Down on the farm

A cocktail of thermal mud, peppermint oil and local wine seems a curious recipe for relieving executive stress – but it may just work.

At Abano Terme, a spa town near Padua in northern Italy, you can enjoy a programme that combines health-promoting mud treatments and relaxing massage; corporate workshops focusing on working life and practices; personal mentoring to help you reconsider your priorities; and a chance to visit the surrounding area, which offers golf courses, splendid villas, wine-tasting at local vineyards and the magnificent cities of Venice, Padua and Verona.

Health spa experts Thermalia Travel and peak performance specialists Stressolutions have got together to provide a programme called Body & Mind – Fit for Business. At the four-star Grand Hotel Abano, which opened earlier this year, they offer small groups of business people the chance to “step back a pace, recharge their batteries, refocus and brush up on psychological skills”.

During a four-day visit to the hotel, two and a half days will be spent in interactive workshops aimed at enhancing performance. Group programmes, conducted by Stressolutions directors Annie Pellegrini and Heather Stirling, can be designed to focus on team building, psychological skills training, conflict resolution, managing change, listening skills or a number of other areas.

Another element is the personal mentoring, a one-to-one session in which clients are encouraged to find the zone where they are most alert, harness their energy and use pressure as a resource. They learn preparation routines and refocus on working towards their goals. Whether the main obstacle to achieving peak performance is stress, procrastination, role ambiguity, conflict or over-tiredness, mentoring helps to identify ways of tackling it.

If this all sounds a bit too much like hard work for an incentive programme, it isn’t. The focus is so firmly laid on caring for yourself that the overall feel is that of being pampered. And this impression is enhanced by the more physical elements of the spa programme.

Every day at the luxurious hotel begins with a session of “fangotherapy” – the technical term for covering you in hot, salt-enriched mud, wrapping you in blankets and leaving you to sweat for 15 minutes. The object is to increase the body temperature, stimulate the circulation and make you sweat out all the toxins. This is followed by a bath in thermal water, a compulsory rest as you cool down and absorb the salts from the fango treatment, and then a massage to further relax the body.

Legend has it that the battle-worn Roman soldiers who hung around these parts some millennia ago turned their lame and exhausted horses out into the fields around Abano, convinced their days of active service were over. But lo! As the horses trotted around in the marshy fields, their wounds healed and their weary limbs were revitalised by the thermal mud. Some 2,000 years later, the small region around Abano Terme boasts more than 100 hotels, at least one of which still offers fangotherapy for horses and is much employed by race horse trainers.

But if you go to the Grand Hotel Abano expecting what you would find at a health club in the UK, you’ll be disappointed – or relieved, depending on how you view wholesome, calorie-counted food, ranks of the latest gym equipment and a timetable of exercise classes that makes your thighs ache just to look at it.

The food here is far from light – the buffet tables groan with seafood, cheeses and cakes as well as salads and fruit; huge steaks and fresh fish appear on the almost daily pool-side barbecues; evening meals offer four sauce-rich, cream-filled courses; and alcohol flows freely from the bar, though the hotel will offer advice and special diets for those who want them.

The gym machines are basic and the exercise classes strikingly sedate, being geared towards the majority of the clientele – unsprightly, ageing Germans, for whom spa holidays have always been a way of life, so much so that doctors prescribe them as a rest cure and the government or em-ployer picks up the bill.

And if you want to come back looking like a supermodel, then the beauty treatments leave a lot to be desired. No bikini lines are waxed here, no nails are manicured and the facials are rudimentary – slap on a bit of thermal mud and wait for the temperature and the salts to weave their magic.

“This is not a beauty club. This is not a fitness club. This is a health farm,” says Dr Grassetto, one of the hotel’s two resident specialists in fangotherapy.

He explains that the hotel has many regulars who come twice a year to be fango’d for a week and he says 80 per cent of them can expect to stay without pain for six months, though he reckons the optimum results are achieved after a stay of a fortnight and ten to 12 treatments.

But if you don’t suffer from arthritis and are not expecting a miracle cure, then the three or four fango treatments you will have during a short visit will probably be as much stimulation as you need.

Other health treatments on the hotel’s extensive menu include shiatsu massage, hydrotherapy (massage using high-pressure hoses), inhalation therapy for respiratory conditions, and pressotherapy, in which your legs and lower body are placed into a device that looks like a cross between fishing waders and a lilo. Pockets in the trousers are rhythmically inflated to create gentle waves of pressure that wash up and down your legs, stimulating the circulation.

When you’re not refocusing your personal and corporate objectives or being swathed in hot mud or pummelled in one of the various ways on offer, you can relax in one of the hotel’s three pools (filled with thermal water, naturally) or borrow a bike and cycle round the town.

“A four-night stay is ideal for busy executives,” explains Pelligrini. “It allows a full day or more in the office, as the outbound flight is on Tuesday afternoon. Return flight on the Saturday allows clients to spend time with their families before going back to work.”

The four-night programme for a group of six people costs about 1,860 per person, including flights. For those wanting a longer stay, seven nights would cost about 2,500.

While the menu may be heavy and the gym machines basic, there is much to do outside Abano that could tempt people to opt for an extended visit.

Venice is less than two hours away. Verona, much loved by Shakespeare, is also about two hours away. Even nearer is Padua, where the Scrovegni Chapel houses fantastic Giotto frescoes and the Caffe Pedrocci has refreshed the city’s intellectuals for centuries. Also in the nearby Euganean hills are the villages of Arqua Petrarca, where Petrarch, the founding father of modern Italian poetry, lived until his death in 1374; the vineyards of Montefasolo and many impressive villas.

And after the vaporetto, the Verdi and the vineyards, there will just be time to head back to the hotel for more de-stressing before cocktails and a dinner dance.

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