Heated by the earth’s core and bubbling out of the ground at the temperature of freshly-made tea, this natural volcanic spring set in open fields has been channelled into a series of shallow bathing pools – each with a different temperature. About a mile from the small city of Viterbo, the site is dubbed ‘Bagnaccio’ (which roughly translates as ‘nasty old bath’), but you won’t have heard of it because no one makes any money from it and therefore no one advertises it. The Romans used to bathe here and the site has changed remarkably little in 2,000 years. Completely unregulated, there are no showers, no changing rooms, no entry charges, no cafés or kiosks, and no anti-slip surfacing round the edges of the pools. It really is just some vaguely egg-smelling hot water lying in the middle of farmland. Bagnaccio isn’t the only outdoor hot spring for bathing near Viterbo, but its raw simplicity might make it the most charming.
Soaking yourself in the sulphur- and calcium-rich water is allegedly good for respiratory and rheumatic complaints. What is certain, however, is that it’s deeply relaxing, and that your skin feels fabulously soft for hours afterwards. The happy atmosphere of the place is good for the spirit, too. People from various European countries stroll around in their swimwear, sit in the water chatting, sipping drinks, even smoking cigarettes. It can feel like an amiable cocktail party which just happens to be taking place in a field in the middle of nowhere.
Come at the right point in springtime and you can lounge in the water and admire the astonishingly vivid red lines of poppyfields striping the distance. Fuelled to manic fertility by the volcanic soil, the springflowers round here lie like dense paint slicks across the fields. In summer months, sunset is perhaps the best time to visit, as the steadily cooling air makes a delicious contrast to the hot water. And the oranges and pinks of the sky cast exquisite reflections on the opaque turquoise liquid. Watching the moon rise and the stars come out while floating on your back in hot mineral water in the middle of an empty field is an unforgettable experience.
To reach the pools, get on the SS2 Via Cassia running north from Viterbo, and turn off onto the small SP7 ‘Strada Martana’ road about four kilometres outside the city. The turn-off is signposted ‘Marta’, ‘Capodimonte’, etc. Follow this road for a kilometre or two until you see a large chunk of an ancient building in a field on the left (it has some typical narrow Roman brickwork if you stop to look more closely). Turn left onto the little gravel road running in front of the ruin and follow it for another kilometre or more. You’ll probably smell the sulphuric pools before you see them, but look out for parked cars and caravans or people sitting in the water. Park anywhere, and wander round in your bathing costume like everyone else.