Three of the most iconic thermal baths in Italy

The country has a wellness culture that stretches back centuries — dating back to the rise of the Roman Empire. With the Tuscan spa town of Montecatini Terme being inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, we sojourn through Italy’s spa history.

Located in Tuscany along the Via Francigena pilgrim route, the thermal waters of Bagno Vignoni became a popular stop-off during Roman times for travellers and locals alike.  

Photograph by Getty Images
By Samantha Lewis
Published 12 Nov 2022, 10:00 GMT

1. Soak in the Nitrodi, one of the oldest thermal baths in Europe

Italy has an abundance of natural hot springs that can be traced back before the rise of Rome — steaming pools heated by geothermic forces deep within the Earth. One of the earliest examples are thought to be in Nitrodi on the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples. The ancient Greeks were the first to identify these waters’ curative properties, especially for skin ailments; 3,000 years on, the thermal springs remain a favourite wellness hub.

There are dozens of other places to soak across the island, including Sorgeto Bay, on the southern coast, where hot water gushes directly into the sea. After descending some 200 steps to shore, bathers are rewarded with free-to-enter, natural rocky pools of various sizes and temperatures, all set within a picturesque cove.

Elsewhere, Saturnia in southern Tuscany is another spring that’s been flowing for millennia. Arguably the most stunning of them all, it’s an otherworldly sight where milky blue waters cascade down travertine stone pools. These springs are free to the public, too, and ideal for year-round bathing, as the water stays at a toasty 37C.

Left: Top:

At Bagno Vignoni, bathers would swim in the pool that fills the main Renaissance-era piazza, which remains unique and unchanged to this day. 

Right: Bottom:

The view of Val D'Orcia from Bagno Vignoni, with the town of Castiglione d'Orcia in the distance.

photographs by Alamy

2. Discover Roman-time wellness at Bagno Vignoni

No discussion about spa culture in the country is complete without mentioning the Romans, who expanded the use of thermal baths as a communal activity. Almost every Roman city had a bathhouse, some large enough to welcome several thousand bathers, who would come together, relax and socialise. When the empire collapsed, they were neglected and gradually fell into disrepair; not a single one is in use today. But travellers can still luxuriate in a bygone era by visiting archeological ruins. The best preserved are the Baths of Caracalla, located just outside Rome’s city centre: in their heyday, these were a sumptuous affair of sprawling hot and cold pools, steam rooms and even a gymnasium.

Alternatively, do as the Romans did by heading a couple of hours north to the hot springs in Bagno Vignoni, in the Tuscan area of Val d’Orcia. Located along the Via Francigena, one of the oldest and most popular pilgrim itineraries to Rome, this tiny hamlet became a charming stop-off for weary travellers — as well as a resort for moneyed Italians, including Pope Pius II and Lorenzo the Magnificent. They would swim in the pool that fills the main Renaissance-era piazza, which remains unique and unchanged to this day. Sadly, it’s no longer suitable for swimming, but the warm waters can be enjoyed at nearby Parco Dei Mulini (Park of the Mills).

Left: Top:

The combination of spas, art and architecture earned the resort of Montecatini Terme a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2021 as one of the Great Spa Towns of Europe.

Right: Bottom:

At Terme Tettuccio, treatments are based on hydroponic therapy (water drinking). Visitors can taste the four famous waters of Montecatini, all said to do wonders for the liver and digestive system.

photographs by Getty Images

3. Marvel at one of Europe’s great spa towns at Montecatini Terme

In the late 1700s, public bathing came back into vogue, but more for medicinal purposes. The town leading the revival was Montecatini Terme in the heart of northern Tuscany: thanks to the vision and patronage of Grand Duke Leopold, it built a number of spas around its thermal springs. The largest and most beautiful was Terme Tettuccio, which is still in use today and where treatments are based on hydroponic therapy (water drinking). Visitors can taste the four famous waters of Montecatini, all said to do wonders for the liver and digestive system. Guided tours are also offered of the grounds, where marble pavilions sit among manicured gardens. Inside, walls are adorned with splendid murals by Galileo Chini, the father of Italian art nouveau. In fact, it’s the combination of spas, art and architecture that earned Montecatini a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2021 as one of the Great Spa Towns of Europe.

Elsewhere in the complex, you’ll find two other wellness centres, Terme Excelsior and Terme Redi, both of which focus on more modern thermal health and beauty treatments such as mud wraps, rain-style massages and inhalation therapy.

PAID CONTENT FOR DISCOVER ITALY

For more information, visit italia.it

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