Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Saturnia: Roman bathtubs and bourgeois pee

The approach to Saturnia

Somewhere stumbling around the Internet, I must have seen a photo or two of the thermal waters of Saturnia, and I convinced Paolo that we needed to go see this natural wonder ourselves. The terme (baths) of Saturnia lie in the Maremma, the wild, wonderfully rough around the edges range of southern Tuscany. Now I know what you’re thinking, this blog is supposed to be about life in Umbria, but every once in a while I have to give poor, underrated Tuscany its props. (Of course I kid; if anything, Umbria is the red-haired stepchild of her more visited, better known and better groomed neighbor, Tuscany [said with a longing sigh, for emphasis]). Saturnia’s 37.5°C (99.5°F) waters bubble from deep underground, form a narrow, rushing thermal river, and then cascade over a fan-shaped series of travertine pools, whose edges have been softened over the millennia to resemble thick cake frosting. Water overflows from one series of pools to the next in fast-moving waterfalls one can sit underneath – Nature’s version of a hydro massage. With an old millhouse and the Maremma countryside as a backdrop, the steaming, crashing waters of Saturnia are a truly ethereal sight.

But reading about Saturnia is sort of like reading about an orgasm – until you experience it in person, you’ll never really know what you’re missing.

Yet when I announced to Paolo’s Aunt Maria our intentions to visit Saturnia, she balked. "The terme or the cascate (waterfalls)?" she asked. The distinction here is that the actual source of the thermal waters is in private hands, and a sleek modern spa sits right on top of the spring. So only paying customers get to sample the waters as they surge directly from the Earth’s core. (Well, maybe not from that far down, but from pretty far down there…) The water exits the spa and flows into the above-mentioned thermal river and cascades. These are essentially the cheap seats – one can just park the car nearby and wade right in. Maria’s inquiry was one of hygiene; she thought it distasteful that we would choose to sample the free waters of Saturnia, i.e., the ones that the paying guests had already soaked, sloughed, exfoliated and yes, possibly, peed in. 

The thermal river at Saturnia.
Doesn't that water look swift?
We left a smirking Maria and set off anyway, vowing that there was no way we’d pay to soak in the same water we could sample for free just downstream. Saturnia’s waters have been known since at least Etruscan times, and archaeological evidence in the nearby town of Saturnia shows the existence of a Roman settlement – one of the Empire’s many spa resorts in this seismically active peninsula. Did the Etruscans pay to bathe in Saturnia’s waters? I don’t think so. Did the Roman centurions have to pony up a €22 day use fee to soothe their war weary gams? Hell to the no. So what was good enough for the Romans was good enough for us.

Paolo finds his shorts
And the all too brief time we spent at Saturnia was divine. We first tried our luck in the thermal river, which is perhaps 10 feet wide at its widest part. The water moves through here at such a pace that to keep from being sent headlong down the shallow, rocky stream, you have to prop your feet, knees locked, against a submerged rock or tree trunk and enjoy the intensely pounding water on your neck and shoulders. Intrepid bathers have tied ropes here and there, as a means of either hanging on for dear life or for pulling oneself out of the water. At one point, Paolo did actually lose his foothold and went surging downstream past me, a look of bemused terror on his face. I clung to a frayed rope and contemplated becoming a widow very early on in my marriage, and considered what assets might be left behind when fortunately (especially since Paolo has so few assets), he bobbed to the surface, unharmed but sans swimtrunks, in a pool just below. 

Once we clung and crawled our way out of the river we moved down to the waterfalls, a much less harrowing way to have a warm soak. Known as the Cascate del Mulino, each mini-waterfall has carved out a marble bathtub underneath it, so one need only find an available tub in which to soak away all those fearful memories of floundering in the whitewater river. Or instead, let a crashing waterfall palpitate neck and shoulders, while those suckers at the spa upstream pay €50 and up for the same service, minus the great scenery and no doubt administered by a mustachioed, grim-faced, former Soviet-bloc matron.

Paolo and I left Saturnia vowing to return as soon as possible. I have admit, that was more than a year and a baby ago. Now when we return, we’ll be a threesome. We’ll have to skip the rushing river and even the waterfalls, as Naomi is still a bit small for either. And I suppose I’ll have to put her in a pair of rubber swim trunks, lest I risk the dirty looks of other bathers who don’t want to soak in baby pee. But I wonder if any of them have ever considered that they’re soaking in bourgeois pee, anyway.

Cascate del Mulino at Saturnia, AKA, the cheap seats
For more info on Saturnia’s free waters, visit: http://www.cascate-del-mulino.info/en/

Kidding aside, the private terme of Saturnia http://www.termedisaturnia.it/en/
is quite lovely, and offers a much more refined way to take a dip. And I’m sure no guests ever really pee in the water. Nope, never.

There are many reasons to love Susan Morgan’s blog, Half Year Italian, but my #1 reason is this sentence: "The relationship between Tuscany and Umbria can best be summed up by saying that the Umbrians think the Tuscans are snots, and the Tuscans think the Umbrians still go around in animal skins." Read more at: http://halfyearitalian.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/local-pride-part-i/

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