Spa towns have made important contributions to European culture and history, and Montecatini Terme is a good – and particularly handsome – example
If it is true that “the past is a foreign country” where they “do things differently”, this is clearly truer for some of those “things” than for others. It is less true, certainly, for the most fundamental activities in our lives like eating and sleeping (the “basic realities” of being human have, after all, not changed a great deal), and more true for things such as sanitation or dentistry, and thank God for that.
Travel clearly falls into the second category of those things that have changed rather considerably over the centuries. It is not that people did not travel at all in antiquity, the Middle Ages or the early years of the modern era, but they certainly travelled for different reasons.
Traders underwent arduous journeys to sell or purchase exotic luxury goods, artists and builders travelled from one newly constructed church or palazzo to the next, and for those men who knew how to handle the latest military hardware (such as crossbows or artillery), there was always a warlord in some town eager to sign them up for a campaign or two.
Not to forget, of course, the pilgrims who continuously crossed Europe in their thousands, looking for salvation and mystical experiences on the roads to Compostela, Rome or whichever town had just managed to acquire a nail of the true cross or a popular saint’s pinky finger.
What all these travellers had in common, of course, was that none of them went on their journey for the sheer fun of it. The idea of travelling for entertainment is a relatively recent one, conceived at some stage in the 19th century and developed into an industry (the world’s largest, as a matter of fact) in the 20th – or so we believe. But is that really true?
In fact, the traditions of “travelling for fun” reach much deeper. The Grand Tour – designed to familiarize young aristocrats and the sons of rich merchants with the cultural treasures of Europe – was invented in the 1650s, but long before that, people had already been travelling for centuries to spa towns and thermal springs: ostensibly for their health, but just as importantly for what is politely called “cultural exchanges”, i.e. to meet new people, to learn some new bawdy songs and to get away for a couple of weeks from the responsibilities of work and family. Not all that different from a trip to Las Vegas, after all. (“Honey, I will be attending a cultural exchange next weekend!”)
The invention of the spa town is surely another item on the list of “what have the Romans ever done for us”. Everywhere the Romans went, they left some public bath houses behind. Their system of government simply could not have functioned without places and entire resorts where local men of influence could congregate in an informal setting – most baths had gyms attached to them as well as libraries, bars and restaurants.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, the idea of the spa town lived on: Bursa in modern day Turkey was a popular Byzantine resort where even the Emperor Justinian loved to spend weeks on end.
And even in the Middle Ages, when public bath houses suffered from a very poor reputation (they were frowned upon as places of “general licentiousness” and thought to give people skin diseases – although we nowadays suspect that it was not so much the bathing that was to blame but what the bathers did before or after), resorts towns were still built around newly discovered thermal springs – as in 14th century Spa (Belgium), the place that was eventually to provide the name for the entire species.
Spa towns are therefore a proud part of European Culture, and the European Route of Thermal Heritage – currently connecting 24 such towns across the continent – is celebrating the role they have played down the centuries. This route is obviously different from a pilgrimage trail such as the Via Francigena: its individual stage posts are connected by a common heritage, not a physical trail, which is why they can only be experienced one by one.
The Tuscan spa town of Montecatini Terme – located roughly half-way on the road between Lucca and Florence – is in many ways a typical representative for this group of historically important spa towns: Roman artefacts that have been found in the area connect the springs to antiquity, and many historical documents from the Middle Ages onwards mention aristocrats who came here to receive treatment.
But Montecatini really took off in the 1700s (after it was developed by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, a scion of the Habsburgs) and had its first heyday in the late 19th century when it became a favourite meeting place for nobility, bourgeoisie and famous artists – Verdi, Rossini, Puccini and Toscanini all spent a lot of time here.
Montecatini’s architectural style is duly operatic, providing a magnificent stage for the daily “see and be seen” parades between the faucets (where the guests take their saline water for treatment), the tables and the various places of light entertainment. One can easily imagine how these daily rituals were once refined into a form of art in these lush surroundings.
Treatments in Montecatini today are performed in a less formal style, but the architecture serves as a welcome reminder of the Terme’s illustrious past – a foreign country indeed.