A few years ago some Italian friends told me about some natural thermal baths in Saturnia, Tuscany. They explained that there was a famous spa one could go to, but that there was also a natural occurring, free version very near the expensive spa, “IF you can find it!”
You see, the trick was that the locals will not tell outsiders how to find the natural thermal baths as they don’t want the natural baths overrun with tourists.
Since we lived In Italy I figured we qualified as locals of sorts. I was determined to find the free thermal baths. Unfortunately, at that time, the natural baths were not part of the standard GPS menu. The only information that we had was that they were near the famed Terme di Saturnia Spa and Golf Resort. Armed with an old fashioned map, American grit and a stubborn streak, we set out to explore.
It was not easy to find. There were no signs and there are a multitude of country roads to chose from. I am nothing, if not persistent though, and eventually we found it.
After visiting Cascate del Mulino, I can see why the locals want to preserve this special place. Until now, I have never written about the baths out of respect for the local’s wish to keep it secret and special. Today, good or bad, what the locals feared has come to pass and one can input the location on your GPS. Back then it was such a local secret that when we asked our hotel for directions and they gave us some vague instructions about the general direction to go. Today they advertise the baths on their website.
Two Very Different Experiences
If nature is not your thing, rest assured that one has choices when visiting the thermal baths. The resort, Terme di Saturnia Spa and Golf Resort, offers golf, spa treatments, yoga, massage, restaurants and accommodation in addition to thermal baths. It looked amazing and relaxing. The atmosphere is pure luxury. Room rates start at 300 Euros a night.
In contrast, the natural (i.e. free) baths, Cascate del Mulino, just down the road, are the complete opposite. At the time that we visited there were no signs and we drove down many a dirt road searching for the mill. The area is unattended by any staff. There were no parking attendants, lifeguards or wait staff serving cocktails and sparkling water. The area was unpaved and dusty. Nearer the mill and falls, it was quite gravely and the actual pools and falls were quite slippery. Water shoes are a must.
According to Italian lore the gods Saturn and Zeus were arguing about mortals’ penchant for fighting each other.
At some point during the argument, Zeus threw a lightening bolt (or a thunderbolt depending on who you ask) at Saturn (or at the mortals depending on who you ask).
The power of this lightening bolt went straight into the Earth and resulted in warm water gushing out, overflowing and enveloping the mortals. Essentially, Zeus gave the mortals a warm bath to calm them down. And it worked, the warm hot springs calmed the mortals, healed their ailments and generally made everyone happier. And it still works today.
The Healing Properties
Who wouldn’t want to heal themselves in waters divined by the gods? These thermal waters have been in use by local Italians since the Etruscan and Roman period. Natural pools have formed out of travertine as a result of 3,000 years of flowing water. The pools are perfectly formed and comfortable. The pools are so perfectly formed and smooth that my husband did not believe that they were naturally made.
The water is a consistent 37.5 °C/99.5 °F which may seem like it would be too hot, but trust me, it is not. It was oh.so.nice. We visited in the spring and I couldn’t help thinking that visiting on a crisp autumn or winter evening would be heaven.
The thermal water contains a myriad of minerals that offer healing powers. A few of the minerals are sulfur, sulphate, sulfide, carbon, bicarbonate, hydrogen, alkaline, thermal plankton, and 2 gasses – hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide. The gases give off a rather pungent smell similar to hard boiled eggs. We did not mind the smell, but I was told some people do not like it.
The minerals in the water have been used as a natural therapeutic spa since the the Etruscan and Roman periods. The waters were so revered that the Romans built thermal baths in many of the little villages surrounding the falls. Some of those baths still remain.
What can be cured by soaking in the thermal baths? All kinds of ailments including eczema, psoriasis, respiratory infections, and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few. The water is also said to detox the body, and improve circulation, cell oxygenation and immune function. For me, the simple relaxation it provided was enough. And an added bonus, the minerals left my skin feeling soft and supple.
The source of the incredible healing water begins at Monte Amiata. Monte Amiata is a dormant volcano, which despite its dormant status, still pumps in excess of 800 litres/211 gallons of water a second from its depths into the falls. The water begins 200 meters/656 feet below the earth and is heated by the thermal activity of the dormant volcano. I am not a geologist. I admit that I don’t understand how a dormant volcano is still generating this much heat and hydraulics, but, who cares why. I am just glad it does.
- Parking is limited. Many people park along the road and in fact that was how we ended up finding the place. There is one small car park at the end of the access road, however, it was jammed packed with cars so don’t count on finding a place.
- Never leave valuables in your car.
- Water shoes – you must take water shoes. Not only for your comfort on the rocky shore, but for safety in the slippery pools.
- The usual bathing suits, towels, a sun umbrella, and sun screen, but you may also want to bring a change of clothes as your bathing suit will smell of sulphur after you get out. Changing occurs under the cover of your towel – again, this is a no frills natural spa and it is Italy where people don’t get hung up about changing on the beach, etc.
- Food – bring a picnic, snacks, fresh water, etc. as there is only a tiny snack bar that sells things like ice cream, but not a full service restaurant or store in the area. Also, what a fantastic place for a picnic!
There are many hotels and B&B’s in the area. We stayed at the darling Relais Ciavatta in Maremma and I cannot recommend it more.
Relais Ciavatta offers beautiful Tuscan grounds,
rooms with traditional Tuscan country decor,
an inviting pool,
a delicious restaurant on site, Osteria la Frasca,
and amazing, friendly staff. One staff member in particular was very attentive and sweet. Luigi, the Jack Russell.
Our day at Cascate del Mulino remains one of my most treasured memories of living in Italy. I like that we had to work to find it. It made it feel like a treasure at the end of a hunt. Like we had made it into the elite club of locals.
Cascate del Mulino is such a unique place that my heart is torn. I want to share it with others and yet, I really hope it does not end up developed and overrun with people. I am hoping that because the baths are a bit off the beaten path, the majority of tourists will not make the trek and the natural thermal baths may retain their natural allure.
While I totally appreciate the spa with its services and luxurious treatments, for me, soaking in ancient, naturally carved pools, with the sound of waterfalls that have been flowing for over 3,000 years, the incredible Tuscan countryside all around me, was an experience of a lifetime.