The Romans were quite unlike most ancient peoples — they liked to bathe, preferably in hot water! Wherever they could, they used thermal sources to create what we now call spas! Two thousand years later, the Roman baths in Bormio, Italy, continue to attract visitors anxious to sink their tired bodies into the hot, soothing waters bubbling from the depths of the earth.
Nestled in the shadows of the soaring Alps, this minuscule mountain town in the northern Valtellina Valley northeast of Milan, has much to offer. The town sits on the edge of the Stelvio National Park, the largest in Italy, with superb hiking trails, where golden eagles soar and chamois and ibex scramble.
The pedestrian-only medieval center of Bormio is magical. It is a maze of tiny cobblestone lanes, ancient wooden doors, elegant villas built on Roman ruins, all centered around Via Roma and the historic Piazza Cavour. Across the Adda River, world-class ski slopes attract aficionados of the winter sports. Having hosted several World Cup Ski Championships, Bormio is one of the most popular winter resorts in Italy.
Once you have finished hiking or skiing, what better way to work out the kinks and sore sports than to spend some time at the Bagni Vecchi di Bormio (the Old Baths), built on the foundations of the Roman spa? The therapeutic properties of the mineral waters have been extolled since the time of Pliny the Elder, and the spa has seen such illustrious visitors as Leonardo da Vinci and the Archduchess of Austria.
After checking in and being issued with your white terry cloth robe and flip-flops, head to the San Martino tunnel, a 65-foot long grotto where hot water flows through a tunnel. When you have finished soaking, the frigidarium, a cold water dunking pool, will not only cool you down, it will numb your limbs and take your breath away. It is absolutely freezing but you will emerge totally invigorated.
Up the stairs are the Baths of the Archduchess. Spend 10 minutes in the Turkish steam room where aromatic vapors will clear your head and cleanse your pores. Right next door is a large mud bath. As you step into the thigh-deep water, your feet sink into piles of fresh mud which squeezes through your toes. Sit down in the pool; collect a handful of the viscous clay and rub it all over your body. Then, head to the dry heat sauna to dry off, followed by a hot shower to remove the mudpack. It leaves your skin feeling silky and smooth.
There are many other types of saunas (both dry and wet heat), massage treatments, steam rooms, and whirlpools. In one room you bob on a plastic noodle while lying in the water. Lie back, close your eyes and let your ears sink into the warm water. Now you will be able to hear soothing melodies as you relax into a stupor. Next door are three 6-foot high waterfalls; sit on the benches underneath the cascades and let the hot water pummel your shoulders and back, unknotting tight muscles.
Finally, visit the outdoor pool where steam rises into the cool air from the 100-degree water. Around you are deep green valleys, pastures, and soaring snow-covered mountain peaks. From the edge of the pool, hot water pours out of about a dozen wooden spouts, warming your head in the cold air. Scattered around the Baths are thermal water taps and stations with containers of herbal teas to ensure that you stay hydrated throughout your stay.
Although you do not have to stay at the Albergo Bagni Vecchi to use the spa (day passes are available after 10 am), a few nights at the hotel with access to the spa from 0800 to 1930 are a real treat. The 36-rooms are well appointed, some with breathtaking views over the valley below. Little touches — an exotic tea left on your bed as an evening treat, or fresh apples; the friendly, efficient staff — make the experience truly unique.
Just down the road from the Bagni Vecchi are the Bagni Nuovi (New Baths), built in the late 1800s; here you will find 70 plush, opulent rooms with multiple spa facilities. The two hotels share a large private park with hiking trails that lead to gushing thermal springs and secret niches.
After a few days at the ancient baths, you understand why the Romans and so many others went out of their way to return again and again to this jewel in the heart of the Alps. The desire to feel good has not changed in 2,000 years.
IF YOU GO
Bormio is about 120 miles (or about a 3-hour drive) northeast of Milan. All the major car rental companies are present at Milan’s Malpensa Airport. Although a car is not absolutely essential (there are taxi services that will pick you up at the airport), if you want to explore the surrounding areas, it is indispensable.
Stelvio National Park: the website has a lot of information regarding how to get to the numerous visitors centers as well as details of the hiking trails.
The Bagni Nuovi di Bormio are at Via Bagni Nuovi 7, Valdidentro;
The Bagni Vecchi di Bormio are at SS dello Stelvio, Localita Bagni Vecchi, Valdidentro.