Speaker reveals the beauty of spa towns across the world

Myra Robinson with a forcola.
Myra Robinson with a forcola.

MORPETH ROTARY CLUB

Myra Robinson of Newcastle has always been obsessed by spa towns.

Myra Robinson with a forcola.

Myra Robinson with a forcola.

They all seem to have turn-of-the-century architecture and wonderful parks. She started with spa towns in France and had visited them all by ten years ago so she crossed the Alps and began to explore Italian spas. Some had been offering treatments since Roman times, and even earlier.

About eight years ago, she was driving north in the Euganean Hills, in an area of extinct volcanoes just south of Padua. She used an out-of-date guide book to find the old spas. It is an area of volcanic mud and hot springs, with two well visited spa towns. One was smart with many foreign visitors and the other was faded with mostly local Italians.

She went to the faded one and went into the spa hotel. There was a man asleep at reception so she pressed the bell. He woke up suddenly and when she asked if he had a room, he said ‘yes and no’. She was told the hotel was not for tourists and she should go to the next town.

She asked to stay and he said it was too hot as they had no air-conditioning. She asked if he had any rooms at all, and he said yes, so she asked if they could stay for one night and see how it went. They must have passed the test as the next night they were offered a room with air-conditioning and were able to mix freely with the locals.

The hotel was in a 1960s time warp, with lots of chrome table legs. In Italy people can have spa treatments on the health service and the hotel was full of people staying there free. It seemed they did not want tourists to stay as it messed up the paperwork.

The tables were formally set, with pristine white table clothes, but the people were dressed very informally, usually in old dressing gowns. They were all having treatments before or after breakfast, and whole families were staying there together.

After visiting for three years running they were asked why they stayed if they were not going to have the mud treatment, as everyone knew it was the best mud in Italy. They said they were not sure how to arrange treatment and were asked if they did not have a national health service.

They were told to go to reception and arrange to see the local doctor. This could only be done by first seeing the social worker. She asked him about having mud treatment, he asked what was wrong with her, she said ‘nothing’, and he said she could not have the treatment. She was wise to the system for the following year when he asked what was wrong with her, she said ‘back problems’, and he agreed to an appointment with the doctor.

The doctor had a surgery in the basement and was very friendly. He asked what was wrong, where it hurt and checked her heart and other vital signs. He prescribed six buckets of hot mud each day for six days. This would be done under the hotel, where the hot mud comes out.

She went at the appointed time and was met by a bullying lady in a white overall and clogs. She put her in a cubicle and told her to take her clothes off. After coming back out, a man came in pulling six buckets of mud. She tipped one bucket onto her back, covered it with a rubber sheet, scraped off the spare mud with a table tennis bat and marked where her bum was to go on a table.

The mud was very hot. She lay down on the rubber sheet and another bucket of mud was tipped on top and patted down so that she could not move. The rubber blanket was wrapped around and tucked in and she was told to lie there for 20 minutes.

It was so hot her eye sockets filled with sweat. Another lady came in from time to time and wiped her face with a towel. It seemed a very long 20 minutes before she was allowed to get up. Most of the mud was scraped off with the bat and she was told to get up slowly as most people faint. She had to hold on to some horizontal bars while she was hosed down with warm water.

Each cubicle had its own plunge pool on the other side. To get clean you had to walk down to the bottom step, with very hot water up to the chin, for 20 minutes. This was nearly as bad as the hot mud. Then you came out onto a towel to rest for 20 minutes.

Afterwards, she had to walk down a long corridor with labelled doors. One was for people with breathing problems where they sat opposite funnels with steam blowing into their faces. She was led into a room with harsh lights and a temperature of 48 degrees and the door was shut. The air was extremely hot and dry, and almost impossible to breathe. As the door was not locked, she went and sat outside, although the attendant tutted her disapproval.

She then remembered that she had urgent business in Venice the next day so she could not continue with the mud treatment.

Over the years she grew very fond of the town, has lots of friends there and decided to buy property if the chance came up. She saw a ‘For Sale’ sign on the balcony of a block of flats and put down a lump sum in spite of warnings from her partner.

It is freezing in winter and there have been snags with Italian bureaucracy. For second homes you have to pay ten per cent or more on the buying price and utility bills.

She is very attached to life there and lives between Italy and Newcastle. She teaches an English conversation class at the library and makes some money selling English porcelain and horse brasses. She helped the local museum to stay open with a twinning arrangement with the Stoke Bruern Waterway Museum, and is something of a local hero.

She had brought a beautifully carved piece of walnut wood from Venice for members to guess what it was. One of the Rotary members got it right when he said it looked like a rowlock from a gondola – a forcola. She answered many questions about Venice and gondolas and said she has just written a book called ‘The Best Mud in Italy’.

She was thanked for her interesting and stimulating talk by Gordon Bolton.