You know what I like about Italy? The balance. Italians have always searched out thermal springs. Ancient Romans pretty much found them all. So what did the modern folks do? They did like we do in the US, they built expensive spa buildings and funneled some of the healing waters into the playrooms of the rich. But they also left some of the water to cascade down the hillsides so that anyone, rich and poor alike, could access it.

Cascata Balena Bianca
Cascata Balena Bianca with Bathers

Thus in Italy there are quite a few places in which to bathe in mineral rich waters, often stinking of healing sulphur. Ancient Romans loved the idea of soaking in hot, tepid and cool pools so much they deforested much of the area around Rome for wood to heat their public baths.

But you don’t have to burn wood when the springs are volcanic and exit the earth at searing temperatures. These are the hot springs that pop from the earth at places like Bagni San Filippo in the Siena province of southern Tuscany, shown in the picture above. This area has natural tubs and walls made from concretions of calcium carbonate. The locals call it Cascata Balena Bianca—white whale falls. If you’ve been to nearby Saturnia or Pamukkale in Turkey you might have a bout of Déjà vu.

bagni san filippo waterfall
Bagni San Fillippo Waterfall

The thermal pools fashioned out of the calcium carbonate deposits along the mineral rich river are a short walk from the town along a well tended pathway and are free to use. There are also places in town where the thermal spa experience is more luxurious—and far from free—but you get to wash the sulfuric fumes from your hair as soon as you get back to you room.

To get to Bagni San Filippo and the Cascata Balena Bianca, here is the secret map. There is no train station in town.

Bagni San Filippo has a fantastic restaurant named after the particular type of regional limestone used in construction in these parts. Osteria Lo Spugnone offers up regional specialties carefully sourced and crafted—all at a very reasonable price. And…you can walk off the extra pounds you might add by trekking on the slopes of Mt. Amiata, just a short drive away.

A highly rated place to stay in town is the Bed and Breakfast BBBagni

We visited Bagni San Filippo on the suggestion of our hosts at the nearby organic farm with villas in Umbria called Il Fontanaro, where we had a great stay and found the slow life very much to our liking. If you don’t mind the drive, we recommend a stay (and perhaps a cooking class) at Fontanaro.

Bathe Cheap!

Free thermal baths and a picnic is all you need for a good, cheap life in Tuscany.

bagni san filippo picnic area
Have a Flintstone moment in Bagni San Filippo

Bagni San Filippo: Bathe Free! originally appeared on May 13, 2016, © James Martin.

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I love staying in apartments, especially in Italian cities. You can live like a local who talks funny.

Too many apartment owners like to spiff a place up for the tourist. You know, fake ceiling beams, fake Renaissance art on the walls. The stuff they think you want. The stuff they think makes it seem like Italy for you.

What I want is a comfortable place, a good bed, heat in the off-season, internet that’s fast and reliable—and I want to throw open the shutters and have Italy come to me. And it doesn’t hurt that the owner is nearby and feels the duty to make herself available to you in case you have questions or want to know what you actually ordered at the restaurant last night that you thought was an prime cut from your favorite barnyard animal in red sauce but appeared to be a part you usually don’t put in your mouth voluntarily.

Yes, between “hover incessantly” and hide, there is the zone of comfort, the bulls-eye of great hosting, making yourself available to your guests.

So let’s say your host is Rebecca and your apartment is inside a 16th century palazzo with a view out the window like this:

assisi town apartment view
Assisi Town Apartment View

Below you is the main square of Assisi. You can casually stroll to the bar across from the Roman temple of Minerva and get a coffee, or better yet a glass of local Grecchetto. It’s a hoppin’ place.

At night you batten down the hatches, closing the shutters over the double-paned glass and there’s silence.

I’d say you’ve got it made.

We’re talking about Brigolante’s town apartments, specifically:

Il Camino

assisi apartment interior
Il Camino - Town Apartment in Assisi

One long room with fireplace. Perfect. A thermostat that keeps the place at just the right temperature. And it’s smack in the center of Assisi!

Ok, so you know there’s the Basilica of San Francisco. Everyone goes there. It’s safe. There are armed guards making sure. It’s a new age.

But Assisi is more. Gawk at the amazing carvings on the facade of the Duomo. That’s the cathedral lost in the tourist’s focused lust over Saint Francis. It’s dedicated to some local guy. San Rufino—or Rufinus of Assisi. You don’t care about him, but the church had lots to do with Francis; in 1209 he preached so well that Clare realized her calling and history was made.

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Facade of the Duomo di San Rufino

And there are the little surprises that appear in front of the many churches. Like classic cars in front of Santa Chiara.

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Assisi Classic Cars Exhibition

And if you ask Rebecca she’ll tell you how you can arrange to visit the Roman houses underground. Imagine putting in an elevator and wham! You hit Roman columns. You can stroll up to the castle, where you’ll get great views overhead of the city of Assisi, or you can take a walk in the footsteps of Saint Francis; there are trails everywhere out of town associated with the saint.

Spend a week. Spend a month if you have it. You’ll be cozy. You’ll eat well. You will be in the heart of Assisi. If you’d rather stay 6 kilometers out of town, Rebecca also runs the Brigolante Country Apartments.

You can’t go wrong either way.

Brigolante Guest Apartments, Assisi

Assisi: Stay Where the Action Is originally appeared on Apr 17, 2016, © James Martin.

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It was a bright, spring day. While she was in Fivizzano to pick up the latest bags and hardware that conformed to the latest recycling scheme the commune had thought up, Martha also managed to pick up some Lunigiana food specialties which we ate outside, on the terrace. This was the platter of food we shared:

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A Lunigiana Lunch in the Sun

The top row consists of food bought locally, but not food that is particularly though of as “Lunigenese” in origin. From left to right there is an onion focaccia, a whole wheat focaccia and a bit of truffled pecorino cheese.

It’s the bottom row that’s interesting and quintessentially local. You’ve got your Torta d’Erbe, a delicious vegetable “pie” with a very thin and flaky crust, farinata, a chick pea flour and olive oil pancake that is rolled up here and almost unrecognizable as a pancake, and slices of a fabulous salami bought in Pontremoli at the Salumeria Angella di Bertocchi on via Garabaldi 11 in the heart of town.

I’ve always thought of the place as a sort of tourist place, so haven’t been in it—at least for a long while. When I saw the slender sausage, I asked “what is that?” to which the reply was simply, “salami.”

But when I saw him cutting it carefully with a knife, I knew I had stumbled upon something special. You use a big commercial cutter to make short work of most salumi, but some things you need to be thicker, or you need to cut without making any frictional heat that would destroy a delicate texture.

As it turned out, the salami was a hard salami, but the bits of fat were soft and silky on the tongue. It made me think I was eating a Salame lardellato. Naturalmente Lunigiana makes one. It was delicious, and unlike anything you might come across in the states unless you knew a master meat preserving specialist.

Can you have a good picnic in the wilds of northern Tuscany? Are you kidding me?

A Lunigiana Lunch in the Sun originally appeared on Mar 26, 2016, © James Martin.

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italy usa map
Italy compared to the continental United States in size

Above you see a little map overlay with the country of Italy placed under a map of the Continental US state boundaries.

Italy’s total area is 116,350 square miles or 301,340 square kilometers, the 72nd largest country in the world. Almost 40 per cent of that is mountainous territory.

The area of the US is 9,826,675 square kilometers by comparison. Thus the US is about 32.5 times the size of Italy.

By population, Italy is the 23rd largest country in the world with 61,680,122 people living within its borders.

If Italy were a US state, it would lie between New Mexico and Arizona to be the 5th largest state by area.

So if you’re planning a vacation to take in mainland Italy, it would be like taking a New Mexico vacation except that to drive from north to south would be like driving from far northern California to San Diego, a long drive of at least 13 hours if you don’t dawdle.

And the food is better in Italy.

See Also: How Big is France Compared to the US?

How Big is Italy? originally appeared on Nov 19, 2015, © James Martin.

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