I can only think of one other European country where baths play such an important part in the lives of its citizens – Hungary. Those who have not been to the Gellert baths in Budapest (or any of the smaller ones throughout that country) are surely missing one of the great world experiences!
The two major baths (or terme) in ancient Rome were the baths of Diocletian (now transformed into a national museum and a church) and the baths of Caracalla (now an open-air theatre). The Romans loved baths and were ecstatic when thermal, healing waters were discovered in their new conquest across the channel and founded Aquae Sulis (today’s city of Bath).
The love of natural thermal baths continues in Italy to this day: within a morning’s drive from our house we can reach Montecatini terme, Monsummano terme, Terme di San Giuliano and, of course, our own Terme di Bagni di Lucca.
A recent “impegnativa” (prescription) from our doctor gave us twelve sessions at the terme di Bagni di Lucca to help alleviate certain personal ailments, courtesy of the Italian National Health system.
The Terme di Bagni di Lucca is only a quarter hour’s drive from our house and is situated near the top of a volcanic hill which dominates the town. Within the bowels of this hill are hot thermal waters with special medicinal properties which, since mediaeval (or even Roman?) times have encouraged all those in search of panaceas for their ills to visit the spa.
Perhaps the most famous of cure-seekers is the great sixteenth century French essayist Montaigne who wrote extensively about his experiences here, greatly praised the waters and finally found solace in them from his pains.
The Bagni di Lucca thermal waters complex is made up of the “Jean Varraud” baths (named after the Frenchman who re-developed them at the start of the last century) and the “Ouida” well-being centre (named after the formerly best-selling author who stayed here in the nineteenth century and who is buried in the protestant cemetery) which offers beauty treatments and health programmes. Of these programmes I have only tried the amazing mud baths.
The thermal spa is characterized by two natural steam caves: the Great grotto and the Paolina grotto (named after Napoleon’s sister who regularly visited it). Their temperatures range between 40 ° and 50 ° C, and are ideal for skin care, arthropathy, relaxation and body purification.
The healing waters of Bagni di Lucca, which flows out at a temperature of 54 degrees from their main source deep within the bowels of the volcanic hill continue to have a major world reputation for their extraordinary regenerative and healing powers. The water’s main ingredients are bicarbonate and calcium sulphate.
This morning we will again visit one of the two grottoes. Entering into their natural sauna atmosphere the body begins to sweat profusely. After twenty minutes one is called out (if they have not forgotten you!) to go and relax on a camp-bed in a separate room where helpers tuck one in a blanket. This is a most important part of the treatment: a “reazione” or reaction sets in after a few minutes where one’s body seems to enter into total oblivion. A tisane is served and then, again after around twenty minutes, one gets up and returns to the changing rooms to dress and, hopefully, face another day with greater confidence, at least in one’s bodily purity….
The baths of Lucca may not have the fin-de-siècle opulence of Montecatini terme and some of the décor and apparatus may be criticized as needing modernization or restoration but it has its own peculiar charm and when it comes to the nitty-gritty itself, the waters, then there is nothing to beat it!
Here is something a (very) local poet wrote about them:
BAGNI DI CORSENA (LUCCA)
Virgin spring so chaste and pure
heal my ills in this sad world,
deliver me from obscure
thoughts as yet unfound, unfurled.
You rise from bowels of earth,
seeking daylight on this hill,
climbing from volcano’s girth:
let me drink and have my fill.
Long I’ve sought far and wide
the remedy that will cure
body and soul, the inside
and outside, ever impure.
I’ve come here to slake my thirst,
my desire to reach wholeness,
my wish to know what comes first
in my life’s implicitness.
The forest trees know my thought,
the roebuck and badger feel
my steps and the snares I’ve caught:
they do not betray or steal.
Skylarks ethereally sing
in the cloudless skies of May
and the ecstasy they bring
melt this clumsy, mortal clay.
Within the small, marbled cave
I breathe embalming vapour
which can touch and kiss and save
like the word of my Saviour.
I sit upon the same slab
the Emperor’s sister sat.
Perhaps he who wrote Queen Mab
came here for platonic chat.
His head crowned with daffodils,
his arms about his beloved,
his walks across streams and rills,
his pen on lines yet unsaid.
The flowers in blossomed fields
open petals to my heart;
their scent of paradise yields
only Him who can impart
the redemptive touch that knows,
that removes life’s bitter sting
for now earth’s blood once more flows
and makes my soul newly sing.
Heal me then you youthful springs:
drown me in your warm embrace,
take away all evil things
and restore my heart, my place.