Grown men and women shuffled in their standard complimentary flip flops, white flesh hanging out of swimsuits, long hair pinned back with clips and scrunchies. Those who had just arrived seemed timid, unsure of where to go, while those who had already laid under hot jets of water, on bubble beds or across warm sauna wood seemed drugged, eyes half closed with pleasure, muscles untightened.
It was our first time at the thermal baths in Bormio, but from the looks of the others, we were bound to enjoy it. We received passes to the spa as a Christmas gift, and decided to use them to celebrate our three-year wedding anniversary. On that exact day, we drove up to Bormio, about three hours from our home in Monza Brianza, a bit tense from the workweek, quarrelsome and unsure. My only other experience with thermal baths was in Budapest when, coincidentally, Marco and I decided to go to help my hurt foot and frayed travel nerves while visiting the city the weekend before our marriage in the courthouse. (See: Relaxing in The City of Spas)
Bormio is most known for two things: its ski resort (also one of the few places in the Alps with a snowboarding stunt park) and its thermal baths. They have both “old baths” (bagni vecchi) and “new baths” (bagni nuovi) but I’m told the old ones are the more suggestive, more appreciated baths.
Located just 3 kilometers, a bit less than 2 miles, from the center of Bormio, the baths are connected with a hotel, restaurant and spa complex called the Grand Hotel Bagni Vecchi. Upon arrival a smiling lady greeted us, took our passes and gave us transparent flip-flops and white robes in exchange. Just the fact that I actually found an Italian receptionist who actually smiled was enough to count the visit as a success.
The baths have many different pools, with various saunas and spa offerings as well. The water comes from nine different springs, each from different altitudes varying from (1,280 to 1,421 meters) with sulphate, alkaline and mineral salts that are supposedly detoxifying, anti-stress, toning, relaxing and anti-inflammatory.
Ignoring what’s in the water, spending four or more hours doing nothing except moving from one hot bath to another is bound to relax you sooner or later. Hence the crowd of people enjoying more serenity than any amount of valium can give you. Moans of pleasure weren’t uncommon. Take away the crisp white robes and it couldn’t have been much different than the baths of ancient Rome, where the bourgeois came fully and exclusively for pleasure. People came to the infamous baths of Rome to eat, drink, sweat, exercise, socialize and, of course, relax. The socializing, the rest that the doctor ordered, the slight tension that pleasure seeking in public brings: It was the most open display of hedonism I’ve seen from grown men and women, apart from, maybe, a townie bar in small town America on a Thursday. And I was a part of it.
The image of ancient Rome probably isn’t too far off. In fact, the thermal water that feeds the Bagni Vecchi has been manipulated and enjoyed for nearly 2,000 years by citizens and rulers alike. It’s considered the oldest thermal spa in Italy and was already known by the ancient Romans that far back as well.
We started our thermal bath journey in the Imperial Baths, called as such because of the many heads of state who gave each bath its name. We laid across wooden beds in the Queen Teodolinda sauna, the only one with an enormous window looking out across the mountains and valley below, truly fit for a queen. We let warm waterfalls massage out the knots in our shoulders and necks in the Giuseppe Garibaldi baths. The ruler who eventually united Italy into a common Republic came to the baths in 1859 during the Second War of Independence. We enjoyed the massaging jets in the bath named after Ferdinando of Austria, who visited in 1838 and followed it up with the even stronger baths of Vittorio Emanuele, who stopped by to regroup and recuperate in 1917 during WWI.
That famous rulers and generals have frequented the baths isn’t the only particularity of the complex. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the spa is the Grotta Sudatoria di San Martino, or Sweat Cave. Carved into the rock of the mountain for more than 50 meters or about 165 feet is this natural Turkish bath, the only of its kind in the world. The naturally warm water and humidity creates the steam of the Turkish bath with temperatures reaching nearly 118 degrees Fahrenheit and 95% humidity. After a sweat on the narrow benches tucked against the sloping rock wall, we explored the other branch of the grotto. There, we climbed into a long, narrow corridor of hot water that comes just a bit below the waist. The steaming hot water, the even hotter air and the narrow rock face that surrounds and covers you makes for quite the atmosphere.
After crawling our way back out of the mountain into the main complex, we took the wet wooden steps down to the outdoor bath. The brisk spring air was quite the complement to the calidarium that we just came from. Steam rose from the 104-degree water as we sat on bubble beds, admiring the sweeping view across the Bormio valley up to the still snow-covered mountaintops. Al fresco, but warm; and fully, blissfully relaxed.
Proving, once again, that those ancient Romans were on to something.
How to get there
The Bagni Vecchi di Bormio are located at Via Bagni Nuovi, 7, 23038 Valdidentro (SO). It’s about a 3 – 3.5 hour drive from Milan, though you can come down from Switzerland or Austria quite easily as well. During the winter season airport transfers are available from Milan Malpensa, Bergamo Orio al Serio or Munich airports. For information and booking: www.mtbus.it Call to book a room at the Grand Hotel or reserve your spa day at ph +39 0342.910131 or check out more online (and in English!) here.