It was one of those intensely cold March days in Tuscany where the dying winter puts on its best effort to freeze bones for the last time, and my new boyfriend was winding along roads off the motorway south of Siena. It was the beginning of our story and I wondered where he was taking me, meandering through the perfectly ordered Chianti countryside studded with elegant cypress trees to wilder landscape of thickly wooded hills harbouring wild boar rucking up dramatically into the sky – big country superimposed on a small, groomed land. The day was drawing to a close, the cold was bitter and below us a river wound its way through a verdant copse and we scrambled down the sloping dirt track to it, the remains of a Roman wall on our left, a high bridge arcing above us to the right. Below, forming an opaque opal pool by the river running through this bucolic scene, was a natural thermal bath fed by hot springs trickling down a formation of rocks, steam rising into the darkening day. We stripped off – to our knickers as we had brought nothing to wear, having gone out just for lunch – and ran through the icy air into the water, relieved to lie down and have it lap our chilled shoulders, warm as a bath and smelling furiously of rotten eggs. My Italian man explained that this was the result of the main mineral present in the water – sulphur – and that, hard as it was on the nose, it was the surest way to baby-soft skin. And we lay in the water as the sun went down in a blaze of colours, the vapour snaking into the frigid air as the moon rose and the expansive Tuscan sky was stitched with layers of stars. We stepped out after half an hour into the cold air with not one shiver or shudder – the warm mineralised water had penetrated our bodies and kept us glowing like the Ready Brek kid – to find a new moon smiling on us and the steaming scene.
This was my introduction to Petriolo, one of Tuscany’s natural hot springs, and although the relationship didn’t last, my love for the wild thermal baths that lurk in the countryside remains to this day.
Tuscany is rich in hot natural springs which bubble out of the ground filled with minerals and the heat of the earth. Since Roman times the springs have been used for their curative properties, the Romans believed that the sulphurous water – which has the distinctive smell of rotten eggs – came from Hades, the underworld. Now the major hot springs are used by spa hotels and medical centres for both therapeutic and beauty treatments as well as channelled into pools in which people can soak to cure a variety of conditions. But best of all are the wild hot springs which still pepper the countryside, free and untamed – if you know where to look.
The best known hot spring is Saturnia in southern Tuscany about an hour south of Siena. La Maremma is a wild area with a dramatic landscape of thickly wooded hills and valleys, olive groves, rows of vines and acres of wheat fields, the horizon riveted by tall elegant cypress trees.
Legend has it that the Roman god of the harvest, Saturn, lost his temper with war-like men and he sent a lightening bolt which split the earth from whence flowed hot sulphuric water over the people, calming them down. To find the wild sulphuric waterfalls that cascade down into a series of stepped pools, head out of town, along the side of the road a hot river collects in small pools – some people squeeze themselves into the roadside springs. But the main falls are the best place to go and easy to find. A drive along a dirt track brings you to a field where you can park and change and head down to the springs – a series of rock pools that have been turned white by the mineral deposits of the water which falls in a succession of waterfalls into the pools. The water is about 37º and instantly relaxes the body, releasing aches and pains. The minerals here are sulphur, calcium and carbon, good for skin conditions and aching joints. When it gets too hot, there is the river Albegna alongside to dip into to cool down, and help increase the circulation.
Twenty minutes south of Siena is Petriolo, hot springs which were popular with the Romans and which are first mentioned in Siena’s town records in 1215. Popular with the Medici during the Renaissance, pools are located below the remains of walls dating from 404AD, the only existing remnants of fortified Roman thermal baths. Petriolo is signposted from the main Siena to Grosseto road, but you only have to follow your nose down to the picturesque river Farma to find it. Not as dramatic as Saturnia, but more rural and surrounded by woods, the springs gush down into a series of small baths, climaxing into a large pool where people ease aching shoulders by sitting under the torrents of water. At 43º the temperature is perfect for cold days and the pools collect water at different temperatures – and there is the river alongside to dunk into for blast of cold water. The locals gather clay from the riverbanks which they dry and pulverise to a fine powder. When mixed with the thermal waters, it turns into the sort of mineral mud that spas sell, but at Petriolo it’s all up for grabs for free. The water is said to cure everything from a cold to arthritis and it softens and perfects skin conditions overnight.
Forty minutes south-east of Siena in an enchanting corner of Tuscany is the small town of San Filippo. Located between the volcanic peaks of Mount Amiata, the highest mountain in Tuscany, and the deeply wooded Orcia Valley, the small town takes its name from the Florentine hermit saint who retreated here in 13th-century. It is also known for its five hot springs which gurgle out of the ground at 52º and are enriched with sulphur, calcium, magnesium and sulphur bicarbonate, good for skin conditions, respiratory disorders and joint and bone problems. Mentioned by Machiavelli, Lorenzo the Magnificent also took the water cures here. Approaching the town, the smell of sulphur pervades the air, park along the side of the road from where there is a path over a small wooden bridge and into the woods into a bucolic scene of fluttering butterflies, buzzing dragonflies and frogs hopping into the green water filling the pools that the river flows into. Most stunning of all are the series of fosso bianco – formations of calcareous rock formed by the minerals, hanging down in a series of stalactites. The water used to pour down here though it has now been diverted to the spa in the town, but following the path through dappled daylight reveals pool after pool under waterfalls of opaquely white water – set below the spa above from where the water gushes down. San Filippo’s milky mineral water flows through the pools and along the river, banked by bamboo, for miles.
Where to stay
The nicest place to stay within easy striking distance of all three wild hot springs, is Castello di Vicarello, a renovated 12th-century castle set in the mountains of La Maremma, with 360º views of the hills and valleys spread out below. Sensitively renovated, each room and suite is furnished with the superlative eclectic taste of the delightful owners. Two swimming pools, a spa with a hot tub overlooking the wooded valleys and delicious organic food and wine from their own estate make the Castello stand out, even in Tuscany where beauty and excellence is the order of the day. (Castello di Vicarello, loc. Vicarello 1, Poggi del Sasso; tel: 0564 990718)
View the article onlin: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2010/may/01/italy-tuscany-natural-hot-springs
Copyright © Kamin Mohammadi. 2011. All rights reserved