by Sarah Royce-Greensill, The Telegraph, August 3, 2018
It’s funny how certain destinations become hot tickets, seemingly out of nowhere. Perhaps it's the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, but Puglia is enjoying its moment in the sun. The heel of Italy’s boot has become a fast favourite with the fashion crowd and families alike, who are attracted by its surprisingly verdant landscapes, delicious local cuisine and - for now - sense of holidaying away from the hordes.
As the region’s first mega-resort, Borgo Egnazia has played a significant role in developing Puglia’s popularity. Opened in 2010, it’s a sprawling, impossibly photogenic village of cobbled streets and hot-pink bougainvillea creeping over creamy local sandstone against vast blue skies.
Designed to resemble a traditional Puglian borgo (village), it’s a Disney-perfect bubble, one where families ride bikes from the beach to the central piazza to eat homemade orecchiette al pomodoro among artfully arranged displays of vegetables, before retreating to splash about in their villa’s private pool. It’s incredibly idyllic and, even more incredibly, was built in its entirety from the ground up in just four years.
One of Borgo Egnazia’s strongest draws - and possibly what attracted the likes of Justin Timberlake, Jessica Biel and Madonna to its whitewashed walls - is its Vair Spa, the winner of numerous industry awards. It might seem a shame to prise yourself away from the outdoor pool to spend hours underground, but as soon as the bevvy of barefoot women dressed in draped Grecian gowns usher you into the candle-strewn lobby, you realise this is no normal hotel spa.
There’s something vaguely cult-like about the spa itself, with its orderly symmetrical columns, cream-on-beige colour palette and hundreds - I mean hundreds - of pillar candles. But it’s immediately soothing. Although it features 11 treatment rooms and spreads over 2,000 sq m, it manages to feel cosy and cocooning; an otherworldly break from the distractions of modern life.
Vair (meaning “truth” in the local dialect) takes holistic wellness very seriously - its treatments are designed, it says, to start you on “a path of purification, leading to your personal happiness, during which you’ll encounter a very special person: yourself”.
The team encompasses the usual massage therapists, personal trainers and beauticians alongside nutritionists, musicians, artists and dancers, who work together to help you “find a regenerated capacity for inner joy”. Easy for sceptical Britons to scoff at, but in front of the smiling sprites who pad around the candlelit spa, it seems infinitely more plausible.
Visits to the spa begin with a consultation, which enables therapists to tweak the treatments to best suit guests' physical and psychological needs. These consultations can be as deep as you have the appetite for - while others report profound discussions which led to them making life-changing decisions, my chat focused on broad questions about my general health, diet and sleep patterns. Perhaps my therapist sensed my aversion to anything overly ruminative.
The signature treatment is the two-hour Spirt bathing ritual. in which guests are guided through various different parts of the Roman-style baths, alternating hot and cold experiences in Kneipp-style therapy. It begins in the heated hydrotherapy pool, advanching onto a sauna, tepidarium and caldarium - each interspersed with a cold shower, ice scrub or shriek-eliciting bucket of icy water over the head.
Later I lay on a stone slab as I was sluiced with warm oil, scrubbed with salt and smothered with mud - an intimate and cosseting experience. If I was relaxed after that, I was positively horizontal after the subsequent 30-minute soak in the saltwater flotation tank.
The spa encourages guests to try multiple treatments per day, and offers three- to five-day programmes designed to detox, relieve muscular tensions, or “increase joy”. Mornings might begin with yoga, stretching or ‘fitwalking’ - a brisk stroll around the surrounding fields - while the rest of the programme is filled with treatments based on local ingredients and customs.
Alternatively, guests can dip in and out. I enjoyed the Abbel Bel facial, which employs fresh herbs and oils from the kitchen garden, and the U Mor massage, in which a therapist used olive oil and warmed sea water in rhythmic strokes accompanied by the sound of crashing waves to send me into a blissful sleep - something I usually struggle to do during massages.
The following day I was tempted by the Annaske massage, which was billed as “a two-hour journey in aromatherapy”. I had expected to inhale various essential oils and let the aromas work their magic, but it turned out to be a full-body scrub, mud-mask and wrap, followed by another wonderfully relaxing massage which made me drift off almost immediately. I was getting the hang of this unwinding business.
Vair Spa is constantly updating its offering, and this year its holistic focus extends to nutrition too. It has enlisted nutritionist Dr Agostino Grassi, who works alongside Borgo Egnazia’s head chefs to ensure that menus all feature options in line with the traditional, healthy Mediterranean diet.
We were encouraged to join an olfactory tasting session at the Mia Cucina kitchen, where earlier in our stay we’d learnt to make orecchiette pasta by hand. The intriguing-sounding tasting promised to “reveal how the taste is enhanced by personal memories and emotions recorded in everyone’s brain”.
The scientific benefits of what followed may have been slightly lost in translation. In essence, it meant eating a series of 16 tiny bites, each one featuring a local spice or herb, first while holding our noses and then letting go, to uncover the unsurprising fact that flavours are diminished without a sense of smell.
I think it was a lesson in mindful eating: Dr Grassi pointed out that, while we’d only consumed 250 calories at most, paying close attention to the exact flavours meant that by the end of the session we felt satiated. It’s a way to avoid overeating but I’m not sure how applicable it is in real life - and we didn’t touch on the more interesting link between memories and taste.
It did, however, show the skill of the restaurant’s chefs, which hadn’t been demonstrated during dinner at the trattoria-style restaurant La Frasca, which dishes up underwhelming takes on traditional Puglian dishes at A-lister price tags; disappointing in comparison to the wonderful cuisine we'd experienced elsewhere in the region.
Borgo Egnazia also boasts a fine-dining restaurant, Due Camini (closed during our visit), a beachside seafood restaurant, and several other family-friendly eateries: essential in a resort that during peak season can house 550 people.
Puzzling though the olfactory tasting was, we couldn’t fault the enthusiasm of our local advisor (and translator) Ersilia, nor any of the beaming staff we encountered throughout our stay. Perhaps the key was, like the mystical symbols which populate the lobby, not to try too hard to understand it - and instead simply enjoy this shining, shimmering, splendid Pugliese fantasy.
Borgo Egnazia (+39 080 225 5850) offers rooms from €249 (approx. £219) per night on a B&B basis, based on two people sharing a Corte Bella Room, excluding City Tax. Facials and massages from €125 (£110) for 50 minutes.