The term "Roman Baths" carries with it a certain historical weightiness that speaks of luxury and tradition. (Probably hot sweatiness and murder, too, but let's stick with the luxury and tradition angle, shall we?) Imperial engineers brought aqueducts to all corners of the empire, and bathing became almost a religion of its own. So…
What do contemporary Romans do?
Need foofy cocktail.
Despite my previous rants and ramblings about the fall of the empire and its effects on Italian plumbing, there are still some nice things about Lazio that one cannot help but enjoy. Tivoli, about 30 km (19 miles) east of Rome, has long been known for its thermal baths. The restorative powers of the water were hailed by healers, religious types, and emperors for centuries.
Even now, the main attractions of the town are hotels and spas built around the pools. You often pay for the marketing as much as the facilities, however. Just up the street, around the corner, and down an inconspicuous road next to the marble quarries, are several outdoor baths that are just as lovely to visit – and often more affordable.
The road to luxury never looked so humble.
Before Dario and I moved to Ireland, I was introduced to some of the outdoor thermal baths. That is to say, I was introduced up close. I'd been smelling them regularly almost every evening while we were with the family. Inevitably, when we'd be settling down for the night, maybe watching a movie on our laptops or reading a book, one of us would give the other a suspicious look.
"Did you …?"
"I could have sworn I smelled something."
"Well, it wasn't me!"
Then we'd look suspiciously at the cat. Then back at each other. And then we'd remember that the breeze changes in the evening, bringing with it the, ah, restorative odor of the mineral springs.
I was excited to finally visit the source of the refreshment and see what the big stink (pun intended) was about. Color me surprised when I learned that the mineral springs, all called terme (thermal baths), could be either hot or cold in nature. The smaller outdoor facilities are generally cold and ideal for summer afternoons.
Formula for enjoyment:
put on your bathing suit, pack a lunch,
stake out your umbrella and lounge chairs,
and enjoy la dolce vita.
Italians are all, "Yeah, yeah, so it's marble. So what?"
I don't know if the quarries or the pools came first in this neighborhood. The underground water is apparently quite close to the surface. There have, in the past, been complaints against the quarries because of suspicions that their activities pollute. I'm not at all clear how this affects the drinking water supply, since the water for swimming and bathing and spa-ing has copious amounts of sulfur in it, but tap water does not. There is, however, plenty of calcium. The sulfur accounts for both the smell and many of the reported curative properties of the liquid. In any case, there's a quarry right across the road. Marble in Italy is like pine trees in western Washington – it's everywhere!
Each little bathing pool is run by a different proprietor and has a unique name. The one Dario's family has been favoring of late is proudly named "H2SO", which, if you know anything about chemistry, is a petite numeral 4 short of naming itself, "Sulfuric Acid!" …yay!
The water is indeed acidic, though quite diluted. If you have a scratch or a sensitive area of skin, it can sting a bit. Menfolk typically have some bad moments with their, ahem, twig and berries when they first enter. After Dario's 5th mention of matches and flames, I asked him why any thinking male would submit to such a thing. He answered, quite illogically, "Because it's awesome!" "It's awesome to feel like your bits are on fire?" "No. But the rest of it is awesome!" I gave him a funny look until I remembered that I'd suffered through Marine Corps boot camp due, in part, to the fact that I thought it, too, was awesome. Who was I to judge his needless suffering?
I mentioned to him that I felt a little bit of tingling on my forearms near the elbow, but that was it. He replied that he may also have been feeling stinging elsewhere (it is mosquito season, after all), but that he was quite distracted by the, urm, fire in the pizza oven. I asked if it ever ceased burning and, if so, why. He said it does, but his theory about why was more along the lines of nervous system overload than anything reassuringly simple like, "It just stops after a while." I wondered idly if this could be where the term "gird your loins" originated.
Some of the pools in the area are partially lined with concrete, though there are always spots that are not because bubbles come up through the bottom, turning the entire thing into a natural Jacuzzi, of sorts. I'd say hot tub, but the water is surprisingly cool, even cold.
Dario shivers from the cold. No, really, that's his "shivering with cold" face, not the sizzle-and-grimace look.
It really is amazing fun to be melting in the Roman sun and then wade into fresh, spring-fed mineral water. The spots where bubbles come up can vary, so finding the best natural spa action can be an entertaining diversion. We discovered that there are some spots where it looks like artificial jets are installed (they're not), whereas other spots just store up wee bubbles that either come up slowly on their own or quickly en masse when disturbed.
Shown coming from my feet so you'd believe me when I said I wasn't making my own bubbles. Ahem.
The water isn't very deep in most of the pools, so there are no diving boards. Most of them are drained every night and filled with fresh water in the morning. Water continues to cycle through during the day, entering from the source and exiting to a nearby river. I don't know how the on/off switch works, since the bubbles come up through cracks in the floor. I can only go off what the owners told us. *shrug*
Last time Dario visited this particular pool, it was about 1/3 the size it is now. The owner expanded it and installed a snack bar on the property. Not all upgrades were improvements, however. What the family liked about this place before was that it had grass around the water and the pool was carved from smooth-ish natural rock, rather than paved. Now it's larger and looks fancier, but the gravel (left over from the excavation process?) on the ground and inside the pool is really hard on the feet.
I didn't even bother trying to walk on it, as I have princess-like tenderness in my tootsies. Dario snorted derisively at me and said, "It's just gravel!" Moments later I was the one laughing as he minced and cursed his way to the pool. He thought he'd find relief once he hit the water, but the area by the stairs is likewise strewn with feet-gobbling detritus. Away from the edge, however, the stones are larger and padded with a velvety covering of sulfur-loving algae.
Bigger, "softer" stones in the middle.
The algae looks a bit unsavory when floating on top of the water, but Dario's mom tells me that it's known to be great for the skin. She said it contains a great deal of sulfur, and that folks sometimes mash it up and rub it on themselves directly. That alone makes it worth the price of admission, no?
In the short clip below you can see bubbles coming up from where I rattled the stones with my foot. You can also see bits of green floating up with the bubbles. That's the good stuff!
Can't see the video? Watch it on YouTube: http://youtu.be/qJ6MLZxTmBk
Use of the pools does cost money. After all, these things didn't carve themselves! Well, not the modern ones, anyway. For the price you get use of the pool and a little lounge chair, just like the ones you find on an Italian lido (beach). There are usually umbrellas and trees to provide a bit of shade, toilets (either chemical or flush), possibly a changing room, and sometimes a snack bar. Mid-week afternoon prices are the cheapest; full day passes are a few euros more; weekend prices are the highest. For our afternoon at "Sulfuric Acid Springs" we each paid 5 euro. (Update: Dario's mum tells me the fancy places up the road charge 40-50 euro for a mid-week afternoon!)
Dario has a religious moment. Halo, not water droplet, I'm telling you.
There is a sign next to the water that says something like, "You are not allowed to swim here." Dario said they'd asked the owner about it last year. Turns out it's some Italian bureaucratic craziness (surprise!) along the lines of swimming pools being required to have chlorine in them. This, of course, goes entirely against the point of visiting a natural spring. Also, aside from the sulfur-loving algae which is good for your skin, I rather suspect the acidity of the water does a pretty good job of killing off most of the things chlorine is designed to control anyway.
When I first moved to Italy, I was making a fair amount of money. I've never been one who shops for shopping's sake, but I did find myself buying more than I ever had before. One little vanity purchase I'd made was on Capri. Yes, I got delightfully suckered into buying an adorable green and white stripey bag and matching hat. I thought it was just a whim of the moment, but have since had several occasions to actually put it to use. I was happy to have my impulse buy become further legitimized during this visit.
It was hot, if not blazingly, meltingly so, and the sun was strong. We basked in its rays for a bit, then went into the water… slowly. It really was quite chilly! Once we were fully immersed, it wasn't quite as shocking. After I got my hair wet, however, I cooled off even more. A light breeze started up shortly after – that was the kicker! I got out as the chills began rolling down my spine. Off to the lounge – yay for my sun hat from Capri!
After munching on snacks, fiddling with photos, and warming up again, I decided to brave the chill waters once more. Dario declared that he was fine for the day and felt his 5 euro had been well spent. I wheedled and cajoled and, finally, he capitulaed and agreed to go back in with me. He must really love me if he was willing to brave the, ah, fires of the netherworld just to keep me company while I took more underwater photos.
The white chunk of rock in the distance is a sculpture.
There were amateurish sculptures scattered around the property. It put me in mind of the lumberjack art one finds at roadside stops up and down the west coast of the US. Just as you open your mouth to take the first bite of your Dripping Greaseburger Special, you notice there are lumpy, oversized carvings of bears, cowboys, eagles, and well-endowed mermaids staring woodenly (literally) at you. Custom jobs available! Ship to anywhere in the US! We'll even rent you a U-Haul trailer if you'd like to drive it home yourself! …but of course, this was Italy and it was marble, so there's already more class built-in, right? Right.
Contemporary Rome, as in the time of the empire, is an interesting cultural crossroad. Besides each region of Italy having its own identity, the boot is a place where Italians, Africans, Arabs, and Europeans mingle freely and often. That day I watched with raised eyebrows as a potential clash took shape. There were a couple of young women, possibly from eastern Europe, sunbathing topless beside the pool. (While this is neither unheard of nor forbidden in Italy, it's not especially common.) An hour or so into our visit, a pair of women in robes and headscarves, trailing 4 children, arrived.
Silly me! There was no drama at all. No sharp intake of breath and fruitless attempts to cover the eyes of the children, no storming off in a huff, not even a disapproving glance. Americans could learn a thing or three from this kind of acceptance.
Future amateurish sculpture.
After our final swim, we lounged about some more, remembering to enjoy the nice weather while we had the chance (Ireland is calling!). We stopped to chat up the owner on our way out. Dario complimented him on the new, larger pool and – very gently – mentioned in passing that it was a shame one could no longer comfortably walk barefoot around or in the pool. The owner nodded amicably and said, "Yes, you have to wear shoes," apparently not really picking up on Dario's hint. Oh, well!
Dario took a shower not long after we returned home. He said his skin now felt fantastic! I'd already taken a shower that day and was somewhat enjoying the idea that the minerals were still doing their work on me. The next day when I washed, I was amused to discover that the shower water apparently re-activated the sulfur and I smelled of eggs. At least, I hope I hadn't been inflicting egg-reek on the family up to that point. Ah, well, they probably just blamed it on the cat!
How have you been keeping cool?
We have the Romans to thank for a lot of things. What a wonderful place and I love your photos. I could do with a bit of TLC at a Roman Bath right now!
Same! I’m in Scotland at the moment. While lovely, it’s COLD! I would love a soak right about now. ;)
That sounds amazing! not sure about the smell…but would love the effects that it gives to the skin! Do people wear swimmers while they are in the roman baths?
Wonder what it would do for skin blemishes!!
Hi, Lisa! The smell is only apparent as you drive up, really. By the time you’re there, your nose is quite over it. :)
By swimmers, I presume you mean swim trunks/suits and other swimwear? Yes, in the outdoor pools people wear them. It’s possible that at the fancy spas, in separate areas for men and women, people go unclothed, but I could not swear to it. The young women who were sunbathing sans tops always put them back on before they stood up or went into the water.
A quick internet search for “naturist Italy” reveals (no pun intended) that there are plenty of spots for bathing sans clothing, including a fancy spa on Ischia.
For a country with some of the most notable fashion names and companies in the world, Italians are not really hung up on body image the way, say, Americans are. It’s unusual to see one piece bathing suits for women, no matter what age or shape, for example. But to answer your question, yes, I’ve yet to see someone swimming in the altogether, as it were. ;)
This sounds (and looks) awesome. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit worried about this acid bit. I think we need a guest post by Dario to elaborate on this ;)
Hahaha! I’ll set you up on Skype with him sometime so you can have some Man Talk. ;)
Aahh, if only the Roman Empire didn’t fall. They did invent quite a lot of goodies, like central heating. And now I see, they also had fizzy water ;-)
Yes, Italians do like to bathe in and drink the fizzy water! And if you’re in the mood for wine, there’s always spumante. ;)
Great post! Makes me want to (wear flip flops and) walk around in one of those pools for a day. I loved the video of your tootsies stirring up the bubbles. Delightful!
Thank you! I was delighted to have the opportunity to use the word “tootsies” in a post. ;)