Having a thermal cure is almost an Italian obsession. Fashionable grand spa towns vie with traditional resorts for the reputation of the best mud in Italy.
There are spa towns with thermal pools all over Italy. Many are grand stylish resorts, important tourist destinations where they hold Miss Italia competitions (Salsomaggiore) open air rock concerts (Montecatini Terme) or Verdi operas (Abano Terme). These major ones are rather like Cecil B. de Mille film sets, where waters emerge in formal steaming pools surrounded by pseudo classical Greek columns, or through elaborate taps in the form of lions’ mouths. At Montecatini the water is of increasing salinity: the doctor tells you at which tap to begin to take the waters, and you move along the row. Unsurprisingly, there’s a row of discreet lavatories at the far end.
Other Italian spa towns have different, more quirky attractions but are no less grand. Monsumato Terme is famous for its treatment in steaming hot caves. In Fiuggi there is a sping which, it’s claimed, combines diuretic qualities with an ability to dissolve kidney stones and prevent them re-forming.
Traditional Family Spas
Then there are the small faded spas which had their peak from the 1930s to 1960s when a “cure” was probably the only holiday an ordinary Italian family would have. These little places still cling to their genteel past, with hotels and pools which have seen better days but which attract the same families year after year. Improbably, they come to be cured with all sorts of ailments, from laryngitis to heart problems. (In my experience, the boiling hot mud is more likely to give you a heart attack!)
Thermal pools are always outdoors and fed by naturally hot bubbling springs, so that the experience is rather like swimming in hot Alka Seltzer. In winter the pools create hovering cubes of steam above them, with spots of colour which can be identified as swimming hats (the cuffia must always be worn when swimming) bobbing about here and there. There’s something oddly satisfying about swimming along in an indoor pool, then entering a wide tunnel, and slipping though plastic strips to greet the crisp outdoors with trees covered in frost and chickens pecking at frozen puddles. No one gets out of the water. If you stand up and expose your shoulders you realize just how icy the air is. You can’t see far through the steam, but the misty haze gives a romantic soft-focus view of the pine trees and the worst excesses of concrete functional architecture.
Every hotel has its own group of faithful clienti, returning year after year on the same week from all corners of Italy and behaving like one big happy family.They’re all deluded in this: how can it be a cure if they keep coming back for more?
Will it Continue?
A few years ago the Italian government tried to do away with the idea that Italians could spend a week or more each year having a cure on their Health Serice, a sort of free holiday. There was almost a national riot. Spas are part of a way of life which essentially goes back to Roman times. If they’ve lasted so long, there is no likelihood of their imminent demise.
Further Reading: Myra Robinson: Fried Flowers and Fango Author House 2011