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As tricky as I have found it in Italy to satisfy my raw organic snack cravings, down shots of wheatgrass juice, or locate bikram yoga studios within walking distance from my home- the word “benessere” (well-being) is anything but foreign to Italians. The difference, from what I have come to understand, is that Italians have a holistic yet sporadic approach to benessere. As opposed to what I consider well-being: a lifestyle, 24-7, 365, non-stop mentality and habits… the Italians I know look at the business of well-being as dedicating a week here and a week there to fortify mind, body, and/or soul- then back to the grind (and gluten, cigarettes and brunello) until the next time.
And with this approach, I have become familiar with the plentiful hot-springs hotels, spas and agriturismos spread throughout the various regions of Italy. Of course, the idea of public bathing is anything but modern… when it comes to Italians.
Bathing in public played a major role in ancient Roman culture in many levels of society. Today, Italians are said to seal business deals “alla tavola,” seated around grand tables in bustling restaurants for major meals. In ancient Rome, however, business was done while bathing. And not only business- the Roman baths were utilized for purposes of courtship, relaxation and health. According to some sources- sacred pools were blessed by the gods to cure disease. Well, bring on the sulphuric swimming!
Therefore, I wasn’t surprised the first time I spent a weekend at one of the many hot springs scattered throughout Italy to find men and women of varying ages and provenances all convening for a dip in vast natural bathtubs. From the northern region of Lombardy, down to the southernmost point of Sicily- one has the possibility of dipping their toes (and other body parts) into wild hot springs, natural pools, and thermal parks.
A large portion of the natural hot springs throughout Italy have been exploited by luxury hotels, boasting anything from spas to golf courses- but (fortunately for us) steaming water charged with mineral salts, bubbling up from the earth’s crust is plentiful in this country…thus, for the frugal traveler, an abundance of gratis thermal baths can be unearthed with ease. And truth be told, hot spring water is hot spring water– whether you are paying 500 Euro a night or happen to take a dip for free.
Now, hot-springing is not for the faint of heart. Literally: “please be aware that extreme geothermal temperatures can be exceedingly hazardous in combination with physical conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease.” And figuratively: Let’s be honest here, running back and forth between different pools, fountains, torrents (both natural and not), choosing the most comfortable underwater lounge chair or best positioned jet…while dodging bits of floating algae, “don’t worry it’s naturally plant based,” and risking smelling of rotten eggs for weeks, skirting wrinkled senior citizens rolling around in mud as their nurses hold their shower-capped heads out of the gunk, while praying that the large chunk of slimy brown stuff floating dangerously close to your face is pond scum and not what you think it is, then you are in business!
I remember my first visit to a thermal spa. The valet opened the car door for me and even before I set foot on the ground, the stench hit me. Without missing a beat, the kind gentleman responded to the fear in my eyes crinkled nose by telling me that, “ci si abitua” (you get used to it). And get used to it, I did. Once I let my guard down (and began breathing through my mouth), I actually began enjoying the experience of thermal bathing. Consequently, throughout the duration of my time here in Italy, I have spent a number of weekends traipsing through medicinal mud and lowering myself into therapeutic waters in order to cleanse my body (in hopes of maybe one day cleansing my soul).
Italy’s hot springs are soothing, rejuvenating, and fortifying. Most sites are located near pleasant little villages boasting terrific rustic restaurants (if you don’t get pulled into the prix-fixe tourist traps) and relaxing atmospheres. And despite fact that your fingers will resemble raisins for the duration of your visit, the hot springs can be quite romantic as a weekend getaway.
Below is a list of the four hot springs I have visited thus far in Italy. These destinations were discovered through friends and fellow travelers, magazines articles, and travel site reviews. And as objective as I have attempted to remain in my sentiments, please keep in mind that my experiences (like all experiences) have been mildly altered by weather, state of mine, and mostly- the people with whom I shared my thermal encounters.
Bagno Vignoni. Tuscany. Above Val d’Orca.
A bit to the east of Montalcino, Bagno Vignoni is a small village whose thermal waters were valued and frequented by both the Etruscans and Romans. From the 12th to the 13th centuries, Bagno Vignoni became a destination for Christian pilgrims traveling to Rome. The healing waters of Bagno Vignoni have been bubbling to the surface for thousands of years and the miniscule village is a typically magical Tuscan community, comprising great wine, food and that oh-so-very-famous Tuscan sun.
A group of friends and I spent the day at Hotel Adler Thermae: http://www.adler-thermae.com/en/
In short: Beautiful structure, decent massage, great baths and spa facilities. Luxurious, pricey and well worth a visit. The actual waters of the baths are not the highest quality, compared to other hot springs found throughout Italy but the service is excellent and the surroundings can’t be beat.
Saturnia. Southern Tuscany, Province of Grosetto.
Close to the village of Saturnia, 800 litres (per second) of sulphurous water at 37 degrees celcius pours into a cascade of natural pools formed by calcareous rock deposits. The waters of Saturnia are known for their therapeutic properties and have a chemical make-up of sulfur, carbon, sulfate, bicarbonate-alkaline, earth, hydrogen sulfide gas and carbon dioxide. Each liter of water contains nearly three grams of dissolved minerals. There are a few different facilities found in Saturnia in which one can enjoy the thermal springs. Depending on budget and time, choices range from the famed luxury resort to the thermal waterfalls of either Mill Falls (located at an old mill) or the Waterfalls of Gorello. I recently stayed at the Le Terme di Saturnia Spa and Golf Resort http://www.termedisaturnia.it/en/ for a romantic weekend getaway with the hubby.
Positives: very close driving distance from Rome, high quality waters, some of the best spa treatments around. Negatives: STRONG sulphur smell, incredibly expensive, very few healthy choices on the lunch/bar menu. In short: it was a rejuvenating and much-needed romantic few days away. We will go back. (*note: Don’t listen to the concierge’s restaurant suggestions. I Due Cippi in Saturnia came highly recommended and was terrible service and terrible food at a terrible price. On the other hand, we loved everything about our dinner at La Posta in Catabbio. Order the Pici all’Agliata.)
Sorano is another town in the province of Grosseto. It is an ancient medieval hill town positioned over the Lente River. Sorano is commonly referred to as a “citta del tufo” (city of volcanic tufa) because it was founded on a base of the sedimentary rocks of volcanic origin. The Sorano thermal springs are positioned only a few kilometers from the village of Sorano (and those of Pitigliano, Sovana and Scansano as well).
I stayed at the Terme di Sorano Residence http://www.termedisorano.it with a large group of friends (small children included) for an extended weekend. The facilities were pretty basic and the hot springs were so-so. The place is a bit dated, but it served its purpose. The driving distance from Rome is convenient and the location is great for exploring the surrounding villages. All in all, it’s a humble little residence with nice pools and reasonable prices. (*note: We went horseback riding on a beautiful trail by the stables located almost next door to the hotel. The reception will be happy to set up the excursion).
Colà. Lombardy, right next to Lake Garda.
The thermal baths of Colà are found just off the Lake Garda. The grounds in which the hot springs are located are surrounded by cypress and beech trees in the Villa dei Cedri park: http://www.villadeicedri.it/en/
It is quiet and serene. The park includes pools (lakes) of different sizes, jets and a grotto. I only spent an evening in the hot springs of Villa dei Cedri (next time I hope to spend at least a weekend at the villa, taking advantage of not just the thermal springs, but the spa and wellness center as well). The few hours I did spend there were fantastic… the pools are open until 1 am and the lighting creates an idealistic, almost enchanted atmosphere, while the thermal waters do their healing and rejuvenating jobs. (*note: two wonderful nearby towns worth visiting are Lazise and Bardolino).
And the following is a list of the next four Italian hot “springs” spots I hope to visit in Italy:
Sorgeto, Ischia http://www.terme-ischia.it/sorgeto-ischia.htm
Fosso Bianco, Bagni San Filippo. Tuscany http://www.bagnisanfilippoterme.it/Fosso%20Bianco.html
Bagni Nuovi, Bormeo. Lombardy http://www.bagnidibormio.it/en/
Laghetto di Fanghi, The Volcanic Mud Baths of Sicily http://www.travelviaitaly.com/vulcano-therapeutic-thermal-springs-and-mud-baths/
As always, I’m open to any further recommendations or pointers. In the meantime, happy dipping!