Popularity of Italian spa towns reflects healing waters as a way of life since ancient Roman time

March 19, 2019
When Angela Merkel wants a rejuvenating break from the rigors of running Europe's economic powerhouse, she frequently heads to Ischia, the Italian island of volcanic origins of the Bay of Naples. The no-nonsense German leader, towel in hand and sporting a sensible one-piece bathing suit, can be spotted doing what many Italians do -- relaxing at one of the island's many spas featuring thermal waters, piped in from the Mediterranean waters surrounding Ischia.

One can opt to stay in hotels offering mud-pack treatments, indoor or outdoor pools with soothing waters and rooms to inhale vapors regarded by many as just the right tonic for achy bones, stuffy head or clogged pores. Ischia's relatively mild temperatures mean some hotels operate outdoor pools with thermal waters all year around. Also very popular on Ischia are the virtual amusement parks of thermal waters. For a set fee, one can linger for a few hours or all day. The pools often have breathing views of the sea. One moves from pool to pool with varying temperatures and lets go of stresses and cares.

Swimming off Ischia is like having the sea as a personal spa. Thermal waters bubble up from under the surface of the waters near black-sand Maronti beach.

A popular Italian pasta sauce is called ''mari e monti'' -- seas and mountains -- and features seafood and mushrooms. By that logic, Ischia could certainly have inspired the combination. Away from the well-trodden tourist paths or larger resorts, side roads lead to villages little changed from when they were sleepy fishing towns. Go to the top of the extinct volcano for striking panoramas and sunsets, while dining on roast rabbit or pasta made with rabbit-based sauces. Upper Ischia is where many Ischitani -- as the natives are known -- go for their Sunday lunch.

But spa culture permeates Italy up and down the peninsula. A visit to Rome's ancient sprawling Baths of Caracalla, where Imperial citizens relaxed, reinvigorated their bodies and stimulated their minds through lively discussions with fellow bathers is a reminder of how essentially little this thermal bath culture has changed in Italy over the ages.

''Taking the cure'' at thermal spas is sometimes prescribed by doctors for everything from arthritis to acne. Does it work? Who knows? For sure, a stay in Italy's many spas make for soothing getaways.

In the Alpine South Tyrol (Alto Adige) region, the town of Merano beckons to spa-explorers. After a day on the ski slopes or crossing snow-covered fields Nordic-style, an inn's indoor pool fed by thermal waters is a welcome routine. But many spas run year-round in the Alps, where Italians and many Europeans north of Italy come to hike in the meadows in spring, summer or fall, revel in the mountain air and replace all those burned calories by tucking into hearty breakfasts and dinners reflecting the Austrian influence from across the nearby border.

The region is officially trilingual -- German, Italian, and Ladino -- the latter an ancient tongue spoken by a minority in that part of the Alps. Merano thus has a second official name, Meran.

Outdoor life dominates, with so much spectacular nature at one's doorstep.

With so many spas in Merano, it's easy to find one that fits one's budget and schedule. As in other spa towns, one can book a stay of several days, pampering oneself with attentive staff who make sure the kitchen cooks something to fit your dietary preference and needs. For those who plan to be mainly outdoors in the magnificent Dolomites, day-spas, where treatments can be booked by the hour, are a convenient option.

Kinds of saunas range from Finnish to South Tyrolean style with organic hay. There are "snow rooms'' and steam rooms. Whirlpools, mud and body wraps and thermal baths are other popular choices.

Energized, one can stroll through the city's historic center with medieval porticos and admire palazzi built in Beaux Arts style. There’s a castle which once served as the winter residence of Queen Elizabeth of Austria. Botanical gardens and seasonal festivals are ideal for browsing, with a renowned Christmas market, a spring festival and another celebrating the local grapes, which make for some fine wines among the highlights.

A classic spa town in the heart of Italy is Montecatini Terme, in Tuscany. Its picture perfect setting is a green valley. Its reputation as a thermal bath destination dates back to the days of the, yes, ancient Romans. Drinking Montecatini's mineral waters is what many sojourners do here. Mud baths are also popular.

The main spa establishments offer a vast menu of body-rejuvenating treats. One can book by the hour or even less time. Possibilities include ''acquagym'' or pedaling a "hydrobike” in thermal waters. Or perhaps some more traditional laps in a thermal pool, followed by a massage.

There are whirlpools with oxygenated waters, massages with volcanic stones and mudpack facials. Everyone seems to be working hard at being healthy. Over the years, the classic activity of filling and drinking bottles of mineral water has morphed into a range of holistic treatments featuring methods from Thailand, California and Hawaii.

If too much touring of Italy's artistic masterpieces risk triggering shades of Stendhal syndrome, a stay of a day or two in Montecatini, which essentially exists to relax and rejuvenate visitors, might be a handy destination. If you've craned your neck to admire too many cupolas or frescoed ceilings, Montecatinia spas also offer packages aimed at postural relief.

If your itinerary bypasses the larger spa towns, perhaps do what modern day Romans. A popular day excursion for Romans who want to pamper themselves is a drive to the Tuscan town of Saturnia. There one can spend a few hours lounging in thermal waters of hotel pools which let day-trippers swim, shower and dine there, for a fee, and then enjoy lunch. One can also take a dip for free in the thermal waters in a lake fed by a waterfall carved naturally out of travertine stone.