The day after my friends and I participated in the vendemmia back in 2003, we decided to sooth our weary bodies in the warm thermal waters at Saturnia. It’s near Lou’s beloved town of Pitigliano and we just happened to be staying there for a few days. Like the vendemmia, this was also something on my “to do” list — and it was a heck of a lot easier than picking grapes….not to mention the added benefit that your hands didn’t turn permanently purple.
Italy has a lot of terme, or hot springs, and they’ve been treasured for their curative properties since before Etruscan times. I’m not sure if this is still true in our age of austerity, but not too long ago, thermal waters were an accepted part of the national health system. Doctors could prescribe different springs for different diseases.
I first saw this in 1990 in Montecatini Terme, where the waters were primarily for drinking. Back then the patients would be very formally dressed for their treatments – women in dresses and men in suits and ties….like they were going to church. The spas were just as formal…. grand buildings and beautiful fountains, with the healing waters flowing from ornate spigots. The patients would have prescriptions from their doctors to drink a certain number of times a day from a particular fountain, and I think the popular ailments were associated with the kidneys, liver and digestive system.
Of course, that was 21 years ago, and times have changed. I’m sure today the dress code includes jeans, but this being Italy, you can see from the stock photo below that the beautiful buildings are still intact.
Getting back to Saturnia – its waters are for bathing, and the cure is for muscles, joints and bones.
The town of Saturnia is an exquisite little polished jewel that sits up on a hill with a 360 degree view. From one side you can see the modern Terme di Saturnia spa complex down in the valley below, which includes a 4-star hotel along with a variety of pools and buildings for its benessere (meaning “well being”) treatments. (NOTE: Benessere facilities have sprouted everywhere in Italy, just as they have in the U.S., the difference being that in Italy they tend to be somehow connected with a natural phenomenon rather than what we call “spas”, which are often tucked in a corner of a strip mall.) If you don’t want to stay in the posh Terme di Saturnia, you can pay to go as a day guest, use its changing room facilities, and take advantage of the pools and the spa treatments.
This modern facility, however, was not for me. I’ve been in places like this, and yes, I enjoyed them very much. However, I’d been hearing about the warm waters of Saturnia for years from Lou, and I was looking for the “authentic” experience, which required us to:
- Park in a dusty, unpaved parking lot.
- Change into our bathing suits in the car.
- Walk across a field of high weeds.
- And finally, lodge ourselves in a rushing stream of water using stone footholds and exposed tree roots in order to keep from being swept down to the falls at the end.
Did I mention that it smelled like rotten eggs?
The good news is that our efforts were rewarded by being enveloped in 99.5-degree water….which just happens to be THE perfect temperature in which to submerge a weary body. The water swirling around you feels like an expensive hydro-massage treatment – except that Mother Nature is supplying it, not the modern spa up the road. And as she has demonstrated time after time, Mother Nature knows best.
Though the Terme di Saturnia hotel was built over the source of the hot spring, that does not stop the warm, flowing waters from escaping out of the expensive real estate at a rate of over 12,000 gallons per minute, down the gently sloping terrain, searching for the lowest point. The result is that the water has carved a narrow channel in the limestone, running through the fields, over a waterfall, ending in a series of still pools.
Best of all — this run-off is open to everyone AND it is free!
After we got tired of bracing ourselves in the rapids, we made our way down to the waterfalls. Here, limestone pockets have been eroded on the various levels, allowing you to calmly soak for a while before descending to the next level. When I said these waters were available to everyone, I meant even animals. Several thoughtful pet owners had brought their elderly dogs, in hopes of relieving some of their (the dogs’…..although it could be the owners’, too) aches and pains.
While I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the medicinal value of spa therapy, I have to say that we felt incredibly good after our Saturnia experience. Having done the vendemmia the day before, all of our previously unused muscles should have been screaming, yet no one experienced any soreness. Even Lou’s knees, which were going to be replaced the following month, stopped aching for a short time.
So given our level of comfort, you might assume that we’ve made Saturnia a regular stop whenever we’re in the neighborhood. But you’d be wrong. The rotten egg smell was just too much for my companions. I didn’t get back until 2010.
During the 7 years between visits, I had told everyone who would listen about how much fun it was to hike across the field to enjoy the soothing waters. Unfortunately, people would be turned off just driving down the road next to the field because the smell of sulfur was so strong. Remember Nancy and Kathy, who appeared in both the bat story and last week’s bones blog? Well – you just can NOT discourage these two, and when they stayed with me in 2010, they were determined that rotten eggs would not keep them away. They had obviously listened to my warnings, though, because they were armed with clothes they wanted to throw out. Unfortunately for me, I had not listened to myself.
After we finished splashing around, I completely dried off and put my towel in the bag along with my swimsuit, so nothing wet would touch any of my dry clothes. I knew I’d have to take several showers to get the odor off my body, but I really didn’t expect the smell from my dry skin to totally permeate everything I was wearing. Everything! I had a long-sleeved shirt on with a fleece over it. Even the fleece, which didn’t touch my skin at all, smelled of rotten eggs.
When I got home, I immediately washed my clothes. I hung them outside in the sun to dry. I washed them again….more sun….then another wash….then 7 or 8 more washes. I used boxes of baking soda. Then more washes. They still smelled like rotten eggs. I was particularly miffed because those were my best-fitting jeans.
You might think that this odor problem would turn me off of Saturnia forever, but I still absolutely LOVE the experience of it, and still highly recommend it as a truly unique adventure. And I pass on to you the #1 most important piece of information you need to keep your suffering down to a minimum. A friend’s sister was in town a month after my Saturnia expedition and I was whining to her about never being able to wear my clothes again. She thought for a moment, and then said the magic word that solved my problem, and will solve yours, should you choose to go to a sulfur-smelling terme: vinegar.