Friday, 22 February 2008

Thermal Baths of Saturnia, Tuscany

A few years ago, my boyfriend and I, along with another couple, rented a two bedroom cottage, just outside of the ancient Roman settlement of Saturnia, Tuscany. We enjoyed an assortment of meats, cheeses and wine, and welcomed the New Year with champagne. At 12:30, the guys told us to grab our swimsuits ... we were going for a drive. As much as I enjoy surprises, I was a little apprehensive about driving off into the Tuscan countryside and going for a dip in the middle of the night in some unknown body of water. But I played along.

Our destination was a gravel parking lot. A group of people wearing robes and towels ran by us, laughing as they rushed to their car to get warm. This was good enough for me - I bravely got out of the car, wearing only my bathing suit and Birkenstocks. My boyfriend lit a candle and held my hand as he led me down a slippery, mud-covered path. Five minutes later, I found myself in one of at least a dozen small pools of light greenish-blue water. The ambient temperature was comfortable but cool, making the warm water feel like a soothing, hot bath. Small, marble-like stones, polished by erosion, danced around our feet as we sipped a glass of champagne under the moonlit Tuscan sky. That night was a unique and special experience, one that I will never forget.

According to local legend, the thermal baths were created when the God of Saturn became angry with human beings because they were constantly at war with one another. In his anger, he hurled a lightning bolt down to earth to pacify the humans, causing hot, sulphurous waters from below the earth’s crust to pour up onto the surface. Today, the water temperature remains constant at 37 degrees Celsius, or 98.5 degree Fahrenheit, year round. It is thought to possess therapeutic and healing qualities.

The locals tend to frequent the thermal baths during early hours of the morning, just before dawn. This is advisable if you prefer privacy, as the baths tend to get somewhat crowded during the day. As an alternative to the natural thermal baths, tourists can also visit the luxurious Terme di Saturnia, a four star spa and golf resort. For more information about the hotel, visit .

If you prefer to experience the natural springs without paying, I suggest driving to Saturnia and spending the day. Saturnia is in southern Tuscany, about an hour and a half drive from Rome. While you are there, you might want to stop at a great little restaurant called “I Due Cippi da Michele Ristorante”, located in Piazza V. Veneto 26/A, in the main square of Saturnia (Tel. +39/05.6460.1074).

Craco: The Forbidden City

The town of Craco in southern Italy’s Basilicata region rises up from the gently rolling hills of the surrounding countryside. From a distance, the rugged stone walls of this now abandoned town blend seamlessly with the brownish green landscape, but the outline of its straight-edged buildings and the distinct, quadratic black holes, once windows, make it difficult for this town to go unnoticed by passersby. I happened to notice the town on a hot, September day on my way to Matera.

Warning signs at the edge of the town forbid unauthorized entrance to the buildings. And if that’s not enough to stop people, perhaps the wall of debris –crumbling old bricks, stones and sharp ceramic roof tiles- might deter them from exploring the dangerous ruins that lie beyond. Despite the warning signs, my curiosity got the better of me and I carefully climbed over the debris. I found myself in the cellar of what used to be someone’s house. I made my way up the steep, uneven staircase, all the while thinking that I should turn back before the building collapses.

Upstairs, there was no furniture and the floors were noticeably clear of debris, which is rather odd since there was no roof overhead. The brilliant sunlight coming in through the roof made the pastel pink, yellow and blue coloured walls of each room seem brilliant, almost too bright to look at without my sunglasses. The far wall of the main room had a gaping crack starting from the top corner and narrowing down to the floor. Beyond the crack was nothing but air, just a view of the endless soft rolling hills in the distance. I felt as though I was inside a Salvador Dali painting. Everything seemed distorted and out of proportion -unreal, to say the least. I didn’t dare step too close to the edge.

I stepped out of the house onto a slightly overgrown cobblestone road. I wandered through town, snapping photos and imagining the town's people going about their daily activities. When I reached the centre of the town, I was surprised to see that it was in quite good condition. It was a little rough around the edges but it resembled a modern southern Italian town. Most of the buildings were intact, with roofs and doors, some even had furniture. One can only come to the conclusion that the former residents left in a hurry, facing certain danger. I later learned that Craco was built on unstable ground, over sink holes which began to swallow up the town in 1961. The town suffered severe landslides, causing progressive abandon by residents.

The town of Craco has a rich history. It was originally built for military purposes during medieval times and later developed into a typical southern Italian town, albeit, with its own unique character and charm. Descendents of the town, many of whom now live in the United States, have developed the Craco Society, dedicated to preserving the culture, traditions and history of Craco. They have a website and held the first annual Craschesi del Nord America Reunion in August 2007. For further information about Craco, visit .