The Healing Warmth Of Tuscan Waters

Bubbling from deep under the cypress-covered hills of Tuscany is one of the region's richest natural resources--thermal waters. Many consider Tuscany, with its undeveloped landscape and inspiring artistic settings, paradise on earth. But to experience true bliss in Tuscany, you must go to the source.

From Montecatini Terme in the north to Saturnia in the south, Tuscany is home to dozens of volcanic hot springs. The ancient Romans were the first to recognize the healing powers of thermal waters, and some of history's illustrious personalities became devotees. Eleonora di Toledo, the young wife of Florence's Grand Duke Cosimo I, who reigned from 1537 to 1569, drank one liter of water from Montecatini Terme daily. Napoleon's sister, Maria Anna Elisa Bonaparte, had a home from 1800 to 1809 in Bagni di Lucca, known for the thermal currents in its mountain springs. Today, Italians and visitors of all ages drink thermal water, sit in it, and breathe in its vapors to relieve everything from asthma to backaches.

ANTITOXIN? What makes this soupy mineral cocktail so alluring to body and soul? Thermal waters are chemically very similar to the body's own water. They're laden with natural salts, sulfur, and sodium bicarbonate, then filtered through strata of flint, limestone, and clay to acquire traces of rare minerals. Tuscany's waters act as an antitoxin for the liver, kidneys, and digestive tract. At least that's what Italian thermal doctors will tell you. As a result, the spas surrounding the springs offer inhalation therapy for bronchial and lung ailments and hydromassage for rheumatoid diseases. "Thermal waters help reconstitute the epithelium layer of the lungs that has been depleted during sickness," says Dr. Francesco Polizzi, head physician at the European Hospital in Rome. However, Dr. Francis Spelar, an American physician who practices in Rome, is more skeptical. "The thermal waters generally make you feel good in a beautiful environment, get you tired, and stimulate your metabolism," he says.

People also flock to the spas for cosmetic reasons. Sulfur-rich mud painted with brushes onto the face and body and left to dry leaves the skin soft. Facials using the steam of the thermal waters open up pores, cleaning out the soot and grime accumulated from city living.

PLANKTON WRAPS. One of the largest of Tuscany's terme, or baths, is in the region's southern tip, two miles from the medieval hilltop town of Saturnia. According to Roman mythology, the god Saturn dropped a lightning bolt on the ground here in a fit of anger, causing a steaming eruption of hot water. Today, 160 gallons per second still gush out from the earth's crust at 98.6F.

The four-star Hotel Terme di Saturnia sits at the source of the hot springs and offers a complete range of beauty treatments and health cures (table). Guests can indulge in plankton body wraps and hydromassage of the feet, a popular anti-stress therapy. The elegant white marble hotel is in an area called Maremma, known as Italy's "Wild West" for its horseback riding trails and generally rustic feel.

From the spring's source, the brothy water runs through less than a mile of Tuscan landscape to the Cascatelle del Mulino, where the public can bathe free of charge. Centuries of sulfuric and mineral buildup have produced natural pools that serve as individual bathtubs for anyone who can claim them before the afternoon crowds descend. Saturnia is about three hours by car from Florence and two hours from Rome.

Further north, about 30 miles south of Siena, is the surreal Bagno Vignoni. The armies of archenemies Siena and Florence marched back and forth through this area, leaving this little agricultural town a mere pile of rubble in the 1500s. What remains is a collection of buildings overlooking a square, Piazza delle Sorgenti, that consists of nothing more than a bubbling pool of sulfuric water. The pool has been off limits to soakers since 1979, because the crowds grew too big. But nearby is the hotel Posta Marcucci, which offers an open-air thermal bath.

Tuscany draws visitors from around the globe for its scenery, history, and food. But what better way to wrap up a busy sightseeing trip than to float in the warmth of its thermal waters.