Thursday, May 28, 2015

Cleansing


The Jews of Rome
The town of Pitigliano (situated in the very south of Italy's Tuscany) is a bit of an anomaly for Italians town. Important during medieval times, well preserved and perched over and above a narrow gorge (see photo below), the town has for an oddity: a rich Jewish heritage. 
Many Jewish people left Rome during the Counter-Reformation and somehow it was Pitigliano that provided a safe haven, being just beyond the grasps of papal Rome. 
For many centuries thereafter the Jewish community had a large influence on the towns traditions and development. 
And why is this relevant?


Near Pitigliano (about 4 kms out of town) is a hot spring which saw a building established on top and is better known as the Jewish bath of Pitigliano.
However, better times (especially after the second World War) saw many of Pitigliano's Jewish community assimilate and/or leave altogether. 
Meaning the bath building came into disrepair. 
Now the building is part of a hotel / BnB (named Valle Orientina [Oriental valley]) which uses the renovated bath to promote a wellness stay.

Experience
We arrive late in the afternoon, having been discovering the surrounding countryside first. 
Valle Orientina is located in a nice green place, especially this time of year and it's not so difficult to find either. The junction for heading towards the baths is a couple of kms north of town. The road drops into a shady green valley towards a parking area with the bath house behind.


The interior of the bath house is easy to view: there's a glass door to look through. Beyond the door there is a stair which leads to the bath waters themselves. Not much steam inside and not very busy, actually it's deserted. 

We wander onward towards what appears the main building. Inside we ask the reception for the opportunity to bathe. It's a hefty 10€ per head, seems a bit steep for a lesser maintained walled in bath. 
In the main building we have to descend the stairs to the main wellness area located in the basement, again deserted. Apparently we have to change here in the changing room, despite the Jewish baths having their equally small changing room. 
As we need to retrace our steps through the hotel building itself and having to need some state of decorum, it means that we have changed virtually nothing.

So back at the baths we remove further clothing (exclusing swim costume) and step into the baths. 
The building itself has a vaulted ceiling and a few minuscule windows to let in just a bit of daylight, which otherwise streams in through the glass door. 

The building (and thus bath) itself houses 5 subsections: that in line with the entrance, and on either side 2 subsections. The back sections contain water spouts with some massaging qualities. Furthermore it doesn't seem so but it's a little chillier than the quoted 37°C. 
After a half hour of splashing we leave the building, partially relieved.

Nice plus
Strangely the English version of the website of Valle Orientina has no further information on the baths. It contrasts greatly with visitor experience. 
Take for instance booking.com users giving a 8.4 (30 reviews) to the accommodation here with most naming the terme as it's sole positive aspect.  
Tripadvisor visitors rate this place a 4.5 star (221 reviewers) stay over. Some reviews:
'The SwimmingPool with Thermal water is Amazing'.
'The Hot Springs pool is pretty nice'.
'The spa is incredible!!!  
'The spa is a little gem and unique in itself''.
'The spa is wonderful'.
'The thermal baths are a nice plus'.
The Italian version of the website though has much more information on the hotel, the baths and bathing. It also has an overview with  the usual loads of rules; the most important one I could find: for purposes of hygiene swim wear is required. That seems a bit of a contradiction unless they frown on modern day swim wear which seems to be shorts and t-shirts.

This picture from Valle Orientina website suggests that the former rule may well be open to interpretation.
In Italian we also learn that it was in use with the Jewish community for their ritual purification bath (Mickvèh) until the 1950's. 
The tradition of Mikvèh is a cleansing ritual which seems solely obliged to women, men tend to need a lot less purifying it seems (note to readers: I actually believe the opposite to be true).
The waters are 37°C, natural rich in calcium, magnesium, iron - the absence of sulfur.

Elsewhere in the main building the Valle Orientina's wellness programme includes a sauna, a salt cave and a jacuzzi.

Spicing up


Besides a visit to Pitigliano itself, there's some delightful waterfalls more southerly in Lazio near the town of Farnese. West of this village, once the road crosses a big stream, there's a waterfall directly north of the road. But this is not where we are heading. 
A few hundred meters later there's a sign board on the south near a track indicating a track to Cascata del (di?) Salabrone (tripadvisor). This Cascata is part of the Selve del Lamone natural reserve, where there's been quite some effort to get visitors actively seeking it's secrets.

Park along the SR47 roadside and walk another 500m or so to a clearing. Directly in front is a small unused hydro power station. Behind this is a small waterfall, while a 100m upstream is a larger waterfall with a 5m drop. 
Both waterfalls (should!) invite a bit of skinny dipping ....

 
Purifying my own body and spirit!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Carving

Spring bound
The city of Viterbo may be famous for it’s papal stays in the early medieval times, but actually the town should be better known for it’s many hot springs. Fortune has dictated that these hot springs to be mostly freely accessible, nice rambling and non-snobistic affairs, practically unknown to and on the European bathing circuit. So it's no wonder that I want to spend a fair amount of time researching and soaking.

It’s a new day, sun is already out in full force and I’m driving at this delicately early hour, out from the city, northwards, to try a soak at Viterbo’s bad waters or as we are in Italy the Terme del Bagnaccio. It’s not far out of Viterbo, many of Viterbo’s soaks aren’t. At the first crossroads I cross the morning city bound rush hour traffic and with the country side opening up, a km or so along the quieter  SP 7 road (in the direction of Valentano) a small sign leads me to an unpaved white crushed rock road which divides the green grain fields while continuing in southerly direction. 

The only apparent building is a Roman ruin archived under the name of Bacucco or possibly the Terme della Lettighetta. It's not really clear to me and the few websites seem to differ as well. This website (once google translated) adds:
'The Baths of Bacucco, they refer to two detailed drawings of Michelangelo Buonarroti drawings during one of his trips in the area, were probably the most important spa, as shown by the discoveries made during the excavations of 1835. In the area, in addition to the remains of a Roman villa, there are the sources of Bagnaccio, near which was the important Roman resort of Acquae Passeris, reported in Table Peutingeriana, ancient map which included all the Roman military roads'.

The ilbagnaccio.it website claims (or so I interpret the translation) that the existence of the springs dates back to at least the third century B.C.. Thereafter under Roman rule it was known as Aquae passeris, a name used for the wider area surrounding Viterbo (not yet in existence then) where many a hot spring came to surface. 
With Christianity came the end to any organisational bathing and these soaking sites withered away. Though there were plans to modernize  and commercialize these early last century, they never came to fruition and (with one exception) the soaks remained natural and abondoned until 20-25 years ago when a movement of concerned citizens of Viterbo came to conserve and manage the Bagnaccio springs.

Members only
Anyway, just past this ruin and over the gentle rise, one can’t miss the big car park which at this hour is deserted of cars, but packed with camper vans, about 20 or so.

Soaking campervaning

This is the Bagnaccio terme which is managed by a non-profit entity for let’s hope the better of society. The website of ilbagnaccio.it notes that this is a soak on private land managed by Associazione di Promozione Sociale (APS) Il Bagnaccio.

Having done some pre-research, I know an entrance fee is required. Well not technically, it’s a day membership. So loitering around the caravan placed directly net to the entrance, I'm finally rewarded with a suspicious amount of paperwork and a €5 down payment for whatever they legally believe it to be; it's an entrance fee to me.

 Enter

The management team has done it’s best to make soakers feel their contributions are been well spent. There are a number of pools (six apparently) all neatly constructed with wooden walk ways between. Natural vegetation has been kept in check, and there are even changing cubicles as well as some other amenities (toilets, vending machine, picknick area). 

The many campers are already taking in their daily dose of soaking only having to walk (in their bathrobe) from camper van to soaking pool. 

 

The one pool with best temperature waters is moderately packed, but mostly with a silent bunch. The experience has not much more to offer. 
It’s a beauty of a soaking site, it’s a wonder that European soaking sites have turned into over-commercial malls with a soak on the side as compared to this center of bliss. Waters are heavenly warm, hot even and though filling up was taking place, later in the day one can choose a pool to one's liking. The ilbagnaccio.it site notes:
'The waters of the springs Bagnaccio, already known in antiquity as "Aquae Passeris" are a total of type sulfate / bicarbonate / alkaline earthy slightly sulphurous, hyper. They flow at a temperature of about 63 ° C'.
The source itself sits under a wood lid.

Bring your own
Evidence points to the hot springs of Il Bagnaccio being pretty popular. Besides the sizable parking site and the ability to cater for crowds, it's Facebook page has nearly 3,500 likes. Photo sites such as instagram note an encouraging amount of photo's (most soakers are somewhat of an older generation, one to which instagram is something foreign) and tripadvisor has more than 100 reviews.

Despite this popularity, there seems precious little English language experiences to share. 
Why? 
I'm not totaaly sure, but I think that Viterbo is not on the foreign tourist itineray. This conclusion can also be drawn by the fact that despite the more than 100 reviews on tripadvisor (rated no. 6 in Viterbo, 4.5 stars), only 3 are in English while the only other language involved is a solitary review in Spanish. More for Italians?

There is though the odd expansional article on Viterbo and it's hot springs with reference to it being a best-kept secret (Italy Magazine; April 27, 2014):
'Also worth a visit is The Bagnaccio baths, which are positioned 8km northwest of Viterbo; these baths are situated on what was the ancient via Cassia on the road to Montefiascone, and the site is still marked by the Roman ruins of Baccucco'.
Then there is the Guardian (March 9, 2012) which explains:
'One of the joys of the volcanic northern reaches of Lazio is the abundance of hot springs, perfect for a restorative wallow. Some, especially around Viterbo, have been channelled into thermal resorts with a faintly institutional feel, but many rise in open countryside and attract a democratic mix of locals (who see free thermal pools as a basic human right) and adventurous tourists. One of the best is Il Bagnaccio, where pools have been carved out of white clay in a bucolic landscape that can't have changed much since Etruscan times. Bring a towel and claim your corner'. 
Also worth a visit is The Bagnaccio baths, which are positioned 8km northwest of Viterbo; these baths are situated on what was the ancient via Cassia on the road to Montefiascone, and the site is still marked by the Roman ruins of Baccucco. - See more at: http://www.italymagazine.com/news/best-kept-secret-viterbos-thermal-baths#sthash.02NmSfoB.dpuf
Also worth a visit is The Bagnaccio baths, which are positioned 8km northwest of Viterbo; these baths are situated on what was the ancient via Cassia on the road to Montefiascone, and the site is still marked by the Roman ruins of Baccucco. - See more at: http://www.italymagazine.com/news/best-kept-secret-viterbos-thermal-baths#sthash.02NmSfoB.dpuf
Not much more experiences though.


Deregulation
I looked into the background of how management was regulated at Bagnaccio hot spring. As stated above the APS Il Bagnaccio runs the shop, but the ilbagnaccio.it states that the hot spring occurs on private land and that this non-profit organisation run by volunteers manages the soaking site. As part of this management they pursue rule abidance, clean (and refill) the pools every night (pools are open from 07.00-24.00 depending on season), hope to keep site clean and collect membership fees from their members. 
This latter means collecting the annual 2015 membership fee of €40 or as above a daily fee of €5. all to be found on their own website, ilbagnaccio.org with emphasis on the .org ...

That said, there is some controversy on how the site is run. Needless to say, some oversight is required, after all access is good and close to Viterbo / motorway ensures you'll have many a potential visitor. However it's the form in which this management is fulfilled that raises questions. As I have understood ,the city of Viterbo has in the past received permission from the Lazio region to pursue development of it's hot water resources so as to increase the touristic value. However at the time many of the hot springs were on private land, as in this case. The management vehicle chosen seems to be legal, it is though questionable where membership fees can be requested.

From the Corriere di Viterbo (March 5, 2015). If my interpretation of the google translation of this article is more or less correct, it states that Lazio Region officials have warned the Il Bagnaccio (and Terme di San Sisto) managing organisations against requesting entrance fees. The article does advocate some form of management if only to avert less diserable activities but especially on the Terme di San Sisto it alleges that the practice of charging entrance fees has been going on for quite a few years, pandering to more well-heeled and probably well-connected Romans.

Elsewhere management of Il Bagnaccio were notified that certain illegal structures were to be de-assembled (Viterbonews24; May 23, 2014).



There are are quite some rules guiding soaking here, which seem to be the raison d'être of management. Much in line with Italian vogue it seems. these are the most important:

What's not allowed.
 
That said, hoping that patrons toe the line is altogether something separate. Of the above I already managed to take photo's and walked around bare-foot. 
On their website, management have another load of rules, more or less obvious. Strangely whereas in all languages but Italian, there's a call for decency in soaking, Italians are called upon to use swimwear. 

 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Going public

Journalist and publicist Giovanni Faperdue is a true Viterbian: with being a citizen of the town of Viterbo (Lazio, Italy) comes the love for its surrounding naturally occurring hot springs. With a keen interest in local history, he takes special interest in the Termi del Bullicame. 
This translates into Giovanni taking up the presidency of the Associazione Il Bullicame: a group of interestees in the public cause of the Bullicame hot spring source as well in the conservation of other local springs. High among their priorities is keeping the hot springs public and free for all to use. 

I met Giovanni on a sunny Friday mid-morning earlier this May at the site of the Bullicame hot springs. Dressed in black, he contrasts greatly with the swim wearing soakers and sun-worshipers who have descended on Bullicame to use the springs and surroundings as Viterbo’s public beach. 

“Welcome to Il Bullicame. The hot springs of Il Bullicame have been used for a long time. Il Bullicame was referred to in Dante’s Inferno”. 
How did the association come into existence? 
"Well people have been coming to Bullicame for a long time. From the times of Etruscans and Romans. Some time back we became concerned with the state in which the terme was. Especially when we noticed that the hot spring was in full swing but the waters flowing to Bullicame were lower than before. We looked into this and concluded that the commercial operation called Terme dei Papi was extracting more water than it would be legally permitted. Together with the local government we have been trying to get the Terme dei Papi to be held to its restricted amount.
Besides this we raised awareness about the situation in which the springs were to be found. Consequently the government has found funds to enclose the surroundings of Il Bullicame so as to improve the management and upkeep of the site, as well as re-designing the pool areas. Now volunteers from the association keep the terrain clean, keep order and with some facilitation by the local council keep the small and large pools clean. As per our associations statute I have been voted president for a term of five years. We have 600 members, unfortunately though many are not paying their membership fees otherwise we would be able to expand our activities. Now we are mostly dependent on cooperation with authorities.
 The Piscine Carletti pools and car park
The association also have the management of the hot springs by the name of Piscine Carletti, another local hot spring no more than 1 km away. Here the local government has problems keeping the site clean. The overflowing trash bins are only cleaned once a week.
Another further two sites have been earmarked for future projects mostly in the sense of conserving the surroundings, so as to ensure that these sites which are now on private land will enter the public arena. Do you have time?” 
Taking care of soaking business.

We do, but when Associazione Il Bullicame president visits the hot springs he always has to address a number of issues. These heard / resolved, we speed away. Ten minutes later we park the car along a winding country road. There is a small path which we follow for 25 meters to a scrub-lined hillock. On top is a 5 by 2 meter whitewashed pool which emanates the telltale signs of sulfur. Here the Romans were known to bath. But since, it has degraded somewhat and now this bath stands on private land with the only potential soakers some cattle and those in on the secret. The landowner has no interest in restoration nor in any visitors. We could see evidence of a soon to be resurrected barbed wire fence. Giovanni explains that this place is called Asinello. 
“The water here is the same source of that of Bullicame. Below Viterbo is a big underground lake of hot water, because at the site here, at Il Bulllicame, at the pools of Carletti, at Bagnaccio and San Sisto [roughly 20 km apart] the temperature is just below 60°C with the same mineral qualities. Here at Asinello the flow is probably just 3 liter / second and intermittent so the pool is not too hot”.
The Asinello pool.
 
Earlier evidence points to a cooling system which just hints that Asinello has seen better times. 
“As an association we want to keep the hot springs of Viterbo free. In for instance San Sisto they have been charging entrance fees even though they have no concession to do so. This is not right. The government does nothing against this. We should do more to ensure rules are adhered to and public access is guaranteed”. 
After a thorough exploration of this pool we return back to Bullicame where our roads part.

Giovanni, thank you for being so welcoming and able to discuss and clarify the affairs of Viterbo's hot springs, it was really appreciated. Having just spent a week in Viterbo I have had a great introduction into the significance of hot springs for Viterbo's touristic future. 
Let's hope that these remain open for all to enjoy. 

Euro soaks visited