MONTECATINI, Italy — Starting your vacation by drinking sulfuric waters of questionable aroma and taste while listening to a formally clad spa ensemble play chamber music may not be your idea of what a holiday is all about, but people have been doing it here, with or without the cellos, since 1370.
What makes Montecatini the reigning doyenne of all Italian spas is a colorful history that entangles such notables as Cosimo de Medici, Mad Ludwig of Bavaria, a clutch of European crowned heads and the likes of Mascagni, Puccini and Verdi, followed by Mary Pickford, Grace of Monaco and Rose Kennedy.
The beauty, belle epoque grandeur, magnificent hotels and site, near the heart of Tuscany, make Montecatini a most pleasant stopover point for anyone touring central Italy or making a sojourn from Florence.
And while you're here you might as well down a few glasses of the water, soak in a thermal or mud bath and inhale the clear Tuscan air. They say it will alleviate just about anything wrong with your skin, liver, stomach, nerves or metabolism, indeed, "have a therapeutic effect on the entire human organism."
Here to there: Fly Alitalia, TWA, Pan Am or Northwest to Rome, Italy's domestic airline on to Florence. Buses make the 45-minute run to Montecatini hourly.
How long/how much: At least a full day for seeing the arresting architecture of all those spa buildings and a trip up to Montecatini Alto with one of Italy's most delightful little piazzas. Spa treatments are usually over by noon, leaving you the afternoons to roam the hills of Tuscany and their innumerable fetching towns and villages. Lodging and dining costs are moderate to high.
A few fast facts: Italy's lira recently traded at 1312 to the dollar, or .00076 each. Best times for a visit are May through October. Walk the town, but take a cog train up the hill to Montecatini Alto.
Getting settled in: Hotel Touring (Via Cavallotti 66; $54 double, low season, $90 high, both including lunch and dinner for two) has just been renovated into a chic and shining little place, best of the lot on a street with many two-star hotels. Lobby resembles a four-star hotel, with white leather furniture and grand piano to match, Persian carpets, lots of flowers and plants. Bedrooms are modern and comfortable, dining room in dramatic black and white. Owner very friendly but speaks little English.
Rinascente (Via Trieste 23; $44 and $67 with the same arrangements) is modesty itself, simple and neat rooms, second floor just redecorated and a tad better. Owner Edi Volpi doubles as chef, and the meals he serves are varied and delicious in a pleasant little dining room with fresh flowers on tables. Volpi's wife-manager is charming and very helpful.
Mediterraneo (Via Baragiola 1; $92 and $100, same arrangements) is one of those small and exquisite hotels that brighten your trip. Well-appointed bedrooms with balconies and TV, private gardens and park, use of tennis courts and lovely pool at nearby Hotel Astoria. Public rooms with attractive period furnishings, small bar, a cheerful dining room with carnations everywhere.
Regional food and drink: Tuscan dining is considered one of Italy's most varied and delicious, which means plenty of the region's white Toscanelli beans in imaginative dishes, great steaks, salads blessed with the country's finest olive oil and seafood from Tuscany's Ligurian coast.
Two Florentine dishes have made their way throughout the region and country: arista, a loin of pork roasted with loads of garlic and rosemary, and trippa alla fiorentina, a heavenly stew of tripe, tomatoes and herbs and oven-crusted with Parmesan cheese, usually in an earthenware crock.
Chianti, which some Italians consider troppo aceto, or "too sharp on the tongue," is the perfect accompaniment for the hearty flavors of Tuscan food, so enjoy this regional wine while you're here, particularly with the area's marvelous cheeses.
Moderate-cost dining: Most of the town's hotels require you to take lunch and dinner at their tables, so Montecatini isn't loaded with good restaurants. But we found a couple.
Lo Stuzzichino (Corso Roma 45) does wondrous things with seafood and pastas, 12 daily selections of the former at about $8 each, 13 varieties of the latter for about $4. They also have a sure hand with veal dishes, as do most Italian kitchens. A long series of connecting rooms with great old pictures on walls, an enormous table of antipasto as colorful as it is delicious, small bar with selection of wines at entry.
Chez les Amis (Via Bovio 1) is fun, funky and decidedly casual, eclectic and a little silly decor within, tables outside on large patio. Superb and aromatic grilled lamb for $8, pastas and risotto dishes for $4. Again, not much English spoken here, but friendly smiles and a helpful manner more than make up for it.