Where Health Springs Eternal – For 2,000 years, the thermal waters of Acqui Terme have been working their wonders

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL  (March 4, 2011)

The sound of falling water follows you everywhere. The gurgling Bormida River divides Acqui Terme, its wide, shallow course stretching nearly a hundred meters from one bank to the next. A tiered, cascading fountain runs the length of Corso Vigano, a wide road leading to a large round fountain at the center of the Piedmont town’s main piazza. Windows in the adjacent Grand Hotel Nuove Terme spa are opaque with steam day and night, the bathing caps of guests inside forming indistinct blotches of color like an impressionist painting in movement.

Outside, cobblestone streets shoot off the main piazza at regular intervals like spokes on a wagon wheel, each filled with strolling couples, families and children. The streets are lined with shops proffering local culinary delights like salami with black truffle, castle-shaped Montebore cheese and Castelmagno.

There are larger thermal bath destinations in Italy—Salsomaggiore in the Emilia-Romagna region, or Saturnia in Tuscany, for example—but Acqui Terme offers visitors an enviable blend of spas, culinary excellence and Italian small-town charm that makes it a wonderful place to kick back and relax. The town has been a wellness destination for almost two millennia, since long before the term existed. But Acqui in recent years has seen major renovations and a brand new wellness spa, as it adjusts to the shift in spa culture from curing ailments to resting and relaxing that many traditional thermal bath destinations are experiencing.

Reminders of the town’s intimate connection with hot springs are everywhere; even the name Acqui Terme means “Thermal Waters.” In a piazza roughly one hundred meters from the Grand Hotel, steam and a distinct, sulfuric smell issue forth from beneath the marble arches and carved stonework of La Bollente, a fountain built in 1879 by Giovanni Ceruti that is arguably Acqui Terme’s most famous landmark. At all hours of the day and late into the night men, women and children can be seen visiting La Bollente (literally “the boiling source”), filling jugs and buckets with the curative waters that rise to the earth’s surface here at 75 degrees Celsius.

The town was founded between the first and second centuries B.C. by the Romans, who named it Aquae Statiellae, after the Liguri Statielli, local inhabitants they had to conquer in order to win possession of the area. What was originally a military outpost soon became a thriving urban center, thanks to the town’s strategic position halfway between ports on the Ligurian coast and Tortona, where the Via Aemilia connected the region with the rest of the Empire. Archeological digs conducted around town have unearthed thermal baths, a theater, amphitheater, market emporium and massive aqueduct, sections of which can still be seen arching elegantly across the surrounding countryside.

The Romans calculated everything perfectly. Even the modern aqueducts that bring drinking water into Acqui draw from exactly the same source the Romans used.

Natural thermal waters rise up from underground in two places in Acqui Terme: at La Bollente, feeding the spas in the nearby Grand Hotel, and on the other side of the Bormida River at the Lago delle Sorgenti (Lake of Hot Springs), where a new spa by the same name was inaugurated last October.

At the spa in the Grand Hotel, guests enjoy saunas, steam baths, hot and cold pools, massages and beauty treatments, padding softly down the hotel’s carpeted hallways in white terrycloth slippers and bathrobes from their rooms to the spa facilities downstairs. Special evening programs give people a chance to enjoy the hotel spa after dark before retiring.

A colonnaded lobby and lofty, stuccoed ceilings give the hotel a yesteryear feel, as if to remind guests that the building has been hosting thermal bathers since the late 1800s.

Across town, visitors to the new Lago delle Sorgenti spa enjoy a considerably different experience, exchanging the Grand Hotel’s belle époque feel for the new-age nature of what is every bit a contemporary wellness center. Unlike the hotel, the spa doesn’t rent rooms, and only allows 50 guests in at a time to guarantee everyone the space and privacy needed to fully relax. In addition to baths and massages, treatments here are organized along a 12-step “path” that includes rooms dedicated to aromatherapy and sound therapy.

In Acqui, the cure doesn’t stop in the spa, but carries on into the kitchen. With dozens of shops and restaurants lining the streets of the town, eating well is just as much a part of the Acqui experience as relaxing in its thermal waters. This is the heart of Monferrato, a region famous for truffles, cheeses, Barolo wine and dishes like the bagna càuda, a piquant sauce made from olive oil, anchovies and garlic that is usually eaten with seasonal vegetables.

Although good food and warm waters still draw tourists to Acqui, the town’s true heyday was probably between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the Second World War. They built a new theater and casino, and the Nuove Terme were erected right in the center of town. During the 1930s, the thermal-bath facilities were expanded considerably, including construction of the giant public swimming pool that was for a long time the largest in Europe.

Visitors interested in learning more about the town’s history may want to visit the Archeological Museum of Acqui Terme, located in the Castello dei Paleologi on a hilltop in the center of town. Through six small but carefully organized rooms, the museum displays artworks and artifacts discovered in and around Acqui, tracing the course of human activity in this area from carved and polished stones dating to the Paleolithic period to statuary and gravestones from the medieval era.

One of the exhibits displays a ring of stones from a large circular Roman bath recovered during excavations conducted in Piazza della Bollente. Experts have traced these stones to Greece, identifying the marble as the same used to build the Parthenon, providing further testimony of the town’s importance during the Roman period. A grassy terrace outside the museum affords an excellent view over the surrounding town.

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