Image: Jay Yeo
September 03 2011
It’s 7.30pm and I’m only now nearing the end of my lunch at Claridge’s, London. Empty bottles of Jacques Selosse Substance Grand Cru Blancs de Blancs, Bienvenues Bâtard Montrachet 2005, Domaine Ramonet 2005, Cheval Blanc 1976, Cheval Blanc 1986, Château Montrose 1990, Vintage Port Fonseca 1963 and a couple of bottles of Bollinger La Grande Année 2002 are laid in front of me and my five friends like spoils of war. (Fear not: the column has not become Wine Junkie.)
I undo my trouser button and consider the tablecloth sullied from an afternoon of glorious indulgence. This is certainly not the norm, dear reader, I can assure you; it’s in the name of friendship (not work). We six have been tasting wines bought days earlier at auction for my hosts’ imminent wedding in Venice. To accompany them, we arranged a feast: citrus-cured sea trout, Suffolk pork belly, langoustines on toast, crispy salt-baked Herdwick lamb niçoise, plates of cheese and desserts. Petits fours and friandises are scattered about like empty bullet shells, the detritus of a seven-hour lunch at the Chef’s Table at Gordon Ramsay. This meal is the caramel straw on the vanilla-pod pudding that broke the camel’s back – or, in my case, that sent the needle of my intoxication levels and my Bosch scales alarmingly into the red zone.
I realise I’m having a moment of epiphanic horror that so many women have: the daily indulgence has to stop.
DAY ONE: 6pm
My body and soul let out a sigh of big relief as I arrive at Villa Paradiso. The booking process was more than a little irritating, as the receptionist’s command of English left a great deal to be desired. I’m an absolute stickler on this particular issue – I feel that if you want to attract an international clientele, you need to ensure that the spoken English is up to scratch, especially as a medical spa is a far more complex offering than a traditional one – clients are arriving with concerns far greater than a feather pillow and a heated pool. They are entrusting you with their health and, naturally, will have many questions. It all starts with the first call; I’m dumbfounded as to why so many destination spas get the reception piece so wrong.
When I finally did get some answers to my initial enquiries, the menus I was sent by e-mail were terrifyingly fussy and put together with what appeared to be little to no rationale. Veal and potatoes, steak and rice, ossobuco and rice, and various desserts had me alarmed and confused as to the spa’s thinking.
If Villa Paradiso had not come recommended by a trusted friend, and I hadn’t paid the deposit, I would have cut loose weeks before.
Now, however, I wander to the water’s edge, my feet sinking into the grass with every step, the scent of lemon and jasmine hanging thick as I cast my eyes over the pretty manicured gardens of this salmon-pink Italian villa on the edge of Lake Garda. As settings go, it’s the spa equivalent of chicken soup for the soul.
Villa Paradiso’s history has a rather inglorious bit to it: during the second world war it was a stronghold for generals from the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (the puppet state headed up by Mussolini under Hitler’s command). It was not until 1988 that it was purchased by the forward-thinking Joëlle Vassal, who, realising the potential of the spa-and-wellness sector and the importance it would play in the future, converted the villa into a “beauty farm”. It strikes me that this rather ridiculous name-tag belies the utter seriousness of what the Italian medical spas usually offer.
DAY ONE: 7pm
To my surprise, the spa and the gym are closed. I make my way to reception. “I had asked for the local walks and a map to be in my room on arrival, but they don’t seem to be there. Would you be so kind as to direct me to the local running and hiking routes?”
“There are no hikes, madam. You can run along the road, or around the lake. There is no hiking.” So emphatic is the delivery that I decide not to argue, despite the dramatic mountain range that’s visible just outside the front door. Feeling a little miffed, I take a small run-walk of discovery and then head straight in to supper afterwards.
I’m the last to arrive; I can almost hear the heavily grey- and silver-haired guests’ necks crick as they turn to stare. Oh dear. Deciding not to change for dinner was a major faux pas; not having packed more than my gym kit is catastrophic. Like a rabbit in the headlights, I’m frozen in the doorway in my skimpy neon-pink and yellow running kit – and not sure who’s more shocked/alarmed; them or me. After several raised eyebrows and surreptitious glances at my derrière (and a strategic shin-kick under the table from a wife to her husband), the diners go back to their eating, and I slink to the nearest table, sit and fix my eyes firmly on the cutlery.
DAY TWO: 9.30am
“Buongiorno! Come with me.” Dr Lucio Loreto, a diminutive balding man, collects me from the waiting room. “How do you feel?” He sits back and crosses his arms in anticipation of my sermon. “It’s been a long summer,” I explain, “and I need an MOT” – oops, remember, he is probably not fluent in English; keep it simple – “What I mean, doctor, is I need a check-up, and I would like to lose my little belly.”
“Lie on the bed,” he commands. He fires up the Vega electrode machine and hands me two metal bars to hold, one positively charged, the other negatively charged, as he uses a probe to push into key points on the left and right of each finger. Each time he presses into a finger, it makes a high-pitched sound.
The Vega machine checks patients from head to toe using electro-acupuncture. It claims to show where functional disorders are located in the body, and then generates diagnostic indications and therapy recommendations. It also claims that it can uncover issues not always detectable by standard investigative methods such as X-ray, Ultrasound, Cat scans or lab tests. (However, none of these medical claims has been substantiated by hard evidence.) The machine is often used to detect inflammation, masked or chronic diseases, and allergies and intolerances.
On a couple of occasions, the loud, high-pitched sound is more like a groan. Even to the untrained ear – ie, mine – this seems to foretell trouble. “What organ was that?” I ask. Dr Loreto purses his lips, frowns and shakes his head; it was my pancreas. Next comes a long, low grunting noise. “That sounds terrible…”
I’m worried; he shakes his head again solemnly, confirming my concern. “Yes, that is your liver.”
Yikes. My kidneys, too, register with a sound like a beaten old truck engine. Note to self: remove these three from my organ-donor list when I get back to London.
Back at his desk, we sit to discuss his findings. “Your pancreas and your liver are very tired. Kaput. And I think there is something going on with your intestines. You have some virus.”
“What type of virus?”
“We don’t know. We need time. Let’s speak tomorrow.”
“I want to ask you more about the machine,” I say as he stands and comes around to walk me out. “And I have not touched on the diet; and why is everyone drinking coffee and cappuccino and eating puddings? Are we not supposed to be on a detox? And what about this virus?”
He makes unmistakable motions of shooing me out, the door shutting to his firm “Ciao. A domani mattina.”
My 30-minute slot with the doctor over, I am left feeling distinctly worried as I’m ushered to the aesthetician, Antonella. “How old are you?” she asks as she takes all my measurements. I’m 35. “Really?” Yes, really. “Wow; your skin tone is 10 years younger than your age.”
Finally, some good news; I’m relieved. I may die young from shrivelled up, grunting internal organs and an occult killer virus lurking in my gut, I say, but at least I’ll be a radiant corpse. Marvellous.
She laughs. “No, seriously – your face looks 27 and the skin on your body 25. I cannot recommend anything more apart from maintenance; you need nothing but to use more sunscreen. I’ll do a deep cleanse and mask for you each day. On your legs I can see some water retention, which, if we don’t deal with now, may turn into cellulite, so I recommend the LPG machine and daily detoxification massage.”
My trip to the masseuse bears no surprises; I carry my stress in my shoulders. “Try and work less; and do more massage.” Yes, yes. Magari, as the Italians say – if only.
I spend the rest of the day undergoing a series of tests with a full range of machines. One checks my heart, the other takes all my vital statistics and measures my fat/muscle/water ratio and my calorie expenditure, food intolerances, body acidic levels and blood. The machines are all from the Vega family and entail electrodes attached to feet, hands and head. Others have small, octopus-like tentacles that stick onto your chest. All yield information about the energetic state and function of organs and organ groups.
Starving, I rush from a brief workout in the gym to have a shower and make it down to the dining room for a reasonable 7pm. I go to take my seat but am swiftly intercepted by a staffer. “We only open at 8pm.” What? I’m starving and would much prefer to eat before 8pm. “Madam, those are the rules; please come back at 8pm.” Not even a little aperitivo..?
I spend the next hour drinking tea in a deep state of hangriness – hunger and anger.
Spa Junkie pays for all her own travel, treatments and accommodation.