Seawater therapy, local wines and great Puglian food is enough to revitalise your jet-setting spirit in this tranquil Italian retreat, writes Janine di Giovanni
I’ve been a fan of thalassotherapy, the use of seawater for medical and cosmetic purposes, since my son was born thirteen years ago. A friend, the Secretary General of a major international organization, a man who spent most of his life on airplanes and sitting in meetings told me to go, seeing my grey, exhausted face and my lack of energy. He went once a year, he said, and the result was that he was able to work in an even more stressful environment. ‘It makes a huge difference,’ he told me. ‘And it is not painful.’
The Russian aristocracy used to take the waters in Biarritz before the Revolution, and one still gets a sense of the grandeur. In the old days, when French social security was even more generous, doctors would sometimes send patients for the sea treatment on the National Health Service – to cure joint problems, insomnia, and stress related illnesses.
There is something wonderfully restful about being soaked in seaweed, bathing in salt water and getting massaged with kelp, and over the years I have gone to Thalasso centers in Biarritz, St Jean de Luz, Ile de Re and Brittany. I came out feeling great. But I was always hungry whilst there, even if you were given wondrous things – oysters, crabs, shrimp.
So my most recent Thalasso was an unexpected joy. I have never quite experienced the pleasure that I had during the five days I spent at Masseria San Domenico in Puglia. If the real point of going to a spa is to de-stress and reassess your life (i.e., if you work too hard you deserve to relax once in a while) than this is the only Thalasso I will ever go to.
I’ve never gone to a spa where you are allowed to drink local wine (the most delicious wine I have ever tasted), eat almonds and olives as an aperitif on the terrace before dinner, and then eat a dinner that consists of fresh pasta, delicious fish, and vegetables unique to the region that are extraordinarily good.
That was the starter, then there were the main courses: lentil soup with scampi, legendary (a type of local pasta) with green beans; farfalle with salmon, suckling pig fillet in sweet grape juice; sea bass baked in a mille feuille crust. This is diet food? We even got dessert: homemade yogurt ice cream, apples baked in a cinnamon and honey crust.
During the day I swam, read, had a few treatments (my legs and torso were wrapped in bandages smelling of camphor that made me go to sleep and brought out the toxins in my system, apparently) and went for walks in the fields surrounding the estate.
Then there’s sleep.
Masseria San Domenico is small and tranquil. The rooms are situated so that you feel you are a long way from your neighbors. In fact, I never saw a neighbor until I went to dinner. The clientele is discreet; there is no flash, no noise. The pool indoor is heated with a reason – you are meant to be raising your body temperature to burn calories – and the outdoor ones surrounded by palm, almond and lemon trees. You feel peaceful.
I get restless on spa holidays – bored, hungry, frustrated, irritated. But for five days, I did that unheard of thing and truly unwound. I swam in the pool, I learned how to box and do abdominal crunches correctly (apparently I’ve been doing it wrong for years) and I slept, so deeply that I woke up completely refreshed. I stayed away from my phone and iPad.
During the day, a local architect and I roamed the local countryside looking at frescoes and paintings in the local churches. In the city of Lecce (which in my mind is more beautiful than Venice) we stopped at four churches, taking notes and photographs, with him explaining the dimensions, the history and the exact paint color.
The flight home was painless and in my bag I carried recipes the chef had painstakingly written out for me: spaghetti with clams and pine nuts; aubergine parmigiana. I tried them at home, but nothing was the same, and I yearned for the yogurt ice cream. It’s the first time I’ve been to a spa and missed it.
Janine di Giovanni is the author of The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria (Bloomsbury) and the winner of the 2016 Hay Festival Medal for Prose, as well as the Courage in Journalism Award
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