We recently headed out with Fernando for another avventura, this one to the pretty little town of Contursi Terme and its environs, for an experience that was unique for all three of us. We were off to ‘take the waters’.
Contursi is in a gorgeous locale, in the upper valley of the Sele River at the foot of Monte Pruno and looking southward across the juncture of the Sele and Tanagro rivers to the most beautiful mountain range I have ever seen, the Alburni range. Not as spectacular as the Rockies or Sierra Nevada, but absolutely stunning in its conformation. But it was not the spectacular scenery we were seeking, though that was a definite bonus. You see, Monte Pruno is a dormant volcano, and the particular waters we were seeking to take derive from hot volcanic springs bubbling up along both banks of the Sele for about fifteen miles.
|Contursi Terme with Monte Pruno in the background|
The area has been noted for its thermal springs since Roman antiquity, if not before. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder mentions thermal springs in the area where the Italic peoples known as the Urseni lived in his time. That history is reflected in the name. The terme of the name derives from Latin thermae, the name the Romans gave to their heated bath complexes and obviously the word from which we derive various words referring to heat. The first element of the town’s name, Contursi, derives directly or indirectly from the name of the tribe. Contursi may be the Roman town Ursentum which Pliny mentions, although most scholars locate that town at Caggiano, about ten miles further east. Italic tribes such as the Urseni frequently derive their names from that of their totemic animal, and the Urseni are thus ‘The Bear Tribe’.
During Lombard times, Contursi was the seat of a county, the count in this case being Count Orso, and it’s possible the name is simply a deformation of Conte d’Orsi and thus, ‘Count Orsi’s town’.
Scenic and historical though the town may be, it was and continues to be the town’s thermal springs which are its real tourist draw. There are no fewer than fifteen thermal upwellings along the Sele in the area, each with its own character and reputed health benefits. Specific springs are noted for their use for baths, for massage therapy, for aerosol therapy, and/or for drinking. For example, Bagni di Contursi’s waters are heavily sulfuric and typically bubble up at a toasty 107° F and are said to be especially good for arthritis. The water of the Sorgente Contursi is sulfuric and effervescent with CO2, and is recommended for chronic catarrh and gastrointestinal disorders. The water of the Aqua Radium emerges at 73° and is good for skin disorders, rheumatism, obesity, and female problems. That of Volpacchio is drunk on the spot and also bottled and is good for ailments of the liver, pancreas, intestine, and lungs. The waters of San Antonio a Monte have a similar character and are also bottled.
|Entrance to the baths|
Our destination was in the pretty little frazione of Bagni di Contursi at the famous Hotel Spa Capasso, a luxury hotel right on the eastern bank of the Sele. The hotel has 87 rooms available and each entitles guests to free access to the baths. It also features a stunning restaurant. But you don’t have to be a plutocrat to enjoy the baths. A separate entrance from a large car park is available for walk-ins like us, and a paltry 15€, about 17 smackers at current rates, gives you access to the huge bath complex all day. An extra 10€ provides a fluffy robe, bathing cap and a huge towel. Gallant Fernando was nice enough to provide one for Miss Sandy.
The spa provides access to the baths, of course, but also facilities for massage, inhalation therapy, whirlpool baths, and what is described as an ‘arterial regimen’, plus several shower rooms, changing rooms, and private cabanas poolside for changing as well.
The baths are splayed out along the flank of the hill on four levels. The uppermost is for changing and showering. Next down is a huge swimming pool surrounded by lounge chairs. The water here is a soothing 85°. My favorite part was a huge terra cotta pot, what the Romans called a dolium, placed on its side and plumbed so that the sulfuric water cascades out into the pool and, if you are patient enough to wait for the spot, you can enjoy a luxurious thermal shower.
|The piscina on an upper level|
The next level down is the real business part of the complex, for here is where a natural thermal spring spouts water directly from the earth. This water is surrounded by a small pool and has sculpted a fantastic moonscape of mineral salts and volcanic mud. The water here is 140°, very sulfuric and bicarbonate. Obviously, too hot for bathing, but enchanting in a sort of weird, other-worldly way. The smell of sulfur pervades the air, but is not at all unpleasant—not the putrid smell of hydrogen sulfide, just the clean, subtle, slightly acrid smell of that first whiff of a match being lit. This level also has a nice shaded lawn with dozens of lounge chairs, and the young man who introduced us to the facilities conducted us to our own reserved chairs before we showered and changed.
|The thermal spring with its hot, sulfuric water|
|Lounging during a mud bath|
Pool 2 is canted so that the flow of water cascades over the western retaining wall and down to the next level, where a large rectangular pool collects it. Here the water is still quite hot, 117°, especially as it falls from the upper pool, but on the far side is tolerable for ten minutes or so. More importantly, the characteristic grey volcanic mud collects on the bottom of the pool, and the standard procedure seems to be to smear this mud all over exposed skin and then climb back to your lounge chair to let it dry and purify and rejuvenate the skin.
|Pool 2, with water at 117°|
|Volcanic mud from the pool|
Pool 3 is also canted at the lower side, and yet another cascade conducts the waters to the lowest pool, another rectangular facility where the water has cooled to a very pleasant 84°, great for a mineral shower and a good, long soak. More mud collects here and is also used for mud baths. Another shaded lawn provides numerous lounge chairs for those who prefer to recline here. To one side of the pool, an open sluice conducts water at 84° down the hillside and into the Sele. Several people were actually soaking rather awkwardly in the sluice.
|Looking down on Pool 4|
I’m happy to say all three of us enjoyed the whole regimen several times in succession. Sadly, we had another appointment after lunch and so were not able to lollygag all day, but three hours of thermal bathing was a nice sample. We showered, donned clothing, and headed over to the cafeteria for lunch. The cafeteria provides access directly from the baths, and many bathers no doubt had a full afternoon of bathing on the agenda as well.
|Lounging in the sluice|
|Thermal waters enter the Sele River|
So, was it worth the price of admission? Absolutely! One of the strangest and most enjoyable experiences of nature I’ve ever had, albeit in a very luxurious setting. There is something strangely affecting about bathing in waters generated by Mother Earth's restless movements, replete with minerals from the center of the earth. We will definitely return on our next sojourn in the Cilento. Do I believe in the curative powers of the waters? Well, I suppose I don’t disbelieve. I think we moderns scoff at the collected folk wisdom of the millennia at our own cost, and these waters have clearly had a salubrious reputation for at least 2,000 years. At the very least I felt wonderfully cleansed and refreshed when we left. So, if you happen to see me, just play along and tell me I look ten years younger.