Follow the dirt path from Bagni San Filippo town centre in the Val d'Orcia in Tuscany, through the dense forest, keep going and don't stop until you reach the balena bianca, the white whale. Peering through trees you see it in glimpses at first, a bevy of bronzed Italians perched nonchalantly, beautifully on the side of... is it a glacier, an ice sculpture?
Bagni San Filippo's white whale is in fact a calcium rock formation, formed from cascading mineral-rich waters from deep in the earth, a steaming hot natural waterfall. The rock's shape, its lines, its pools, its caves, its ridges change often as the flow of hot water contours it as it goes.
These thermal hot springs are known for their healing powers, their beauty. People drive from all over and I did too, just to perch here with the 48°C water falling down our backs, staring out at the forest before us, in awe of nature's creativity and deft sculpting hand.
I take a hot shower, nature's shower, probably the best shower I've ever had, all in the presence of aforementioned beautiful Italian strangers. I walk carefully across the slippery rock to find different streams of the hot mineral-rich water running down the rock, streaming through little caves in parts, collecting in pools in others along with deposits of calcium perfect for exfoliating and rubbing all over the skin. At times it's hard to find a perch, your own cave or stream or pool but I wait patiently for my turn, high on the energy of this place like everyone around me.
Thermal waters are said to heal whatever ails you, the naturally-occurring minerals soaking into the skin, even the blood stream to do everything from toning your nervous system, boosting your mood, nourishing your hair, skin and nails, to eliminating toxins from your body and more.
Hot springs like these ones found in nature are said to contain the 'qi' life-force energy of all five elements: water, earth from the ground from which the water flows, metal from the minerals in the water, wood from the surrounding trees and fire from the heat and sun beaming down above. It's said that these waters have the power to balance mind, body and spirit and I certainly felt this. Every time I emerged from these hot, hot waters (because I’ve already been back since this first visit) I felt electrified, high, giddy with something inexplicable now inside me. I felt new, renewed, and really, really clean, inside and out.
The one downside you couldn't possibly detect from these dreamy pictures is the ever-present smell of sulfur, faintly resembling that of eggs. Sulfur is known as nature's 'beauty mineral' though, helping the body to make collagen to keep skin elastic, smooth and youthful. It’s a smell you won’t be able to rid your body of for a few days, a smell that will waft through the air from your hair for a week or so. But you'll remember the feeling this place gave you and know it was worth it in the end.
There are a few restaurants and BnB's in and around this tiny town; Terme San Filippo even has a spa harnessing and using the waters of the springs, though it's closed for renovation in 2020. We chose to pitch a tent and camp right next to the springs so we could come back for round two in the morning.
Follow the path next to Bar La Cascata in the centre of town snaking around to the left, follow it until you find the white whale.
- Bring a couple of towels, one to stand on when you're trying to get changed afterwards and keep your feet clean, one to dry off with.
If you have soft water shoes for walking on coral and rocky ground bring them and wear them, it can be a little precarious walking along the side of this rock.
Don't put your head under the water, though I did just that. My hair was dry and covered in the minerals for at least a week and offered me wafts of sulfur/egg-smell throughout my days for a while. I wouldn't recommend it. Bring a hair tie and a cute scarf to protect your hair and keep it out of the way.
- Be respectful of this nature spot, as always, take your litter with you when you go and try to leave the rock formations intact and as you found them.
Photos by Katie McKnoulty and Filippo Carbonari