Exploring thermal baths and pilgrimage
Cultural and natural heritage in Italy
Cultural and natural heritage in Italy
Thermal bath sites are tourist attractions today that date back centuries. In this blog, the rurAllure project introduces the heritage of thermal baths.
Since prehistoric times thermal springs, with their unusual colours, pungent smell and specific vapours, have attracted the attention of people who, at first, noticed the behaviour of the animals using the waters, and later learnt to use them by gradually exploring their therapeutic effectiveness. Thermal bath traditions date back to Antiquity, as mineral springs and waters were highly appreciated by Greeks, Etruscans and Romans, long before they became part of luxurious tourist offerings.
Natural thermal sites, together with healing practices that have been preserved to the present day, constitute an important cultural heritage that can be discovered, in particular, through walking along pilgrimage routes.
Starting from proto-historic times, groups of people, as well as individual pilgrims, have undertaken journeys, sometimes very long, to reach thermal sources with healing properties, often associated with a strong spiritual value.
Mineral water sites have been among the most visited destinations from Antiquity to the modern times. Here, the aura of sacredness and mystery emanating from springs was closely linked to therapeutic practices, known for the capacity to solve various health problems.
In Italy, there are numerous thermal heritage sites dating back to the Roman era located close to the major consular roads, which later became pilgrimage routes leading to Rome. Among them there are the Via Romea Strata, Via Romea Germanica and Via Francigena. These are routes that crossed all of Europe, taken by millions of pilgrims throughout centuries who, having just arrived in Italy, found it easier to rest their weary limbs.
Over millennia, thermal springs have preserved their role as a healing tool, as documented by numerous literary, iconographic and ethnographic testimonies. Today, the thermal heritage of historic pilgrimage routes, where the true wealth is found in the extraordinary nature of the mineral water and its derivatives, is often supported or substituted by modern therapeutic facilities.
Thermal waters can alleviate many pathologies, including those of skin, limbs, digestive and reproductive systems, as well as respiratory, visual or auditory organs, as witnessed by Vitruvius, Pliny the Elder and Seneca, to mention just the best-known names from the Roman era.
The healing properties of the waters depend both on their chemical composition, being rich in minerals. as well as the fact that they emerge from under the ground at different temperatures (hypothermal, cold: below 20°; homeothermal, tepid: 20°-30°C; hyperthermal, hot: above 30°C). Both of these combine to offer the possibility of specific treatments on site.
Apart from the Via Francigena pilgrimage route, which passes through several important thermal hotspots (thermal towns of Acqui Terme, Salsomaggiore, Tabiano, Gambassi Terme, Viterbo and many others) and have been receiving a growing interest from visitors and pilgrims, there are numerous thermal heritage gems along other historic paths crossing Italy.
For example, on the Via Romea Strata, we can also highlight the important spa towns of the Euganean Hills, in the province of Padua, among which Montegrotto Terme stands out. The water in the Euganean section is salty-bromine-iodine and hyperthermal. It gushes out at 87 degrees but is used at 36-38 degrees to treat joints, muscular pain and atrophy, for rehabilitation after traumas, fractures and surgery. Euganean thermal mud is also employed.
There are several archaeological sites in the spa town, three of which can be visited, dating from the 1st century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., and the Museum of Ancient Thermalism and Territory has recently been opened.
How does the mineralisation of these waters occur, making them the same today as they were 3,000 years ago? It is a long and complex process that begins with rain: falling on the ground surface, rain seeps underground and is enriched with minerals present in the rocks.If it then encounters heat flows of the earth, it heats up and returns to the surface with particular chemical and physical properties and at different temperatures. They are therefore very different types of waters including those we drink and are called 'oligomineral' waters.
In addition, mineral waters may occur in nature taking the form of springs, ponds or muddy puddles. In some cases, the underground water is transformed into gas and upon leaking to the surface is not visible, but may reveal itself by smell or by absence of living beings in the vicinity, as there are deadly gaseous emissions.
Over the millennia, humans have constantly dealt with geothermal phenomena, at first linking them to the presence of gods capable of making water gush out at high or effervescent temperatures, perhaps reddish (because rich in iron salts), or oily (because bituminous). Later, health resorts were built at those springs, in which, today, specialised physicians receive patients, as priests used to do in the past for ritual and votive practices.
However, already in Roman times, there were not only therapeutic facilities (called Thermae, Aquae or Fontes) at the mineral springs but, then as now, there were also hospitality and recreational areas. Some of those thermal sites continue to be in demand for millennia, due to the long-lasting fame of their curative effects, as well as the historically rich natural landscapes that host them.
Thermal heritage therefore represents a unique natural phenomenon, as well as an important natural and cultural asset. These very special waters combine geology, thermal landscapes, rituals and social practices, and stories and legends, transmitted from generation to generation.
Due to the fragile nature of thermal archaeological heritage and the fact that thermal springs are often located in rural settings, away from popular tourist destinations, they do not receive deserved attention and risk being neglected.
Slow tourism developments might encourage travellers to discover these healing spots immersed in unique natural environments. That is why pilgrimage routes in line with sustainable development initiatives, such as the rurAllure project, play an important role in valuing and preserving thermal sites.
rurAllure is a European project aimed at the promotion of rural heritage located in the vicinity of the ancient pilgrimage routes in Europe. One of its pilots is focused on the research of the thermal heritage sites along the pilgrimage route to Rome, such as Via Francigena, Romea Germanica and Romea Strata. It is therefore a true cultural mosaic that, thanks to an interactive platform, will become available to all pilgrims and hikers, who follow the route.