Hot, heavy and healthy

John Brunton finds himself up to his neck in it during a spa treatment that has barely changed since Roman times.

I always think of spas as something undertaken on an Asian holiday - a relaxing Thai or Balinese massage or visit to an Indian retreat - so the idea of a detox weekend wallowing in hot mud does not exactly grab me with excitement when we pick up a hire car in Venice and head to the ancient Roman spa towns of Abano and Montegrotto Terme in the Euganean Hills.

The towns nestle at the foot of volcanic hills just outside the grand university town of Padua, less than an hour's drive from Venice. I have been warned by Venetian friends not to expect fashionable cosmetic mud treatments: the Euganean Hills (known as Colli Euganei) are famed for the regenerative effects of their unique "fangotherapy" - mud and algae aged in special tanks for more than two months, bubbling away in thermal water that springs out of the earth at a scorching 87 degrees.

The therapy is popular with Russian and German spa fanatics, and Italians who can get treatment reimbursed by Italy's public health system. I had put off going because the hotels used to push for a lengthy six- to 12-day full-board stay of intensive fangotherapy, but with the recession, most places offer well-priced B&B short stays.

So we are set for a long weekend of fango combined with fabulous pools, jacuzzis, saunas and hydrotherapy, and driving through the Euganean countryside exploring Renaissance abbeys and castles, Palladian-style villas and, if the detox gets too much, gourmet trattorias, rustic agriturismos and excellent winemakers.

While Montegrotto and Abano are just a few kilometres apart, they are quite different resorts. Abano is home to the bulk of luxury hotels, including the palatial Grand Hotel Terme Trieste & Victoria, which turns 100 this year. Much of the town is for pedestrians only and the pace of life can be a little sleepy. Montegrotto is closer to the Euganean Hills and we check in at the Hotel Terme Apollo, a comfortable, family-run stay. The hotel exterior may resemble 1970s Costa del Sol, as do most of the hotels here, but the surprise comes when Stefano Bernardi, the owner, shows us around the spectacular swimming pools and landscaped gardens that sit at the edge of rolling hills covered with thick woodland. There are four huge pools in all, waterfall showers to relax the head and shoulders and underwater tiled beds with jets that shoot water to massage the back and legs. We walk through the grand dining room; guests staying here are certainly not looking to lose weight as lunch and dinner run the gamut of antipasti, pasta, a hearty main course, dessert and cheese.

Bernardi says the spa towns of the Colli Euganei are different from others in Europe because there is no central municipal thermal centre. Instead, each hotel, and there are about 200, has its own hot thermal spring and is responsible for preparing the fango, under the supervision of the Italian health authorities. Regardless of how many stars it has, each hotel has similar facilities for the fango treatment.

Before trying the magical mud, I have an appointment with the hotel's resident doctor for a check-up to rule out specific heart and kidney problems. Everything proceeds smoothly, though the doctor crushes my illusions of wallowing in a mud bath, explaining that 20 minutes is pretty much the maximum anyone can tolerate being covered in 40-degree fango.

The treatment centre, decorated with Roman-style columns and tropical palms, resembles an upmarket private clinic. Mud treatments begin at 4am, with the last ones taking place at 9.30am - which I'm booked for - to ensure you experience the treatment before your digestive system kicks in after breakfast. The worker who prepares the fango tanks at the back of the hotel has already trundled in two large buckets of mud and plastered it on the bed in a curtained-off compartment. As I gingerly squelch myself onto it and lie back, a smiling fango staffer, Giuliana, starts sculpting me with what feels like hot clay. She also liberally sprays me with an "aromatherapy" that smells more like air freshener, obviously to mask the pong of the fango. After I'm encased in mud, she wraps me in blankets, with just my head sticking out and one hand left free.

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And so the minutes start ticking by. Beads of perspiration trickle down my nose until Giuliana pops her head around the door and comes in to dab me down. I'm unable to move my arms, fingers or feet. In fact, it feels as though I've been buried alive. Thoughts run through my head: "What happens if there is a fire alarm?"

I hear the occasional gurgling sound as the fango releases air and after 20 minutes I'm really quite relieved when Giuliana tells me it's time to get hosed down and slip into a warm jacuzzi of bubbling, ozone-enriched thermal water. She hasn't finished yet, though, as she pats me down with a cloth, paints my body with a cooling menthol gel, and wraps me in a tight towel-toga, declaring, "Ecco Julius Caesar."

Then it's time to relax over a cup of ginger tea before walking to the massage room, where Signor Oscar pummels me for the next 50 minutes. At the end of our weekend stay, the effect of the fango has led to my feeling totally relaxed, and after a couple of hours spent each day in pools and at hydromassage, you can see why most of the regulars head off each afternoon to their rooms, reappearing in time for dinner.

Maybe this is what a spa holiday should really be about - not hip or designer, not New Age or holistic, just an old-fashioned terme, little-changed from Roman times.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Venice from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2035 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) then to Venice (6hr 35min). See emirates.com. Hire cars are available at the airport.

Staying there

Hotel Terme Apollo, Via San Pio X, 4, has double rooms from €150 ($176) a night for two people, plus an additional charge of €21.50 a person for use of the hotel's pools and wellness areas. Minimum three-night stay. See termeapollo.it.

Abano Grand Hotel Terme, Via V. Flacco, 1 35031, has rooms from €250 a night for two people. See abanograndhotel.com.

More information

See consorziotermeeuganee.it; abanomontegrottosi.it.

- Guardian News & Media

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