The best time to be tooling around Tuscany is in the fall, preferably October. There are all sorts of fun things to do, such as picking up the big fat chestnuts that literally cover the ground in some areas. Nothing beats the smell of them roasting on an open fire, and though they're the devil to peel, it's worth it because of the really delicious goodies that can be made from them. My favorite is marrons glacés, candied chestnuts that cost a small fortune to buy in a store but next to nothing to make at home.
Another fun thing we used to do in October was to go up to my friends' vineyard in Tuscany for the vendemmia. In their wine cellar, located below the house, juice from the newly picked and crushed grapes was guided into two or three gigantic wooden vats and left to ferment into wine. The first couple of weeks, its smell was so heady I would awaken in the morning feeling drunk.
Fall always brought with it drives from Rome into the Tuscan countryside. Several times, our destination was the very peaceful and comforting Terme di Saturnia spa. This was before it became so chic and famous...and costly. It was the sweetest little place, all wood beams and rustic-looking. You could stay there for about $20 a night, which included great meals and the use of all facilities.
I drove up a few times with my pal, Molly, who worked with me at the Overseas School of Rome. The first time we went it was all so new and exciting. We hurled ourselves at once into the huge freeform pool, then paddled around like two kids in the warm smelly water. Copying the other women, we dove down to the bottom, scooped up handfuls of mud--purported to do magic for your skin--and slapped it all over our faces and throats. Unfortunately, however, after about five minutes in the water, Molly came popping up from down under and my mouth dropped open in shock. The sulphurous water had turned her pretty blond hair a horrible shade of bilious green! One end of the pool had no rim, which forced the water to spill over in a powerful waterfall. Two long stone benches were set into the rock walls below the cascade and you could sit there and let the water crash down onto your back. It was so stimulating! Quite hedonistic, now that I think back on it: like a hundred hands massaging your neck and back at once.
In the evenings after dinner there was dancing and mingling. Or, if you wanted, you could take another dip in the warm steamy waters of the pool and float on your back, staring up at the stars amidst the mysterious vapors rising all around you.
There was no rule that you had to stay at the Terme hotel: you could sleep elsewhere and use only their facilities. Once, just for variety, we booked into a nice little inn situated just before you turn onto the road that leads up to Saturnia. It was cheaper than the Terme and, hard to believe, served even better meals! During the day, we used the Terme di Saturnia facilities by buying a one-day pass: at that time it cost some absurd amount like 1000 lire (about $3) each! Existing pix
You can take a walk or ride up the road for about half a mile to the town of Saturnia; it's small and charming and offers good food. The road passes through the woods and if you look down into the gorge, you'll see the stream that brings the healing sulphur spring water down to the Terme. You'll also see people in bathing suits or street clothes, standing or sitting in the stream, rubbing water over their bodies and slapping mud on their faces, having themselves a completely free-of-charge health treatment.
Saturnia is small; you can walk all over it in a half-hour. The people are nice and friendly, though I must admit, Molly's green hair drew more than a few astonished stares.
Today the Terme di Saturnia is a 4-star hotel. Rooms are still fairly simple (though equipped with all modern amenities), but the spa facilities are state of the art, many different types of delicious spa-type menus are available, and the waterfall is just as memorable. Click here for booking details.The best restaurant in Saturnia is I Due Cippi-da Michele (Piazza Veneto 26/a, tel. 0564-601-074, fax 601-207). The food is excellent at this popular spot, which has a large outdoor patio for dining in warmer months. Moderately Priced; closed December 10-24. Reservations advised.