Dante’s Infernal Springs
“Now follow me, and be careful not to place your feet yet on the burning sand, but always keep back close to the wood.’ We came, in silence, to the place, where a little stream gushes from the wood, the redness of which still makes me shudder.
Like the rivulet that runs sulphur-red from the Bulicame spring, near Viterbo, that the sinful women share among themselves, so this ran down over the sand. Its bed and both its sloping banks were petrified, and its nearby margins: so that I realised our way lay there.” (Dante Inferno Canto XIV:73-120 ‘The Old Man of Crete’)
Viterbo lies on a bed of hot and turbulent landscape. The sulphur-rich soil giving way to earth-heated water which dots the nearby countryside. So much so that it has become a favourite pastime of the Viterbese to frequent one of the many hot springs of an evening to unwind and relax in the eggy-pungent steams and chill evening winds.
The thermal springs are certainly a speciality of Viterbo. Famed in Dante’s Inferno and as old as time itself these naturally occurring hot beds are especially delightful retreats after a stressful day at work or heavy weekend. Ranging from free to extortionate there are many different levels of luxury which one can experience. I shall mention three beginning with the Thermal Springs of the Popes.
Humble Papal Pampering
So named as it was once the favourite of the old Popes who would splash their humble riches on luxurious bathing, Terme di Papi is the most well-known and most expensive thermal spa in the area. A mere 80 euros will get you a day pass in which you can experience the large outdoor thermal pool and other luxuries. However, if you’re expecting the sonar sound Jacuzzi or any other extras you’d better add another 30 euros on top of that.
So what makes this thermal bath experience so much better than all the cheaper ones around town? Well… This one has a roof! And as far as I could tell on my singular visit this was all they had to offer, that and an over-priced café. Of course, it also has other spa-like amenities such as mud treatment, massage therapy, and even a gynaecologist!
The thermal pool itself, albeit large, is outdoors just as many others are, and the sonar sound Jacuzzi is pleasant enough but is it worth the money? Twenty minutes sitting in a bubbling pool with coloured LED lighting all around the room, and ending with “soothing” mood music being played underwater so that one can peacefully submerge oneself into melodic tranquillity is enough to bore me, and it did.
After stifling my own guffaws at the other couple sharing my experience, who seemed to be taking the event so seriously that I thought they were going to start levitating, I began to wonder about the time and how much longer I had to endure the soothing sounds of synthetic harp strings. Perhaps I would have appreciated it a little more with the sound of David Bowie’s greatest hits. Needless to say, the experience was not for me.
The pomposity that surrounds the spa is one in which I did not feel comfortable. I felt as though if my robe did not have Armani embroidered into the lapel then I would be shunned. For a one-off experience it was fine, but far out of my price-range or comfort-zone.
Relaxation Under the Stars
Contrary to the expensive experience, Il Bagnaccio is one of many such thermal spring areas which is both affordable and easy-going. An outdoor collection of pools of varying temperatures to suit every scantily-clad bod from ‘warm-enough-for-the-children’ to ‘gasping-hot’.
With free-rein to sample as many pools as you like for as long as you like it is simply a case of making like Baby Bear’s Porridge and finding one which is “just right”. Of the few thermal springs I was fortunate enough to visit this was my favourite.
With a 5-euro entry fee you can’t go wrong. It is open every day till late and some of the best times to go are in the late evening of Autumn and Winter, where the chilly night air collides with the hot steam in a hazy light show.
After stripping down to your smalls poolside in the freezing winds of Viterbo it is all you can do to stop yourself from diving into the welcoming warmth of the water, the cold air makes it all the more rewarding.
Night is also the best time to relax without the splashing of children or the gaggle of Italian families. Aside from the odd smooching couple hidden in the shadows it is tranquillity at its best.
Located near a caravan park outside the main city I cannot say it is the easiest spot to find. Without a car and a map to guide you down the winding, travel-sick inducing country lanes one would be hard-pressed to find it. But if you are able to visit, do it!
Dante’s own Bulicame; a free spring bath that was once a local hotspot as indicated by the abandoned steps and handrails now overgrown around the pool. The area looks like a building site in Winter and the pool is leafy and brown. One constant is the temperature.
The public pool still keeps a pleasant tepid dish-water temperature – not recommended for a chilly Winter evening – whereas the ‘hot’ pool maintains a whopping 58 degrees, a little too hot for a comfortable soak. Even if you did fancy broiling yourself alive the pool is cordoned off by an impenetrable fence to keep out riffraff and any idiots who fancy a daring dip. But one look at the bubbling broth should be enough to make even the most idiotic daredevil think twice.
However, it should be mentioned that the area which I visited is but one spot on the whole Bulicame range. Although the area was not very appealing I am assured that there is another, more attractive free spring nearby.
The one redeeming feature of this particular site is the monument to Dante’s Inferno holding the quote from Canto XIV. Like a bridge connecting the two disparate cultures. Dante’s archaic epic poetry of the 14th century describing mankind’s mortality and eternal search for Godly salvation, and our technological modernity and shameless search for Wi-Fi, the monument provides a reminder of the fragility of life.
Where Dante once walked and was inspired we too can now walk and feel in awe at the sheer magnitude of history that this land has seen. When we’re nought but dust these hot volcanic springs will still be bubbling away for future generations and beyond. If that’s not enough to inspire poetry then I don’t know what is!
Dante’s monument and the hot pool at Bulicame (circa 2016). Photo by Steph.
Featured image; view over Lazio (circa 2017). Photo by Steph.