The road to health in Lazio is paved with sulphuric stones

Written by  Claudia Flisi

  • Fonte Bonifacio
  • Terme di Roma, Tivoli
  • Palazzo della Fonte, Fiuggi
  • Frescoes at Villa Farnese
  • Public pool at Terme dei Papi
  • Grotto dining at the Terme di Diana
  • Terme di Roma pools
  • Fiuggi old town
Fonte Bonifacio
Fonte Bonifacio. Photo by Claudia Flisi

If you squint your eyes in La Grotta (and you inevitably wind up squinting your eyes because of the dense steam), you can almost imagine a Roman soldier or two lounging beside you in the fog. No surprise there: La Grotta is part of a thermal spa in Viterbo, Italy, a city renowned for the therapeutic benefits of its waters for almost two millennia. First recognized by the Etruscans, the healing properties of Viterbo’s sulphur streams were sanctified by Roman warriors and diplomats, who gathered here to recuperate after battles on the field or in the Senate.

No legionnaires accompanied me as I groped through the thick grey cloud created by 50 ° C water trickling down the walls of the natural rock grotto. But I didn’t lack for company. La Grotta is in the Terme dei Papi, a spa complex recognized by the Italian government for its medicinal properties. Italians with a medical prescription come to take advantage of treatments for breathing problems, joint pathologies, skin irritations, and metabolic dysfunction, just as popes did during the Renaissance – hence the name.

They are not the only ones. Travellers like me, without pressing ailments but with a desire to embrace the benefits of a spa sojourn (some claim the word “spa” is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase Salus Per Aquam, or “health through water”, though this is disputed) are also welcome to enjoy Viterbo’s healing waters. A doctor’s visit is recommended -- and, for some spa offerings, mandatory – but you can relax your muscles for hours in an outdoor sulphur-laced swimming pool without any medical prescription. (Caution is advised for children, however, since the warm temperatures can lower their blood pressure).

One of Terme dei Papi’s 30 staff physicians suggested I try:

  • 15 minutes in the uber-hot grotto,
  • followed by a period of “relax”, sipping a cup of herbal tea,
  • then a 20-minute Kneipp sequence, including jets with carbonized water in a specially-designed narrow pool with alternating hot and cold sections,
  • and ending with a swim in the adjacent enclosed sulphur swimming pool.

The full experience is invigorating, enervating, and extremely well-organized. Bring your bathing suit and the Terme will take care of everything else: lockers, robes, slippers, swim caps.

Mineral elements such as those present in the waters and mud at Terme dei Papi can be found in dozens of spas throughout Lazio, the region of Italy encompassing Rome and four other provinces – Frosinone, Latina, Rieti, and Viterbo. Each mineral font has a unique composition that is particularly indicated for certain health issues and/or conditions of wellness. Many, like the Terme dei Papi, boast a high sulphur content, which makes them ideal for treating vascular diseases . . . or simply for relaxing in naturally-heated pools (emanating rotten-egg odours that one accepts as part of the ambience).

Others, like the waters at Fiuggi in the province of Frosinone, are for drinking, not dunking. The Fiuggi brand of mineral water can be found in supermarkets all over Italy, and many come here to drink water at the source, since it has a reputation as a cure for kidney or gall bladder stones, gout, and similar conditions.

All Lazio’s spas cater to wellness seekers as well as the medically-motivated. Families, romantics, athletes, and/or friends out for a spot of self-indulgence will all find a thermal town to please them. The wide-ranging offers draw visitors from all over Europe and around the world. The variety of television channels in four-star hotels suggests a significant presence of Russians, as well as Germans, British, some Eastern Europeans (well-attuned to spa sojourns in their own countries) and an increasingly number of Chinese. Most spa personnel in Lazio speak English, or are willing to make the attempt.

For example, the Grand Hotel Terme di Stigliano, about 75 minutes from Rome, is set in a 20-hectare park, green as a golf course. Though the hotel itself is a recently-renovated 17th century building, Etruscans were praising the restorative powers of the sulfuric-alkaline springs more than 2,000 years ago. The landscape is gorgeous, perfect for leisurely walks before a dip in one of the hotel’s two outdoor mineral pools. There is also a separate large chlorine pool for children. A large beauty centre offers the usual massages, mud baths, and wellness treatments one would expect at a four-star establishment, plus four “elemental” packages -- earth, air, fire, and water -- that can be combined with a one or two-night stay at the hotel.

The staff seems to consist almost entirely of smiling young women, who are tall, attractive, and perfectly made up. “If this is what the water here does to you, you can put me down as a permanent guest,” I observed to one of them.

The hotel restaurant, Il Ninfeo (the nymph), boasts a light and airy dining room with green vistas and white tablecloths. In the summer, one can also dine outside on the terrace. If the food is not as stunning as the context, well, one is less tempted to overindulge. Resisting the excellent wine list may be harder.

Not all sybarites live by spa alone. For those who want to sightsee as well as soak and steam, the region of Lazio offers “l’imbarrazzo della scelta” (an embarrassment of riches in terms of choice). One option is the town of Tivoli, about 40 minutes east of the city of Rome. Many visitors to the Eternal City take a one-day excursion to see the fabled gardens and fountains of Tivoli. If they have time, they may include a visit to the fabulous Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa), a 2nd century complex that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then, exhausted, they return to the congestion of central Rome.

Instead, visitors should consider STAYING in Tivoli, a gracious town enriched by the Terme Acque Albule (Terme di Rome), famed for sulphuric waters recommended for skin problems such as psoriasis and for respiratory ailments. One can visit Tivoli Gardens one morning, then indulge in a mud treatment followed by massage at the Terme in the afternoon. Choosing which massage is also an embarrassment of riches: there are eight Asian selections (the newest is from Tibet) and another 21 from all over the world (Sweden, California, Hawaii, India . .. .). Another morning one can visit Hadrian’s Villa, leaving the afternoon open for the Via del Benessere (the way to wellness), a series of aquatic experiences including the sulphuric pool, Jacuzzi, a Kneipp walk through hot and cold water, sauna, Turkish bath, an aromatic shower, and a relaxing finale reclining on a lounge chair while sipping herbal tea.

The four-star Victoria Terme Hotel is conveniently right next to the Terme di Roma and is shiny orange in motif and sleekly contemporary in style. For contrast, you could opt to dine one evening at the restaurant Terme di Diana in the heart of town. The name is more than thematically appropriate: you dine in grottos that date back to 376 BC. It is believed that the original structure honored the hunting goddess Diana, and subsequently became a public bathhouse. You may wind up over-indulging, since the courses continue for hours, but no mind. Tomorrow you can purge yourself at the Terme.

Another spa town of many pleasures is Fiuggi. The drinkable water sources in town (Fonte Bonifacio VIII and Anticolana) are complimented by the dunkable sulphuric waters of the nearby Terme Pompeo di Ferentino. The micro-climate at 620 metres is so pleasant that professional sports teams as well as school athletes come here to train. The 18-hole, par 70 Fiuggi Golf Club is nearby. Bikers, hikers, and horseback riders can follow trails designed with scenic vistas in mind. All these opportunities attract a large number of visitors, so the town is full of shops, cafes, restaurants, and handsome hotels offering great value for money.

If money is a minor consideration, there is another reason to linger at Fiuggi -- the Grand Hotel Palazzo della Fonte, the poshest place in town. A member of the Leading Hotels of the World, the five-star Grand Hotel dominates its surroundings with indoor and outdoor heated pools, a lavishly equipped gym, landscaped gardens, a private spa, superb dining, and impeccable service.

If you squint your eyes, you might imagine an entourage of Roman nobles sweeping past you in the main hall. And this time, you would probably be right.

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