop a relationship with them, keep records of what they like. At the same time, we get ideas for other treatments and activities that would be good for them. It's part of our job to advise our clients, to give them instructions."

"The service and quality is uppermost here," says general manager Anton Pichler. "The therapists are very highly selected. There is a staff of 120 people for 210 to 220 guests. So there is that close ratio."

The youthful, Austrian-born g.m. had worked in spas in Switzerland for five years before moving on to the Adler. "When I first came here, when I saw the pool area and the lovely gardens -- it was wow! I thought it was a dream. You can't see the property from the road, but from all the rooms of the hotel, you have these beautiful vistas of the countryside. It's a magical landscape. The hotel looks like it's always been there: the sandstone edifice, the tiled roof -- like a Tuscan villa. Every door you open is a delight to the senses." 

General Manager Anton Pilcher - click to enlarge
General Manager Anton Pilcher

Anton Pichler had joined us for a glass of wine in the travertine cave which had been incorporated into the hotel proper and now serves as a wine bar and cellar where over a thousand bottles are stored. The acclaimed Brunello, made from the Sangiovese grape that for centuries has been grown in the nearby Montalcino region, is the most desirable. With is fruity aromas and flavors of blackberry and cherry, it can easily become a favorite and was our choice with dinner each night of our stay.

Breakfast and dinner are part of the Adler experience (with lunch available for an extra charge) in the arcaded dining room which seats 200. The large space is made intimate by stone archways and a raised level along the perimeter lined with great windows. On the many warm and pleasant days and nights, the enormous skylight which covers the central portion of ceiling is retracted, and one has the illusion of dining in a Tuscan garden.

It is through the dinner hours that Claudia's comment about the Adler spa resort being a place for holiday becomes clear. The crowd is primarily Italian and multigenerational with many families and children of all ages (the hotel also offers a full children's program that includes meals). And while the daytime might be devoted to the serious pursuit of (alternately) fitness and relaxation, nighttime is the time to let loose and enjoy. Concurrently, while bathrobe attire might be acceptable throughout the day, everyone dresses for dinner.  

Anyone who has been to the "The Borscht Circuit" (the one-time popular resort region that was the setting for the film "Dirty Dancing") will be jolted by a bolt of déjà vu upon entering the Adler dining room -- and not just because of its size. "People don't come here to be put on a diet. They come here to eat, and they eat a lot!" Claudia had said, and the six-course dinner menu with at least four choices in each category reflects such an ethos. Only instead of matzoh ball soup, the constant is  pasta - freshly made, and in all its splendid manifestations. And in the place of an Irving Cohen, legendary maitre d' of the legendary  Concord Hotel, there's the charismatic Aldo Lorenzo recently arrived from a resort in the Algarve.

Like Irving Cohen, Aldo faces the challenge of seating demanding guests at a table that will make them happy. He also has to convince some non-Italian diners the menu is for real. When our server told us that what appeared to be a multi-course tasting menu was actually a choice of full-size portions, we were certain something was lost in translation until Aldo assured us indeed that was the case. Moreover, the menu changes every night.

Each dinner begins with a trip to what may be the ultimate salad bar followed by a selection of such appetizers as prosciutto, goat cheese and spinach, carpaccio, shrimp and avocado on greens in a tarragon vinaigrette, baked octopus, mushroom pie, pumpkin dumplings with truffles. Next is a choice of celery soup, or seafood soup with clams and mussels, or vegetable soup with barley and meatballs the size of marbles followed by the longed-for pasta course where the options include ravioli with shrimp, ravioli with eggplant, ravioli with stewed quail,  penne with melted pecorino and red pepper, tagliotoni in cream sauce, gnocchi with olive oil and parsley. And for an entrée one can opt for shank of veal with baked potatoes and stir fried Swiss chard, or eggplant stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, or rosemary-flavored beef filet with baked potato and vegetables, or duck breast with balsamic vinegar and pan fried vegetables, or red mullet with artichokes au gratin. To conclude such a repast, one returns to the site of the salad bar now magically transformed into a fantasy of desserts; tiers of pastries, cakes, biscotti, pies; boards laden with Italian cheeses, baskets of beautiful fresh fruits, and an array of puddings, tarts, sherbets and ice creams. 

Maitre d' Aldo Lorenzo

Aldo introduced us to the young chef Gaetano Vaccao who told us there are about 25 in the kitchen, preparing the staggering variety of unfailingly delicious dishes. He uses Tuscan products wherever possible, and he frequently solicits feedback from guests, asking them what they'd like to have and trying to incorporate their suggestions.  "The Italian guest is very discriminating," said Aldo. "It's difficult to make him or her happy. But this chef does."

Chef Gaetano Vaccao - click to enlarge
Chef Gaetano Vaccao

and friends - click to enlarge
and friends

He added, "The members of the Sanoner family are focused on good food, quality ingredients, everything fresh. Having a fine kitchen is something very important to them.

"In the short time I've been here, I can see why people like to work at this resort and why once they come here, they stay a long time. I think it's because the Sanoner family are such nice people. The staff has a loyalty to them. It is their attitude that helps make this a very unusual place."

At a time when the tourism industry is dominated by corporate ownership and operation, a family-run resort is somewhat of an anomaly. It lends the Adler a distinctive sensibility, a feel of the personal. Although the Sanoners continue to live in the Dolomites near their historic property, Klaus and Andreas are frequently at the Tuscan resort; Elly Sanoner comes some four or five weeks during the year "for a rest," as she put it.

Our visit coincided with Mrs. Sanoner's. We met her on our way to the salad bar, passing a table where two elegant, elderly ladies were seated. They smiled, we struck up a conversation. They were Mrs. Sanoner and her sister. Mrs. Sanoner asked how we liked the food. It was only after dinner when we met them for coffee in the lounge that we learned who they were. "I am 85 years old and I'm still working at our hotel in the Dolomites," Elly Sanoner told us. "It has been in my husband's family for a long time -- he was the seventh generation. When I married him, I had not time to think about how to handle a hotel. I just got into it. Now, 54 years later, I am still working in it and loving it." 

There is something quite special about Elly Sanoner, an  ebullience that is simply infectious. And when she is not around, her influence abides in a collection of her paintings: oils, water colors and pastels -- small, impressionistic works generally dealing with a feminine theme --. that line the hotel corridors. They intrigue guests walking by and are an evocation of her presence.

Elly Sanoner seemed to embody for us the connection between the two Adlers. As Anton Pilcher said,  "The feeling here is people don't have to decide where to go for vacation. It's the Adler, whether in the snowy mountains or in the Tuscan hills. A lot of the guests come here because they have been to the other hotel. And now our guests go there for skiing. Both places share the same focus on health and well being.

The elegant and ebullient Grande Dame
of the Adler Resorts: Elly Sanoner

"We have plans to develop an olive grove and a vineyard. Down the road, we hope to be able to serve guests our own wine. 'Adler' is the German word for eagle, and it is a good name for both hotels. The eagle looks towards the future. It's never content to sit and be satisfied. It soars."

Adler Thermae Toscana
I-53027 Bagno Vignoni
San Quirico d'Orcia (Siena)
Tuscany / Italy
Tel. +39 0577 889 000
Fax +39 0577 889 999

More on the "Borscht Circuit at ("It Happened in the Catskills" by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer)

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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