Did you know that “thermae” usually refers to the large imperial bath complexes, while “balneae” were smaller-scale facilities, public or private, that existed in great numbers throughout ancient Rome? Balneae might be privately owned, but they were public in the sense that they were open to the population for a fee. Thermae, were owned by the state and often covered several city blocks. The largest of these, the Baths of Diocletian, could hold up to 3,000 bathers. Fees for both types of baths were quite reasonable, within the budget of most free Roman males.
After a morning’s work, most Romans enjoyed spending the afternoon at the thermae or public bath. They were a social meeting place. Men and women enjoyed coming to the baths not only to get clean but to meet with friends, exercise, or read at the library. The baths had hot and cold pools, towels, steam rooms, saunas, exercise rooms, and hair cutting salons. They had reading rooms and libraries, as among the freeborn, who had the right to frequent baths, the majority could read. Children were not permitted. Most Roman cities had at least Thermae, if not many, such buildings, which were centers not only for bathing, but socializing. The water could be heated from a log fire before being channeled into the hot bathing rooms. The design of baths is discussed by Vitruvius in De Architectura.
Today we are visiting Bagni Vechi in Bormio, and we learn that, with a lot of history behind and some liberty details, Italy can get away with almost anything. We were so pleased by the facilities offered that even the bad, bad weather from outside or the level of modern day facilities, could not matter to us that day. We have learned from the Romans what it is to have a quality life, and from the Italian spas, why modern and cutting edge is not always the thing people are after. And so it seems, as the thermae here are always booked, and everyone seems to like it. Important to know that these mineral waters here are among the very few hot waters flowing south directly of the Alps, gushing out at a temperature between 37 and 43 Degrees. My favourite areas were the lavender room sauna, the herbarium and the amazing basin where you listened to underwater music. Just magic, on a cold rainy day of October. Life is good, we only have to look for the best!