Italians are recognized as among the most beautiful people in the world. Ever wonder how they got so gorgeous? Or how they stay that way?One secret is their devotion to spas. Italy is full of luxury resorts for beauty-seekers.

You’ve probably seen ads for spas that can drain your bank account as quickly as the bile from your duodenum. These hyper-expensive resorts are usually found in a restored castle or magnificent villa.

For those of us with a thinner wallet, a more affordable option is available. The village of Montecatini (also called Montecatini Terme) just might be the Fountain of Youth for the middle class.

This small Tuscan town midway between Florence and Pisa is becoming one of Italy’s top-rated health resorts. An ancient thermal source produces mineral-rich waters that scrub the skin, clean the intestines and purify the sinuses. The expansive natural parks are a quiet sanctuary where visitors can relax. Fanciful Liberty Style architecture — the Italian version of art nouveau — reminds us of our potential to accomplish impressive feats.

And it’s Tuscany, so the food and wine are terrific.

In spite of a recent surge in popularity (due to competitive prices and the fact it is a nearly perfect base from which to explore the region), Montecatini is not a new resort. Roman statues found during expansion of spa facilities testify to the use of its curing waters more than 1,000 years ago. Fifteenth-century documents refer to the town’s three baths, one described as “ancient.”

In those days, baths were used to correct digestive problems and relieve pain. Techniques are different now. Water therapy can be supplemented with mud baths, massage and a range of beauty treatments, but the therapeutic properties of the water are the same. Time spent in a spa is an investment in feeling and looking good.

The modern era for the health and beauty industry began in the early 20th century. To keep up with increased demand, the oldest spa establishment, called Tettucio, was redesigned. When workers finished construction in 1927, the Italian government designated the elegant building a national monument. Since then, all of the city-managed spas have had a face lift.

Today, Montecatini draws thousands of visitors from around the world. The nine spas offer a full array of services. More than 220 hotels accommodate any budget, and for after-treatment diversions, the countless bars, pubs and restaurants beckon with a variety that belies such a small city.

The waters of Montecatini come from a source some 80 meters underground. They are enriched with minerals and filtered through limestone, jasper and clay as they bubble to the surface.

That filtering eliminates impurities and, based on the course followed, each of four exiting springs has its own healthful properties. Leopoldina (also called “freedom”) improves intestinal functions. Tettucio (“dynamism”) purifies the liver and reduces cholesterol. Rinfresco (“lightness”) restores minerals lost through sporting activity. Regina (“purifying”) corrects the flow of bile from the liver to the intestine. All the waters are clear and odorless, with a slightly salty taste.

Beyond drinking the water, visitors can select from the various mud treatments that use different recipes of mineral-rich material to provide benefits from skin softening to wrinkle removal or fat reduction. Visitors can choose from a dizzying list of massage options, including hydro (with warm mineral waters and a high-pressure spray), foot reflexology, shiatsu or a classic back and shoulder relaxation treatment. Thermal pools help loosen tight muscles while invigorating the skin.

In addition, the town has nearly 115 acres of parkland available for walkers, runners or cyclists.

If bathing in a tub full of mud is not what you have in mind, don’t despair. There is more to do. High above Montecatini is the tiny village of Montecatini Alto. For centuries, the fortress here controlled the valley from Florence to Pisa. Today, sitting at a comfortable cafe or restaurant, you’ll simply enjoy a fabulous view. To get there, take the cable car from Montecatini up the side of the mountain.

If you are looking for something a little faster, the Montecatini Track runs an ambitious schedule of horse races throughout the year.

Finally, if you have a car and want to counteract the beneficial effects of those spa treatments, you are not far from a wine region called Chianti — perhaps you’ve heard of it and its main product.

Guys, still not convinced? Here are two more reasons to visit.

n Golf: Montecatini has a beautiful 18-hole golf course that lumbers around Tuscany’s rolling hills. The undulating terrain, plush olive tree-flanked fairways, and two lakes challenge the skill of even the best players. While standing on the 10th green to line up that putt, take a second to look to the east. On the side of the mountain, you’ll see a small hill town — the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci (visit the fascinating museum there).

n Girls: A statistically unlikely (even for Italy) percentage of knee-weakeningly attractive young women live in Montecatini. Many, according to a local guide, are off-duty strippers. Although there are no clubs operating here, it seems that Italy’s ballerine have chosen Montecatini as a rest and recreation base during their professional travels around the country.

Whatever your preference, Montecatini has it. Whether you are looking for a serious beauty treatment or just a manicure; whether you want to explore Tuscany’s greatest treasures or simply take a quiet stroll through a park; whether you want to play 18 holes of golf or just watch the ponies, you’ll find it at Montecatini.

Jim Sajo is a freelance writer who lives in northern Italy.

If you go

Getting thereBy car: Drive west on A11 from Florence; Montecatini is just off the autostrada. Remember, while driving in Italy, Esso and AGIP gas stations will accept NATO fuel coupons.By train: Service from the main Florence station departs about twice each hour. A one- way ticket will cost 3.30 euros (about $4.50) By air: The Pisa airport is served by many discount airlines, including Ryanair. Transfer to the Pisa train station and then on to Montecatini, or rent a car at the airport.

Montecatini is ideally located for day trips by car, bus or train. Florence, with its famous museums, churches and crowds awaits you for a “keep-one-hand- on-your-wallet” visit. In the opposite direction, Pisa and Lucca offer more tranquil digs with plenty of charm.

Closer is often-overlooked Pistoia, with Florentine piazzas, a charming pedestrian-only city center, and a historic cathedral. Spa services

A central agency, Terme di Montecatini, is the point of contact for all spa services. Its Web site is, or telephone (+39) (0) 572-7781.

Sample prices for spa services (package deals also available):Thermal bath with lemon grass: A soothing dip to encourage blood circulation, re-energize the lymph system and eliminate fat deposits. 20 minutes for 29 euros.Press massage: This special massage helps reduce water retention. 40 minutes for 35 euros.Eye and lip facial: Reduces lines and wrinkles and relieves swollen, puffy look through special oils and a gentle massage. 25 minutes for 35 euros.Thai massage: Combines Chinese pressure techniques with yoga-inspired stretching to increase energy, improve cardiovascular efficiency and eliminate toxins (not bad!). 70 minutes for 100 euros.

Hotels are not combined with spas, so booking a room must be done separately. For help, contact the tourism office through, by e-mail at info@montecatini., or by telephone at (+39) (0) 572-772247 (English is spoken).

DiningDon’t miss Kisso Sushi at Via Mameli 21. After a refreshing cocktail, the popular Japanese restaurant serves excellent sushi, miso soup and many tempura options, complemented by a surprisingly international wine list.

— Jim Sajo

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