Friday, November 2, 2012

Train of soaks

Where are the origins of the soaks of Miño? 
 
Spa City
Many cities and larger towns around the globe have made a name due to the fortitude of having ample natural thermal bathing waters. Think Beppu (Japan), Rotorua (New-Zealand), Budapest (Hungary), Vichy (France), Baden-Baden (Germany) and Laguna (Philippines).

Added to the list should be Ourense. Located in the interior of Spain's northwestern comunidad autónoma of Galicia (Galizia), Romans decided to settle here for it afforded a wadable place on the Rio Miño and there existed a thermal spring or two. 

Nowadays Ourense is a provincial capital with lots of office workers. Tourism is of marginal importance.

But that shouldn't be the case. With the increasing popularization of the so-called wellness industry, Ourense has on offer a smorgasbord of soakable sites. Some websites, do refer to Ourense as the spa city
'Imagine taking a dip in a large open-air thermal bath, by day or night, any time of year, in water with a temperature of over 40 degrees centigrade, and right beside the Miño river. All this can be experienced in Ourense, a city with a hidden underground ocean with five spa areas to enjoy for free, and where you can even see the mineral and medicinal waters bubbling out of the rock. A total privilege for your health and wellbeing. You can also visit private Japanese-style spa centres (like Zen temples) and relax with seaweed- and chocolate-based beauty treatments. And to make it even more convenient, you can also explore this area (a circuit of about four kilometres) by taking the Spa Train. And right in the historic centre, make time for a visit to the Fuente de las Burgas spring, where mineral and medicinal waters bubble up to the surface at a temperature of 67 degrees centigrade, and where the ancient Romans dedicated an altar to the water nymphs'.
Tripadvisor has only three things to do in the city, no.'s 1 and 2 are visits to free soaks; no. 3 the local cathedral ...
 
Burqa
Smack in the center of town are the springs of As Burgas. Ourense's official tourism site:
'The current layout of the spring is the result of various works that followed from the 17th century up to the present day. In the garden of the lower part you will find the "Burga de Abajo" (lower Burgo), a Neoclassical style fountain dating from the middle of the 19th century. Some steps take you up to an esplanade with a pond and two recent works of sculpture. In the upper part you will find the "Burga de Arriba" (Upper Burgo), a fountain dating from the 17th century'.
Despite the prominence it has in the city's history and location in the center of the city, there's surprisingly little info available on the web. The most noteworthy among them is of course the Wikipedia page dedicated to As Burgas, alas in Spanish. After applying Google translate, one learns the additional:
  • Water temperatures vary between 64 and 68 degrees centigrade.
  • Flow rates are 300 ltr per minute. 
  • The origin of the name:  
'some authors may come from the Celtic "beru" meaning hot, but the most accepted etymology indicating their origin from the Latin "burqa" which means stack, referring to the bathrooms used by the Romans as spas'.
  • In 1975 one of the springs dried up after nearby construction work.
The Galician wikipedia entry adds the addition of a pool in 2010. 

 

After traversing the inner city of Ourense we finally came upon As Burgas right in front of the city tourism office. The water is indeed scalding and on this hot midday there's nobody taking any interest in the wall-encapsulated fountains. 
Surprisingly it's only now that I discover the existence of the pool. It even has it's own web site (in Galician). The bath is located above the springs on the other side of the square.

Ruta
Just downstream of Ourense city (in a not so particular nice stretch of Spanish surburbia), the city has done itself a favour by developing the Ruta Termal. The banks of both sides of the Miño river have been beautified with a path stretching from the Ribeiriño bridge to the futuristic Ponte de Outariz. 


Besides the above mentioned spa train (all aboard!) there is also the possibility to cycle the route. At various locations there are bicycles available for hire (see photo below)


Complete
Coming from town the first hot spring one comes across is that of Chavasqueira. 

As it's close to town it functions as one of the city's most frequented soak. It's hard to resist a visit to this soaking site: expansive lawns have attracted many a sun-seeker with the added bonus of having the possibility to use the hot spring pools as well as refreshing in the river itself. 
Despite this being a week-day the soaks are busy and the surroundings account for many visitors enjoying the sun. The facilities are clean and there are even guardians on duty. 
Such is the attraction of the place that one would have problems leaving ... 

 
Pools, sun worshippers, the river and (in yellow) the guardians.
It's not only my opinion. Take for instance the tripadvisor entry, which sees Chavasqueira earn 4.5 stars based on more than 50 reviewers. Spain's ABC publication reckons it is one the countries top 10 natural swimming pools.

Directly above the free pools are the Japanese hot spring pools, named Termas Chavasqueira or Ourense Spa. Sourced from the same springs, considerable effort has been made to somehow attract visitors who might not vouch for the free facilities, 20m away! Hardly expensive (@ €3,80 for 30 minutes), much has been done to conjure up an oriental setting, though the traditional Japanese naked communication has not been copied; amusingly the ladies sunning in front at the public soaking facilities are less dressed! 
The facilities maintain an active blog

Nothing like a touch of bamboo
Mesothermal
Continue downstream for about 300m one comes to the Tinteiro springs. Here considerable effort has been made to produce foot baths, though they seem not to be in working fashion alas. There is though one hand pump which can pump up hot spring water.


On the website of termasourense there is a good photographic overview of the site. Note also that the parking area nearby is a much frequented haunt of camping cars.

Informative signs with pictures from before the improvements. Text reads:
'It is said to have universal healing properties and is one of Ourense's most visited springs. It surroundings have been improved by the Town Hall, firstly in collaboration with the Florendo Álvarez Foundation and later with the support of the European Union as part of the integrated restoration of the right river bank.
Classification: Mesothermal waters, weak mineralization, alkali, sulphurous, lithia, fluoride, silica.
Slightly radioactive.
Flow rate 0,02 l/s.
Temperature 44.9C'.

Flip flops
We made it as far as here. Temperatures were up and back at the car a cranky teenager was waiting. 

However if one continues the next soak is the free to all Pozas do Muiño das Veigas. Closer to the river are 4 larger pools.

 'Termas 3' 
Posted by flickr member majorshots.  The Muiño das Veigas soaks looking good. Note temperatures are 65-72C!

Directly beyond are the Termas de Outariz (Facebook page, blog), another entrance fee required private soaking facility, again in Japanese style. Also known as Outariz Onsen they certainly deserve a visit, if not already spoilt for choice. Again tripadvisor is very positive. A blog report:
 'We paid our 5€ each and got our flip flops, towel and locker rentals and walked into the Termas de Outariz for a relaxing soak in the hot water. That was exactly what we got. It was wonderful and the sun was shining which really helped getting into a bathing suit in February. Japanese-inspired, with numerous styles of tubs and soaking areas, made it a great experience. There was the soaking cave, a good number of waterfalls, really shallow pools, individual tubs, huge massage jets and a sauna. Some tubs were definitely more hot than others and one was even too hot'.
Photos of Termas de Outariz, Ourense
 This photo of Termas de Outariz is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Continuing downstream and beyond the iconic Pasarela de Outariz bridge are the pools named Pozas Outariz e Burgas de Canedo. Or commonly known Outariz again ...

The Purple Backpacker had this experience there:
'The springs themselves were wonderful, though a bit more regulated than I prefer. They are also clothing non-optional, which is no problem but a bit weird. Having grumpy people give you a discreet death glare for talking is less than ideal. And I managed to incur the wrath of the management by not wearing flip-flops. Hint: I don’t own any, they didn’t fit in my suitcase.  Of course, the fact that I slipped and bashed my knee on a rock didn’t really help my case when I was confronted by the guard-guy'.
From the bridge

Crossing this bridge and heading back towards town one will come by the Fonte de Reza, a small spring with water spouting at just above 30C.

This sort of sums up what is arguably one of Europe's premier soaking sites. With luck the whole upmarket wellness industry can be kept at arms length, certainly one of the best experiences of Ourense are the free for all hot pools!

Elsewhere in the province, there are a number of other hot springs to be discovered, some delightfully absent from development (see for instance the post on Bande). Others might give a quality experience for those in need: Termas Prexigueiro, Caldas de Partovia and Lobios Caldaria,

Saturday, October 13, 2012

More modern


Fortunate fame
Forming the border between north Portugal and Galicia, Spain, the Rio Miño (Minho) flows through a depression which sees many hot springs. Deeper in Galicia, the city of Ourense, on the upper banks of the Miño, seems a magnet for Spain’s hot springs with 8 hot springs surrounding the city. Furthermore there are possibly hot springs Os Baños.

The Portuguese side have fared less fortunate in the possible soaking section. However the two towns of Monção and Melgaço are known throughout Portugal for their hot spring fame.

Commercial
Monção is a former rampart town, set on a cliff just south of the river. Through the centuries it served to exist in turning away the northern invaders, hoping to maintain it’s allegiance to Lisbon. The town is now a commercial center in the surprisingly green rolling hills, jam-packed with vineyards producing the light white wine which is the famed Vinho Verde. Eastwards of the village however a thermal center has existed for some time.

On my visit it seemed to be a more public facility, but still entrance requires a doctors' visit. This rules a recreational visit for 2 over-expensive. Despite this though we could observe other visitors (patients?) visiting the facilities. 
For a moment we are hoping that towards the Rio Minho is a more public and inexpensive facility. But no, the kids jumping in this pool are jumping in a normal swim pool, not fed from any spring. Surrounding the facilities is an extensive park with café, playground and fitness park. Lots of visitors here.


The termas themselves, are run by the Spanish wellness company Tesal which claim that they are possibly the most modern spa of Portugal. Opposite the soak is the hotel, called Bienestar. Tripadvisor gives it a meagre 3 stars, while booking.com offers 7.4.

There is a youtube intro film of the hot spring facilities themselves. 

 One of Melgaço's springs

Swinging
Twenty km upstream of Monção is the smaller town of Melgaço, set at the foot of the mountains of Serra de Peneda. Just outside the town, actually part of the village of Peso, is a fin-de-siecle park complete with buildings forming the thermal station. As is customary in other Portugese soaking sites, there is a huge building with the the opportunity to sample the waters by consuming a plastic cup fill. 

 
Opulent constructions for a plastic cup of pure water.

Seeking the soaking building it becomes apparent that these are being rebuilt / refurbished and as such closed. The action was in full swing, so expect these to open up, in the near future. Termas de Portugal suggest 2013. And then these will be the most modern soaking facilities of Portugal (?).

Entrance to the buvette.
 
More info is available from the Portuguese wikipedia website for the Melgaço, facts which include that the development of the site started from 1884. This website adds that the termas are situated on a 2 ha park which includes a campsite. 

 
The main soaking building (under reconstruction)

Jornal de Noticas mentions in an article (18/05/2012) writes the following:
´In this first phase was invested one million euros in landscaping and in the recovery of sources, plus the installation of a mini-golf and rehabilitation of a small stream.The remaining investment, over 3.7 million, is reserved for the contest that the management of the Northern Regional Operational Programme - "ON2" - opened in April, with 80% of this money will be supported by EU funds."It involves the recovery and expansion of the resort, now in ruins, but keeping its architectural as well as the construction of a Museum Thermal," explained the mayor of Melgaço, Rui Solheiro, Lusa.The complex is owned by Unicer group, which also operates the capturing and bottling that water, but that has delivered management space, with an approximate area of ​​59,600 meters square, to the municipality.All these works are the responsibility of the municipal company formed by the local authority and private, that after the investments will be in managing the Thermal Park Melgaço for 25 years´.


Monday, September 3, 2012

Feel free


Within Europe there are great contrasts in the way hot soaks are regarded and/or experienced. Some countries have managed to transform the natural phenomena into spa's which nowadays only vaguely refer to their natural origins. Other countries have medicalized their waters and restrict their use to 'patients' (see Aquistas).

Spain though, despite it's cultural forwardness in prior times (Romans, Moors, conquistadores) has let many a soak fall into disrepair / neglect. Notes in case are Tiermas, Santa Fe, Hedionda, Alhambra and Arnedillo (Rioja) to name a few.

Included in this listing should be the termas of Bande or as they were known in the Roman time as Aquis Querquennis: a Roman camp with an adjacent thermae. And such is the wish of the local tourism office, they would like the name to stick; but Bande is much more easier to pronounce (and spell) ...

Termas de Bande or Baños de Bande are located in Ourense province, along the Conchas reservoir on upper reaches of the Rio Lima

Background info in English on these soaks is scarce, so we'll have to make do with what's available in Spanish (or Galician) and pray google translate is able to come up with something remotely understandable.
A good point to start with an internet search is the blog site of Las Termas de Bande. Oddly, it only contains two entries which does not help us much, as well as the rather short text. A summary: better in winter, it's then quieter and there's a lower level in the adjacent reservoir?

More pictures from the termas while the reservoir levels are lower on this blog published in Portuguese.


More info comes with assistance of the all-natural soakers. Lugaresnaturistas has an entry on Bande termas. Noting it's temperature of 40C, it adds:
 '... you can sunbathe in the most naturalist, because nobody looks at anyone here and the feeling of freedom is full'. 
Or as this website puts it, au-naturel bathing is habitual:
'En las termas la mayor parte de la gente toma los baños desnuda ya que es algo habitual y luego, como zona de playa, está las proximidades a estas termas'.

Down stream
Downstream of Bande hot springs closer to the border with Portugal are the hot springs of Torneiros and the Lobios Caldaria thermal spa resort.
Starting with the former, this 85 rooms, 4 star resort features a hot spring and belongs to the Caldaria concern:
'The Thermal Spa has two entries one directly to the hotel and one that connects with the exterior. The treatments follow the line of those of Thermal Spa Laias Caldaria**** and Arnoia Caldaria***.
The water is hyperthermal, with low mineralization, bicarbonate soda, chlorate, and it appears with a spring temperature of 77,1º Celsius, and can be drank or used topically after being submitted to a naturally cooling process. The Riocaldo river waters are specially indicated for chronically digestive problems, respiratory and rheumatic affections, skin problems and dieresis cures. Besides that its specific characteristics make them ideal for the development of aesthetic treatments and Stress cures. The Thermal Spa is divided is two floors: in the upper floor one can find the hydro therapy techniques. In order to increase the communication among our clients, we made a Termarium, a place where different group techniques can be developed – dry and moister heat cabins, aromatic showers, tonus massage, jacuzzi, relax thermal spa swimming pool and warm couches. At the Termarium we reproduce ancient techniques that were commonly used by the Romans. In this floor we also have the inside thermal spa swimming pool, equipped with swan neck jets, underwater jets and a marvelous view over the Xurés Natural Park mountains.
In the lower floor there’s a quiet ambience for a correct use of the mass therapy and aesthetics. Besides the massage and aesthetics rooms our clients can also find a small gymnasium where physiotherapy techniques can be developed as well as physical exercise tabs (bicycle, mechanical walking, etc…)'.
Objectively, this resort scores a 7.8 on booking.com, garnered from 28 reviews; heed that tripadvisor's reviewers are less enthusiastic.

Torneiros looks like a great natural soak. A couple of pics from this blog. More extensive is this Portuguese website.....

  'A piscina e as termas'.
Aquis
More info on the surroundings of the Bande termas.
There is quite a bit of info on Aquis Querquennis (AQ). Mostly in Spanish and focussed on the non-soak site, there is still quite a bit of info both on the history as well as current conditions of the hot spring. Why the camp here? According to Europeanheritage.org:
'The place was chosen because it’s an easy place to access, with pastures, big amount of firewood and thermal springs'. 
Other data are the origins (around the year 0) and the fact that the archaeological digs started in 1975.

The camp site reminders

Originally there was a village in the reservoir, Baños de Bande was submerged in 1947 (source).
Access to the hot springs and archeological site is very straightforward, highway OU-540 which goes straight from Bande to the Portuguese border. There is an official website concerning the Aquis camp remains and museuem.

So my personal experiences ...
Coming from Bande, in the hamlet of Portoquintela there's a turn down a narrow alley which after 200m opens up to a broad street. To your right is a good (snack)bar, left a cobble stone street heading to the AQ museum and ahead is a treelined parking space. The museum is a very flash affair, free entry though.

Despite the emphasis of the museum of the roman camp, two signs on the entrance door sufficiently emphasize that the visitors are mostly coming for the hot springs. One sign reads 'aguas de banõ de calidade insuficiente' (bathing water of insufficient quality) the other 'recoméndáase non bañarse' (recommended not to bathe). We shall see ...


 

Inside the museum, are a great amount of halls dedicated to the archaeological finds further down the street. In all, it certainly provides tremendous heaps of info, if only I could read Spanish ....

So after the museum (we were 'forced' to follow the complete tour by the singular lady at the reception. Despite being the only visitors, ambling randomly was not an option!)
Where was I? So after the museum, down the street, towards the reservoir, where the Roman camp once existed. Continuing from the camp site remains onwards one comes to ruins of a Roman villa and then the hot springs themselves, located at the top of an inlet of the reservoir.

The Roman villa. Far side is where the hot springs are ...

There's separate access here, a few locals were checking out the scene, having a soak or setting up camp themselves, it was a Sunday after all.

 

So despite all the warnings locals keep soaking ...


On my visit, most of the sources were submerged, rendering them mostly lukewarm soaks in the otherwise chilly reservoir. One source though was not submerged and was very hot and afforded a great soak.

Author mentally preparing himself for ensuing soak (or adjusting the feet to the temps ...)

Termas de Bande, a great place to feel free(dom) and soak.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Aquistas



Waters
Portugal boasts it's fair share of thermal hot springs. Though wikipedia seems to be oblivious to this, Termas de Portugal counts 38 termas (Portuguese for hot spring) as it's members, a figure the excellent (but Portuguese language only) Águas Termais attributes as those hot springs for which commercial concessionaires exist.

The former adds a number of now dried up geothermal springs, as well as partial geothermal and quite a list of commercial mineral water bottlers. For one thing has become apparent on my visit to the Portuguese termas, and that is the fact that the Portuguese like their waters ...

(Do note though that confusingly the area around Furnas on the Azores island of Saõ Miguel counts no less than 22 hot springs, none of which were counted in the above mentioned ....).

Certified
Portugal and hot springs go back a long way and it seems that like many of the other European cultures the Portuguese prefer the medical benefits of thermal waters. Sod the socializing.

Thus it has seen fit to transform their natural springs to scenes of medical dedication. Such that if you would even remotely dare to take a soak, a doctor will have to certify whether or not that need be the case. Naturally forking out 50€ or so, just to be told that "yes, you can take a soak" seems to fend off the touristy type, in need of a one-off soak, the hippy or the novice.
What remains are a geriatric generation who do need to heed the doctors advice, who stand to benefit most from the waters and whom have the freetime to say use the advice taken to stay for a week or two of great soaking ...

Even the art of sampling the waters with a couple of sips will sometimes require a signature from yourself absolving the termas of any liability in case you just might keel over or die. Or less.

Aquistas of Chaves
Any road, one of the 38 concessions mentioned in the first paragraph lies in the town of Chaves, Vila Real district, glued to the northern border with Spain. Serving the wider mountain region, Chaves (pronounced as chaaves, as in chives) has seen quite some historical turnovers leaving it with a long Roman bridge and a number of forts and towers which in some time had managed to either keep conquerers at bay or dissuade would-be liberators from freeing the town.
Naturally, it lies along the banks of stealthly slow flowing Rio Tamagas and boasts of it's bathing waters. Well, this blog will see if the boasting is fair!

Chaves by night

The wider region of Chaves though, to it's credit, does mention in the local tourist brochure, an upswing in aquistas (persons who undergo medical treatment by bathing in thermal baths). The upswing is thought to be due to the increased awareness to health and well-being. Unfortunately the brochure (produced by the Alto Tamega e Barroso tourism office) is undated and also unsubstantiates this trend.
Specifically it adds for the termas of Chaves:
'The medicinal properties of the thermal Spa of Chaves were discovered by the Romans, and soon became an ex-libris of the city. They are the most accredited spas in Portugal, having the hottest thermal waters of Europe. All year round they are visited by thousands of people finding treatment for rhuematism, nutrition diseases (obesity[!], gout and diabetes), disorders of the liver, intestines and hypertension'.
Operator Termas de Chaves supposedly (poor translation?) adds on it's Portugese language website that the waters are unique for the Iberian peninsula and facilities are geared to receive 15,000 'patients'.

Then the charges:
  • just 35€ for the doc, 
  • but then 30€ signage fee and 
  • another 20€ for nutionist.
That´s just €85. Oh, and then if taking a soak, add the mere €5,50 to that figure.

Sourced
Other excellent info from the Wikipedia Chaves entry:
'The hot springs (Portuguese: Caldas) were known since the Roman period, when the town was Aquae Flaviae; the Waters of Flavius were an important social gathering point, but fell into disuse as the town was slowly abandoned by attacks.
...
The waters of the spring, that are captured in three springs within Chaves, have mean temperatures of 73 °C (163 °F) (the hottest bicarbonate waters in Europe). The modern spa industry in Chaves use these waters for numerous treatments, including stomach, liver, intestinal, and kidney ailments, through oral ingestion. Many small guesthouses in the old part of the town are dependent on the influx of these visitors. The thermal spas are located between the castle and the river, in front of a large area of grass-covered park with playgrounds and tennis courts'.
There is actually an archeological dig in the center of Chaves not too far away from the hot spring, in line with the bridge which should contain remains of some original roman spa, but as there was a high fence around it, can't verify this ...

Flickr member frproart has a number of photo's before the fence was constructed.

The spring in the old days, possibly before WWII. Source

Sampling the soaking source
So I skipped the soaking part, but decided to nose around. Besides the intense medicalisation of soaking process here, another aspect of Portuguese hot spring culture is the ability to sample the waters by drinking. Thermal springs of the official kind cater to the vox populi: free glasses of water.

 
Fill her up please. Inside the Termas de Chaves buvette

In a building alongside the spa there is a nurse like figure doling out plastic cups of water straight from a tap, we hope that's connected to the hot spring. The water is not hot and has little taste. To fully appreciate the flavour of this plastic cup of water, there a number of chairs and benches, mostly occupied by the elder part of the globes population. There's not much I can say about the water though I do like this tradition, a buvette [refreshment stall] along the soaking facilities.

Outside the buvette is supposedly one of the aforementioned three sources. Steam rises up with a faint smell of sulphur; the only actual hint that something geothermal was apparent.

 The source


So you may have guessed, I didn't soak at all.

And from the lack of sources, neither have many other netizens ...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Smells like mud


Laghetto di Fanghi with the volcano of Vulcano rising beyond

Topping it
Geothermal mud baths are just another universal way of soaking. In the mentioned link, a full overview is presented of most of our globe's geothermal mud baths, most it must be said in Europe. 

If a list would be drawn up with the most popular of the earth's mud baths, included would need to be Japan's Hoyo (Beppu), New Zealand's Rotorua, Calistoga (U.S.A.), St Lucia, Colombia's Volcan del Totuma, Dalyan in Turkey and the Laghetto di Fanghi on the island of Vulcano, Italy.

Named after the Roman god of fire, the island of Vulcano makes up one of the Aeolian islands, tucked in between Sicily's north coast and the mainland of Italy's peninsula.  Roughly sized 15 by 10 km, Vulcano consists of two active volcanoes which were especially active in the latter years of the 19th century, though the island has always been known for it's eruptions.

Happy
Getting here is already part of the adventure and once on the Aeolians one is transponded to another world; a much more peaceful and delicate one.

Vulcano itself is rather sleepy in the beginning of May, but I read that come summer the tourists are out in force and the peace is disturbed by those similar souls seeking solitude. 

Arriving by hydrofoil from my holiday base of Lipari (see the ENSS entry on San Calogero), it's just a 10 minute affair to cross the narrow strait that divides the two bigger Aeolian islands. Whereas Lipari is more bustling, Vulcano is strangely nearly deserted this time of the year.

Another aspect which strikes one when just arriving, is the smell of sulphur, which seems all-present. 

Before setting out to explore the island we take a coffee plus from the cafe adjoining the pier, what a choice of plusses! 


It's best to tackle a hike up the volcano of Vulcano first. Not that it's a really challenging climb but with no shade, a hike up to the crater is not intended as refreshing walk. 

Only an hour away, Vulcano's volcano crater edge.

Overall it's roughly 1 hour from the harbour to the fumaroles on the crater's edge. Up there, some French are busying themselves with measuring all kinds of data.
But most people are happy enough to take in the views of the northern Eolien islands of the nearby Lipari, Salina, Panarea and even the volcanic might of Stomboli.



The muds
After this mostly dusty action, we head back to the pier, as just beyond the pier northwards, is the famous mud bath of Vulcano. Between the harbour and the baths themselves is a small section of fumaroles through once a walk wound itself through; not anymore. Just beyond the slight rise lies the laghetto. The public road runs alongside and semicirculars the little lake. A pole fence ensures that those interested in joining the fun of those seen in the lakes themselves can neatly and orderly enter via the small kiosk which charges a fee of 2 €. 

There is even an official company running the baths, Geoterme Vulcano. Despite most visitors being foreigners, the website is solely in Italian and I need to rely on google for a correct translation.

Geoterme's information sheet:
  •  Due to radio-action (radon), no soaking for youngsters (the English translation mentions 15 years as the underlimit, in other languages this is lowered to 12 years!)
  • Don't soak midday
  • Don't remove the mud
Interesting facts about the mud bath history: the lake has existed for only 30 years, when a small pond was dug. Fumarole's met fluids and the lake has since been enhanced to it's current setting. With the unique combination of brackish waters, liquefied earth and mineralization from the fumaroles, the interaction results in mud with extremely high mineral content.
The mud is supposed to help with joint problems, skin diseases, respiratory diseases. Bathing is suggested to take place before the morning and evening meals, thus also avoiding the intense midday heat; but the soak should not last any longer than 20 minutes and a kür should last 6 days for full benefit, not counting on the two days prior to starting which are required for acclimatization purposes.
Geoterme's site also includes a video.


Soak it
After paying the entrance fee, to your left are just three changing rooms, a wee bit insufficient at meeting the demands for the few visitors that day; if in summer don't imagine you can use them at all! There's also a forlorn toilet, it's actually not clear what the 2 euro buys you other than a tax which falls to the government, lucky man him, Mr Goverment.
Anyway an extra euro buys you a cold shower, one takes a shower after the bath of course (though here´s a hint: it won´t help much). 


If some see a challenge in the lack of changing facilities (shy?), the advice on what to wear is even more daunting. With the facilities open to the views of the wandering public many choose for their flaunting best. Not correct.
Lonely Planet is clear on the subject: 
'Don’t wear your designer swimsuit (you’ll never get the smell out), and be sure to leave your gold chains behind (they will tarnish)'.
'A word of warning: always warn friends who plan to go there, wear an old swimsuit, one that can be thrown away afterwards, because it will never be the same again'.
Or 
'It’s best not to wear clothes or swimming attire that you want to keep as the smell may linger and the mud could stain'.
Wikitravel though makes it very confusing:
''Swimsuits are not optional here, and it's a good idea to use a suit that you won't be wearing in more conventional settings for a while (and that you can bag in some airtight container after use), as a sulfurous odor will continue to emanate from the suit for some time after you exit the baths'.
The funny part of all this is that, if anything, the bathing costume restricts the mud coming in, but equally restricts the mud getting out. If any advise is needy, is to wear as less as possibly can be achieved / accepted, it's not uncommon for women to wear only their bikini bottoms.

Author lathering up

Anyway, feeling fit for the fumarolisch fanghi, one can walk over the wood walkway towards the pond. The pond itself is never deep. At regular spots one can see (and feel) the heat spring up. On the far side there are even a number of tiny vents just out of the water. Tiny, but strikingly hot. The process is to smear oneself with the mud and then jump into the sea, just 5 m's away.

Surely with this kind of services available, Vulcano must rank as the best of all geothermal mud baths. But the geothermality does not stop here. Jumping in the cold may sea, one can swim a meter or twenty and delite in a jacuzzi like hot spring vent! Wow, surely this must be the best!

Braving the cold sea, note the lighter coloured waters further out
 are where the geothermal springs sprout.

A few rounds of alternating the mud and sea along with some real relaxation in the spring sun and the clock indicates it's time to catch the ferry back.

Souvenirs
Many people complain about the smell of sulphur. For instance, my Rough Guide Sicily states: 
'... one pool containing a thick yellow soup of foul-smelling sulphurous mud, ...
The smell is indescribable, ...'.
Further on it actually dissuades tourists from staying on Vulcano, due to the lack of good accommodation adding
 'even if the lingering smell doesn't put you off'.
Elsewhere it's noted
'Please be aware that the smell of sulphur, a direct characteristic of a trip Vulcano, may be overpowering at times, however this smell is absolutely safe for humans and absolutely non toxic'.
Wikitravel adds:
'Famous for its mud baths, the island literally smells like rotten eggs (sulfur)'.
Surprisingly, the fanghi (or in this case the terme) only rank 8th in tripadvisors overview of things to do on the Aeolians, so maybe it is just not for everyone?. 

Others like myself take a liking to it. 

Opinions differ on how to get rid of the smell, many of the above might just reason that the best way is not to get to the smell at all. Hmmm, not me, 2 months on, my shower towel still smells with a faint whiff of sulphur if I plant my face in it. Ahhhh ..... Vulcano mud baths!




What many do not understand is that the occurence of sulphur increases the health qualities of the water / mud.
The Soaking Life has dedicated a whole blog on the plusses of sulphur: 
'In hot springs, small quantities of sulfur can be absorbed transdermally or inhaled as a mineralized mist to provide relief from a number of conditions:
  • Arthritis – when absorbed transdermally, sulfur may alleviate the pain and swelling of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis
  • Skin conditions -  sulfur eases irritated itchy, reddened, irritated skin and may minimize the symptoms of psoriasis, dermatitis, dandruff, eczema and warts
  • Respiratory congestion – when inhaled as a mist, sulfur has a mucolytic effect, clearing mucus from the lungs and facilitating breathing
  • Liver disorders – sulfur may assist the liver in its detoxifying functions
  • Digestive disorders – sulfur-containing compounds may facilitate digestion and minimize the effects of acid reflux
  • Gynecological disorders – sulfurous water has been used to treat disorders of the female reproductive system
Sulfur-rich mud can be applied to the skin to relieve the symptoms of arthritis, rheumatism or psoriasis'.
The parting shot:
'If you have the opportunity to visit a sulfur spring, don’t hold your breath; inhaling sulfur vapors may help you breathe easily. Consult your health-care provider before taking sulfur supplements or adding balneotherapy to your personal treatment program'.
So there.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Radioactive

Radiating
An interesting debate: last month I visited the Vulcano mud pools on Vulcano island, South Italy. On the entrance gate they list a whole set of do's and don'ts with one curiously mentioning that those below 15 should not take a mud bath nor should a mud bath immersion last longer than 10-15 minutes. The reason? Because the baths are mildly radioactive ...

Ummm, but is radioactivity not always bad for you? Well, ...

I recently stumbled over an entry on World Nomads, entitled: 
How Dangerous is the Radiation in Japan? 
It highlights the difficulty in understanding the data involved: after the Fukushima nuclear crisis  an exclusion zone was created around the source, on the basis that no-one should be exposed to radiation higher than 20 millisierverts (ms). 
Strangely it then notes an exemplary hot spring near Ramsar, Iran that has a radiation level of 250 ms / year (compare a x-ray with 0.2 ms)! With not only no negative effects but it actually is cited as a source of health ...
This article states the following:
'The Ramsar area in Mazandaran, Iran has one of the highest levels of natural background radiation in the world. It comes from the radioactive elements present in the hot springs that Ramsar is famous for. Folks living near the hot springs get the equivalent of one chest X ray every two hours throughout their lifetime. One would think that this would create a high rate of cancer among the natives; surprisingly it doesn’t seem to. In fact, when radiation researcher P. Andrew Karam took blood cells from native Ramsaris and exposed them to radiation, he found that the Ramsar cells are unusually resistant to radiation damage'.
The Wall Street Journal (March 9, 2012) adds it's own thoughts on the subject of radiation threats and benefits in Japan:
'Baths known as “radium hot springs” have existed in Japan for hundreds of years, their owners proclaiming the virtues of lightly radioactive radon gas as a way to clear skin, restore youth, and even, incongruous as it may sound, cure cancer'.
So do radium hot springs suffer from the negatives of Fukushima near-meltdown?
'Not a bit of it, it seems. Operators say regular clients were mostly undeterred, with some claiming extra attention following the disasters actually brought new customers their way'. 
It continues with an example of the increased attention due to the Fukushima crisis:
'At the nearly 700-year-old Murasugi hot spring in Niigata prefecture, meanwhile, the events of March 11 [2011] actually spurred business as interest in radiation increased, according to an employee. For any nervous customers, the resort offers a free pamphlet on the merits of a dip in the 107-degree water and information about radiation levels'.
Not everybody understands ...

Benefits
Adding to the above, another example of a health benefit: in Miharu, Japan, it is noted that
'...  in the years after the spa opened in 1914 some association was made between the radiation and the reports of improved health relayed back from visitors who stayed at the onsen'.
Then there is the case of hormesis. What?
'Hormesis refers to the positive effect of poisons when delivered in very low doses'.
So states this web site which is dedicated to promoting natural radioactive treatments in low dosages. And believing.

But radon is also listed a major source of lung cancer, though the same source also notes that it is unclear whether or not radon can have positive effects. Even the IAEA seems unsure on the negatives / possible positives:
'With all the knowledge so far collected on effects of radiation, there is still no definite conclusion as to whether exposure due to natural background carries a health risk, even though it has been demonstrated for exposure at a level a few times higher'.
The Toronto Post (22 September 2012) cites the Greek isle of Ikaria: 
'Tucked away in the Aegean Sea is a small, rocky island called Ikaria, where residents on average reach the age of 90. Here are a few island secrets of longevity researchers have picked up after years of studying the dreamy getaway. 
...
6. Dip into a Hot Spring
Radium is a nasty word in America, but the Ikarians have sworn by radium-rich hot springs since the 4thcentury. Reduction in joint pain, stress, and skin irritation are often cited as benefits'.

Understanding radioactivity
A good short explanation:
'Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the decay of radium in the soil. Radium is a decay product of uranium. Uranium is present in almost all rocks and soil and material derived from rocks'. 
And how do hot springs contain radium / radon? 
The Wikipedia radon page:  
High concentrations of radon can be found in some spring waters and hot springs. 
... 
To be classified as a radon mineral water, radon concentration must be above a minimum of 2 nCi/L (74 kBq/m3). The activity of radon mineral water reaches 2,000 kBq/m3 in Merano and 4,000 kBq/m3 in Lurisia (Italy). 
...
Radioactive water baths have been applied since 1906 in Jáchymov, Czech Republic, but even before radon discovery they were used in Bad Gastein, Austria. Radium-rich springs are also used in traditional Japanese onsen in Misasa, Tottori Prefecture. Drinking therapy is applied in Bad Brambach, Germany. Inhalation therapy is carried out in Gasteiner-Heilstollen, Austria, in Świeradów-Zdrój, Czerniawa-Zdrój, Kowary, Lądek Zdrój, Poland, in Harghita Băi, Romania, and in Boulder, United States. In the United States and Europe there are several "radon spas," where people sit for minutes or hours in a high-radon atmosphere in the belief that low doses of radiation will invigorate or energize them'.
According to this Greece based source
'We call radioactive those springs which have been measured and are from 3,5 μ Mach and above, independently of their chemical composition and temperature. They are sub-divided into those of low, medium and high radioactive content'. 
Confusing? Too much!

Globally
Besides those mentioned above I found a number of other known radioactive soaks:
Europe
Asia
Australia
  • Paralana, Australia
Africa
America´s
'The amount of radioactivity is harmless and less than given off by a watch dial'

This episode begins with Marika and Madame Curie enjoying the warm relaxing waters of her onsen (hot spring), she tells Marika that the waters contain Radium, a radioactive isotope that she and her late husband discovered. Madame Curie than gives Marika a little lesson about radiation and radioactivity, and she explains to Marika the three basic types of radiation, alpha, beta, and gamma. (source)

Lesson learnt?
Radium / radon can occur naturally in hot springs. Higher concentration levels have been associated with certain health benefits, but science is still on the fence ... So be careful. Or not so?

Am I right?

Oh, and it seems Europe has quite a few radioactive soaks ...

Euro soaks visited