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Le Masse di San Sisto Hot Spring Heaven

By Susan di Rende

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Picture a natural hot spring out in the countryside, completely undeveloped, enjoyed by the local folks for recreation and the health benefits of the sulfur water, the same sulfur water that the well-heeled pay a small fortune for in nearby resorts.  Set it in a field about an hour from a major city. You want to go right now, don't you, as much for the pleasure as the fun of being in on a hidden treasure.

Standing in the thermal pool among the ancient ruins feels like heaven

But wait, it gets better.  Make that city Rome, Italy and sprinkle the view from the spring with ancient ruins resting as relaxed under the olive trees as you feel soaking in the water.  Now imagine that only the locals, and now you, know about this piece of heaven on earth.  What do you want to do develop it as a world-class thermal spa resort on the global stage and cash in, or keep it a secret and preserve one tiny oasis of nature's unspoiled gifts for posterity?

The question is a real one and currently playing out in an area called Tuscia near the  town of Viterbo in Italy.  Of course, it being Italy, the situation is even more complicated.  The land around the fonte, or hot spring, is believed to cover extensive Etruscan and Roman ruins, so the owner of the land is prohibited by the government from building anything that requires digging or sinking foundations below the surface. So now you're leaning towards making it a natural spa in the vein of a national park.  For example, there's an open air, undeveloped hot spring in Yellowstone that visitors in the park can enjoy in the same setting as the original inhabitants of the Americas must have done when they passed through some ten or fifteen thousand years ago.    

But hold on.  The laws in Italy about water and ownership of it are such that if a neighbor can manage to siphon it off and make a giant spa next door on buildable land, turning your natural font into a dry sinkhole, there's nothing you can say about it because you don't actually "own" the water.   Many of Italy's most famous thermal spas are built that way, far from the source itself and merely tapping the water from elsewhere for their pools. So even if you want to preserve it, the choice may be taken away from you with a campaign by your neighbor to convince the government- by argument of economic benefit to the community and/or to the private funds of public officials to assign the water rights to him.

To 'preserve and protect' is a job that faces fierce opposition in the world.  The opposition of those who would make a profit, be they corporations out for a dividend or workers hoping for a paycheck.  If this were a Hollywood movie, some regular guy like you or me would come along and find a way to keep the moneyed interests at bay while cornering the government into holding a national asset unspoiled for posterity and bathing into the sunset with a happy local community.   

Architect Mario Bracci, the President of the Associazione Le Masse di San Sisto

Enter Mario Bracci, a Roman architect who discovered the "Pozze" (The Pools), as it was know locally, while he was renovating his medieval home nearby in the town of Tuscania.  At that time, he noted that it was littered with trash and somewhat unsafe, with no gate or restrictions on who could come in and when.  Adults and teens in the middle of the night, drinking and careless, had made of the place a bit of a dump.  You could always look past the mess to the timeless vista, but still it was a shame.  So Mr. Bracci went to talk to the owner, who explained the limitations on use that had stymied him.  

The land had been drilled looking for natural gas in the 1950's. What came up was the spring and evidence of Etruscan and Roman ruins.  The possibility of ruins put the kybosh on any further development.  The owner  felt, like Mr. Bracci, that the spring was worth preserving, but had no idea how to stand against the encroaching neighboring interest in tapping the source and building, a spa hotel on his adjoining property.  The locals began trespassing to soak and leaving trash in their wake, diminishing any claim to a public benefit. The proprietor told the architect that if he could find a way to preserve the spring, he could have a lease for free in perpetuity.

The 'masse' or 'lumps of earth' testify to the history of the spring

With the proprietor's blessing, the games began.  First, the site had to be cleaned up and then kept clean and safe. The grounds were fenced, road paved  and a guarded parking lot set off the road.  The architect moved into a trailer on the property, seeing his family only on the weekends. At the same time, he created the Associazione le Masse di San Sisto. ("Masse" literally means 'lumps' and refers to the ancient ruins around the spring.)  as the non-profit entity to represent the property.

In the beginning, people who came suddenly found they had to pay  - a whopping 10 euros for a yearly pass that included membership to his non-profit organization if they wanted to have access to the pools.  Many complained about paying anything for waters they had been enjoying for free.  Diplomacy, Italian-style meaning accompanied by occasional shouting and hand gestures eventually brought people around to understand the real danger of losing the spring and to fork over the membership fee to protect it. After a couple of years, the Associazione le Masse di San Sisto has 30,000 members and the ammunition to go to the Italian government to get the water rights locked down.

The set up is on a very rustic 10-acre spread with sheep grazing in the distance.  There are just two improvised changing rooms and two porta-potty style outhouses, some picnic tables and chairs on covered concrete patio, and a couple of trailers.  A few railings and a bunch of benches surround the pool.  People come and strew the perimeter with their towels, robes and flip flops.

People of all walks of life come for the open-air benefits of the waters

Now, on any given day you can see people of all ages and walks of life from Roman princes and movie stars to the local farmers enjoying their baths with their families and friends or having picnics in a clean and safe environment.  The day I visited I saw the Boy Scouts biking across the land breathing in the fresh air. The American's living in Rome even had their 4th of July celebration on the well manicured lawn complete with jazz and fireworks thanks to a promotion by Ann Joyce (Bracci's wife) who acts as Director of International Public Relations. 'Sky News showed up that day with their cameras and wanted to get the political angle so I explained to them that traditionally the Roman baths have always been a place of self indulgence and reflection where 'free men' can meet and enjoy lively conversation, and we were doing just that!'  On weekends it can get a bit crowded, and you can feel a bit odd standing in the middle of an open field in your bathing suit.

The cold pool, formed in an old Roman cistern

But the minute you immerse yourself in the waters, you are transported to a state of grace. After a while, you climb out of the hot water, which can run up to 120 degrees near the inflow, and into the adjoining cold pool formed in an old Roman cistern which runs between 50 and 60 degrees.  The cistern pipes leading from the mountain have long since caved in, but enough of a passage remains for the water to bubble up slowly and make a waist-high ice-cold contrast to the heat just a few steps away. There are more tepid areas of the big pool where it is possible to lounge for hours as some people do.   There are also a couple of rubber hoses set up that funnel the sulfur steam for those who want to breathe the fumes into their lungs.  It is a no-frills, bare-bones experience.  Yet Mr. Bracci points out that the Etruscan baths were open air and so the experience is in some fundamental way the same as it was back through the eons before the Roman Empire was born. He further explains that ,  'They believed that the sensation of the baths was symbolized by being immersed in the womb of mother earth...and to be reborn'.

Hoses concentrate flow of sulfur steam for those wanting to inhale the beneficial vapor

The tradition of the 'water cure' in Italy is even older than the "Eternal City." The geologic activity below the Italian countryside produces volcanoes, earthquakes and a string of geothermal springs. The word 'spa' is written S.p.A. there, which stands for the Latin, 'Salut per Aqua' or health through water.  The Etruscan tradition of the open air hot baths became the covered bath houses of Ancient Rome.  The waters were not just for bathing, but also for drinking, where the trace minerals were considered essential for restoring balance in the body and breathing in the fumes to purify the lungs.  Before you scoff, look in your pantry and I'll bet somebody in your house has tried zinc for skin and for colds, calcium for bones, magnesium, selenium, you name it, and paid good money for it. In the days before pharmaceuticals, the earth's mantle was the only manufacturer.

Clay near the source, infused with the same minerals as the waters, can be made into a ball, moistened and made into a mask

One innovation, at least for Italy, initiated by Mr. Bracci as the Association President in enlisting volunteers.  Italians traditionally have the habit of helping out their family and neighbors, but the idea of giving their time to an abstract organization is rather revolutionary.  The naysayers who proclaimed that such a system would never work have been proven wrong. The place is kept clean, the 3 pools emptied, scrubbed and refilled more often than at many expensive spas, and all pretty much made possible by a cadre of volunteer workers. This community involvement  is one of the remarkable innovations put in place by Architect Bracci, who spent many years living and working in the US and knew volunteerism could work.

The fields around the spring are full of archaeological remants large and small

Because Bracci has studied archaeology as well as architecture (he is the direct descendent of the sculptor of the Trevi Fountain, Pietro Bracci) is like a kid in showing guest around the grounds, pointing to signs of ancient life that others would overlook. Rounded rocks of a certain shape were used in making the Roman roads. A shapeless pile of rocky rubble reveals the presence of a long vanished fountain, whose water continued to seep after the fountain was long gone, producing a calcium rock formation. A stroll through the grass kicks up a 2000 year old piece of brick. Scrape the thin layer of topsoil away and you will find the past asleep.

It is still by no means a sure thing. But the international community has begun to notice. The Italian equivalent of National Geographic, Airone Magazine, did a glossy spread last February and journalists from The New York Times  have just visited.  There was also a study done recently by the University of Berlin to explore the territory which recommends making  it a combination public spa and archeological  park. World opinion can help shape policy, and world opinion, particularly when it comes to preservation of natural treasures in someone else's country can pretty much be guaranteed to fall on the side of the Association le Masse di San Sisto.

Boy scouts on a biking tour stop at San Sisto

The Italian government is an excellent and diligent guardian of its history. It is also a proponent of change and embracing modernity.  The national character is not to pick one over the other, but to find a way to allow the two to co-exist imperfectly.  Bickering is expected;  unanimity is not.  This accounts for the hyper-saturated parade of impressions that cascade over you in Rome.  Paris, beautiful and restful on the eye, is controlled, at least in the historic center, by powerful, inflexible, doctrinaire regulations about what can go where. Paris is a jewel perfectly polished.  But Rome, Rome is a pot-luck feast with gourmet and gourmand, ascetic and glutton, artisan and factory all contributing their dish.  Your taste will  find the  delectable and disgusting, served side-by-side. So San Sisto, with its transcendent sunsets and bland trailers, its blissful pool and its bare-bones potties, belongs to the paese in a way no designer could plan.

Now you want to know how to get there. Well, directions are of the country variety look for the big curve, turn left at such-and-such a store- that kind of thing.  There isn't anything like a sign, so it's best to contact the website (www.lepozzedisansisto.org)  and they can give you directions or a map based on how familiar you are with the terrain. But be warned that first time visitors usually get lost.  Think of it as part of the adventure.  You'll get a marvelous soak and be part of a preservation effort to keep the pools at San Sisto  safe and open for generations to come.  


Published on Dec 31, 1969

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