Friendship: Just Add Water (Hot Spring Water, That Is)
Welcome this month’s edition of the Italy Blogging Roundtable on the theme of “friendship”! Take a look at posts by Georgette Jupe, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.
There’s no getting around it. It has been a really tough couple of months at our house. One of those stretches marked by suffering and death, disappointment and heartbreak. One of those stretches that reminds you that sure, you can think positive and manifest and believe that things will turn out for the best as much as your New Age heart desires, but sometimes things don’t go the way you want. Sometimes you have to walk away from a dream. Sometimes crappy things happen to good people.
It has been one of those stretches during which our dinnertime routine of holding hands and listing three things we are grateful for was punctuated by long silences, as my sons and I stared at each other through our haze of ennui and tried to remember how lucky we are. “Well, the weather is nice today, I guess,” one of us would finally venture, and we would all nod to reassure ourselves that even if our light was dimming, the sun continued to shine.
Which is why when genuinely wonderful things did happen, they took on the sheen of a miracle. My sons had saved up to buy a GoPro camera, sealed the deal for a used one online, and were then stiffed out of their savings when the seller absconded with their payment. Not a week later, they received a card stuffed with cash signed by over a dozen friends from across the globe (including a Roundtabler whom I will not mention by name – ahem – Georgette) who heard about their plight and banded together to help them out. The message on the card read, “The best revenge…friends!”, which I loved for the clean truth of it. When the universe seems to be plotting against you, it’s your friends who thwart its nefarious plans, driving an hour to bring you a home-cooked meal, parachuting in for a girlfriends’ weekend, sending packages of Reese’s peanut butter cups from across the Atlantic, and giving you a life raft to cling on every single evening at the dinner table when listing things to be grateful for.
It is thanks to two friends that I finally discovered the revengeful bliss to be found at the hot springs in the Tuscan hamlet of Bagno Vignoni. Rountabler Jessica had sent a spa gift certificate to me and our mutual friend Linda of The Beehive in Rome A YEAR AGO, and sundry scheduling problems and lazy-assery had kept me from going until Linda finally cracked the whip and reminded me the expiration date for vouchers was nigh. So I took a break from life for a day and spent it instead stewing in the warm thermal baths at Hotel Le Terme, sweet sweet revenge against the tempest-tossed first months of 2017.
Being a Midwesterner, the idea of hot springs was completely new to me when I moved to Italy, and there are very few (and somewhat underwhelming) in Umbria, so it took me years before I ventured into Tuscany and became an immediate convert. Italians, on the other hand, have been “taking the waters” since Roman times, and thermal spring treatments are considered a therapeutic necessity, so much so that the national healthcare system covers annual visits. The mineral waters in natural hot springs are considered beneficial for everything from the respiratory system to joint pain, but many spas tout the curative effects of their waters for specific ailments.
Tuscany is famous for its many hot springs (though you can find them from Piedmont to Ischia), some of which are in open countryside where you can bathe for free, but I much prefer to spend a day in a spa facility where there are a full range of services. Generally, the entrance fee for the most basic thermal baths includes access to changing rooms and showers, lockers for your personal belongings, at least one thermal pool for soaking, a snack bar, and a staff of massage and physical therapists offering treatments that must be reserved ahead of time and paid for separately. You will have to bring your own bathing suit, towel, robe, and flip-flops, and you do not need to book ahead of time.
The more luxurious spas, including Hotel Le Terme in Bagno Vignoni, offer higher-end facilities and services, including gourmet restaurants, a wider range of massages and treatments, numerous thermal pools with varying temperatures, waterfalls and massage jets, robes and flip-flops, and manicured gardens to relax in. Many of these are part of a larger hotel complex, so you can book an overnight stay and a multi-day pass into the adjacent spa.
I had assumed that thermal spas were an exorbitant indulgence, and populated only by the rich and beautiful. Instead, most are relatively inexpensive in Italy – even the most luxurious and well-known offer half-day passes between about €35 and €50 per person – so are a modest splurge, once you factor in the cost of an extra massage or meal. And because thermal treatments are considered therapeutic in Italy, you will find fellow bathers can include anyone from young children there for a day with their families to ward off chest colds to senior citizens soaking away their aches and pains…so you don’t have to worry about feeling out of place if you don’t have a perfectly toned and tanned physique. Or if your legs haven’t seen a razor for the better part of the winter. Or you haven’t managed to shop for a new bathing suit in so long that the one you own gets all saggy-ass when it’s wet. Not that I would have personal experience with any of these situations.
This postcard-perfect hamlet in the Val d’Orcia isn’t the closest hot springs to Assisi (our go-to are the decidedly less lovely but very kid-friendly springs in Rapolano…and yes, my kids are Italian at heart, so often request a day at the hot springs like little mini-Roman emperors), so I had never made it there. Honestly, the long drive was one of the reasons I had put off cashing in Jessica’s lovely gift certificate, but I discovered that the route is so lovely that it flew by. I had left with time to spare, so took the highway 75 north past Lake Trasimeno, but then left it behind and exited on the panoramic SP 327, a breathtakingly gorgeous route through the iconic Tuscan countryside of the Val d’Orcia. After a little less than an hour of driving through rolling hills and thick oak woods past the pretty hill towns of Montepulciano, Pienza, and San Quirico d’Orcia, I parked at the free (though slightly hidden) lot outside the walls of Bagno Vignoni and got ready for some serious soaking and girl talk.
Bagno Vignoni has been known for its hot springs since Roman times, and thermal baths are pretty much the only thing going on in this tiny and picturesque hamlet. In lieu of a main square, there is a large rectangular pool of thermal waters (which is no longer used for bathing), around which are a number of quaint restaurants with outdoor tables, a few tasteful Tuscan souvenir shops, and – oddly – one of the best tiny bookstores I’ve ever visited in Italy. In the valley beneath the town, you can soak for free in the Parco dei Mulini springs, but if you want to channel the elegance of illustrious visitors to Bagno Vignoni over the centuries like Pope Pius II and Lorenzo the Magnificent, book in at one of the spas in and around town.
We were there on a blustery, rainy day at the end of April, so the covered pools and internal steam room and bath at Hotel Le Terme were perfect for us. Otherwise, the nearby Hotel Posta Marcucci has recently renovated their spa, which now includes a large outdoor pool and surrounding garden overlooking the Val d’Orcia countryside. For a real treat, book in at the five-star Adler Resort just outside of town, one of the most famous spas in Tuscany.
After our morning soaking and chatting, we took a walk around the center – which is so tiny that in five minutes you have seen it all – and stopped for a delicious Tuscan lunch at Il Loggiato just below the Librorcia bookstore. And suddenly it was afternoon, time to head home and pick up where I left off, but this time feeling a hundred kilos lighter, feeling pampered, feeling loved. Feeling the sweet satisfaction of the best revenge…friends!
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
- Italy Explained – Italian Terms of Endearment
- Ciao Amalfi –
- At Home in Tuscany – “Friendship” (or family?) in small communities
- Girl in Florence – Friendship and One Week in Croatia