Why you should care
It's an opportunity to soak yourself in the great outdoors and some ever-changing art.
At first glance, Bagni San Filippo looks like any other picturesque little Tuscan village — that is, until you start seeing the bathrobes. Throughout the day, a stream of people, young and old and with blissed-out expressions, emerges from the forest wrapped snugly in their robes, trailing down the narrow main street toward a cluster of stone buildings.
No, this isn’t a cult. These content people have been to what is arguably one of the most natural of Europe’s thermal baths, located on a wooded hillside of Monte Amiata, Italy’s oldest extinct volcano. But it’s not just the healing properties that soakers seek at these unique thermal pools. The cascades create stunning formations — like Balena Bianco (the White Whale) — that are ever-changing in appearance thanks to a buildup of calcium deposits. And the baths are free to the public and accessible year-round.
A series of connected pools flows alongside the wooded access path, making for more secluded, intimate places for a dip — like individual hot tubs.
People have flocked to the thermal baths at Bagni San Filippo for two millennia, seeking reputed curative properties. Visitors have included a few famous dippers like Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1485 and Grand Duke Ferdinand II, who reportedly sought a cure for chronic headaches in 1635. However, the chemical properties and therapeutic benefits of the waters weren’t acknowledged until the 19th century, explains Annarita Ferranti. She runs Siena Info Point & Tours, which operates tours of the Val D’Orcia region with local guides.
There are six thermal spas in Val D’Orcia, nestled between the famed wine-making regions of Chianti and Montepulciano and about a two-hour drive from Florence. The best-known — and busiest (with an estimated 200,000 visitors per year) — is Saturnia. But the Fosso Bianco, as the baths in Bagni San Filippo are called, feel like an open secret. Not only are they less crowded (even on a recent sun-dappled Saturday), but a series of connected pools flows alongside the wooded access path, making for more secluded, intimate places for a dip — like individual hot tubs.
If you sit closer to the sources, which bubble out at intervals along the waterfalls and mineral formations, the water reaches up to a steamy 48 degrees C (118.4 degrees F). Some visitors slather on the mud lining the pale-blue pools as a skin treatment. But others visit the waters of San Filippo for their intersection of art and science. “The calciferous formations, waterfalls and small pools of hot water surrounded by the woods will seem to take you to another world,” Ferranti says, because they are quite unlike anything else.
As the water bubbles and spills over the White Whale, it forms new paths over the existing formations, which create a continually changing appearance. The White Whale is also not always white; when the minerals come into contact with rainwater, for example, they change color (including almost festive greenish or reddish hues in winter).
If stripping to your swimsuit in the woods isn’t quite your thing, there is a brick-and-mortar bathhouse, Terme San Filippo, which features amenities like showers (because after bathing in sulphuric waters, you’re going to smell a bit like rotten eggs). However, it’s currently closed for renovations and set to reopen in 2020. Suffice it to say, Fosso Bianco is not for those who enjoy a pampered setting.
But for those whose naturalist sensibilities have them seeking out a spa experience that has barely changed in centuries, Bagni San Filippo is worth the detour from Siena, Florence or Rome. Where else can you soak away your cares in the middle of the woods while also soaking up naturally created art? This is a whole other side of Tuscany.
Go There: Fosso Bianco
- Location: From Florence, it’s about a two-hour drive south to Bagni San Filippo, Val D’Orcia.
- Accomodation: In addition to camping, which is available year-round. there are numerous local hotels and B&Bs to serve as a base for exploring the area, including agriturismos (farm stays).
- Best time to go: Spring and autumn are ideal times to visit, but the baths are open year-round. And always free.
- Pro tip: Pick up some paninis — such as a hearty prosciutto and local pecorino sandwich on thick white loaf (4.50 euros) — at Bar La Cascata for a bath-side picnic.