Please don’t tell Rick Steves about the Cascate del Mulino! A few years ago, I saw photos on the web of people enjoying this picturesque hot spring, and I could scarcely believe my eyes. This couldn’t be real—a fantastically beautiful public spa-park, naturally occurring. And the cost per hour? Nothing, niente, nulla, totally gratis. Ah, there must be a catch. The water is probably too cold, or just lukewarm. Or maybe it’s scalding hot. Or you must walk two hours up a steep trail to get there.
Nope, not only is the park real and easily accessible, it’s every bit as stunning in real life as it appears in the photos. In addition, the water temperature is nearly perfect. Many spas I’ve used in the United States are heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, making them pleasant for the first 10 to 15 minutes but unbearable for longer use. One can easily enjoy the warm pools of the Cascate for hours, moving from one basin to the next to experience different levels of water depth and force of flow.
The park is a delight to the eyes whether one bathes there or not. The larger falls tumble down a 20-foot drop next to an abandoned stone-walled mulino, or mill. Bamboo trees reach out and sway over the many layers of smaller falls, while swallows dip and dive just downstream from the bathing pools. The warm falls have been enjoyed by Italians, Romans and Etruscans for at least 2,000 years. The hot springs were said to be created by the god Jupiter, who threw lightning bolts at fellow god Saturn during a quarrel, missing him but striking the ground instead and causing hot water to spring forth ever since.
By around 9:30, the pools became more populated.
Cascate mean waterfalls, and the cascading water provides a relaxing massage far superior to the jets in a standard hot tub, which usually concentrate their action on a single side of the lower back. Conversely, the falls at the park strike various level of the back and extend all the way across, from shoulder to shoulder. For a truly vigorous massage, one can stand under falls that plunge from as high as five feet (but be prepared to be fully drenched there). For a more relaxing massage, the lower falls drop only a foot or two, and other pools allow bathers to just drift, float and soak up the heat and goodness of the mineral-rich waters.
|In the afternoon on an unusually warm first week of spring, the crowd was moderate. But three months later, the place will be packed!|
I came on a Monday during the first week of spring on an unusually warm day in the low 70s (about 21 C), and I shared the space with two of my daughters, a group of their friends and about 60 other people. We stayed for two thoroughly enjoyable hours. Because visitors are prone to move from pool to pool, we would have been able to try nearly every little basin and waterfall if we had been so inclined. I’ve heard that during the summer, the park can be seriously overcrowded, and also that the water flow decreases in August, so it’s best to go in spring or fall and to avoid weekends.
The temperature dropped dramatically overnight, but Suzye and I returned the next afternoon to see what the experience would be like on a 50-degree day. A smaller crowd is the first difference we noted. We shared the prime area with somewhere from a dozen to 20 people, and once again we stayed for two hours. Walking to and from the car in a moderate and chilly breeze, especially when we were wet, was obviously unpleasant, but once we emerged ourselves in the water, we judged the cold-day experience well worth our time. On the third day, we arrived before 9 a.m. on a sunny day, and the falls were nearly empty, though they were gradually filling when we left a half hour later.
The reason for the Rick Steves comment is that his popular videos on American public television and his books and website have brought hordes of travelers to places such as the Cinque Terre and Civita di Bagnoregio. It’s likely that if he featured the Cascate del Mulino on one of his shows, it would be overrun with Americans, forcing the Italian government to begin charging and regulating crowds.
I wish I could accurately report the temperature of the water, but I didn’t bring a thermometer. I thought I would be able to look it up easily on the Internet. However, this turns out to be not as simple as it may seem. Many websites report the water to be 37.5 C., or about 98 to 99 F. However, I’ve been in many hot tubs in the U.S., which usually range from 99 to 104 F., and the temperature in the stream is definitely lower than that. Further research indicates that the 37.5 degrees that others quote is the temperature of the water when it emerges from the underground hot springs about a mile upstream in Saturnia. I would guess it has cooled to the low or mid 90s at the Cascate del Mulino, just right for staying submerged for long periods of time. For those who want higher temperatures, a trail leads to the stream above the waterfall, and the pools there are warmer.
|The snack bar, which also has a bathroom and showers.|
The park is open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, but there is no lifeguard on duty. Parking is free, and there’s a snack bar which has bathrooms. Showers can be used for a small fee. The snack bar is not open year-around and at all hours, though, and when it’s closed, so are the bathrooms and showers. I’ve also heard that when the parking lot is full, people park along the street and are fined by the Carabinieri for doing so.
My 30-something-year-old daughters loved it. “I’d give it a 10 out of 10,” Lindsey said, “but next time I’d bring an inflatable bath pillow to cushion my head. A fluffy bathrobe to don after leaving the water would make it a perfect experience.”
|Suzye practices her hula hooping techniques on the beach.|
“I loved everything about it except for some creepy dudes in Speedos who invaded my space and that of my friends,” Suzye said. “Getting warmed and massaged by the different waterfalls and watching the grass and bamboo sway in the breeze is so pleasant, so relaxing.”
Not everything about our experience was perfect. The rocks are moderately slippery and sometimes sharp, so it’s advisable to wear water shoes or sturdy sandals. I went barefoot, but I had to move very slowly and carefully to avoid hurting my feet or falling. Also, there are little reddish wriggling worm-like insects in the slower moving pools. They are harmless fly larvae, but this can be a major turn-off for some people. You can avoid them by staying in the faster moving streams.
Some people also dislike the smell. The water is full of minerals, including calcium carbonate and Sulfur, and the latter has a distinctive smell which may remain on your body even after a shower. While many believe it is extremely healthy to soak in mineral baths, scientific research to verify this is scant. Others believe that the mud along the river bank is good for the skin, and they cover themselves with it. One point on which scientists agree heartily is that lowering one’s level of stress is very healthy. Relaxing in a warm stream with friends in the middle of nature’s beauty certainly does that, so you should try it for this practical reason, if the warmth, beauty and pure pleasure are not enough to attract you.
Read also: Another free hot springs, the Fosso Bianco in San Filippo . . .
Read also: Another free hot springs, the Fosso Bianco in San Filippo . . .