The Historic Allure of Ischia's Thermal Waters

••• The Romans believed Ischia's hot springs were protected by nymphs, and hung this tablet to honor them. Anitra Brown

Have you ever heard of Ischia?  No?  You're not alone.  Most Americans aren't familiar with this volcanic island off the western coast of Italy, near Naples, visiting the better-known Capri instead.  But Ischia is by far the superior destination, especially if you're interested in spas.  

With 103 hot springs and 29 fumaroles, Ischia (pronounced IS-kee-ah) has a higher concentration of natural hot springs than any other place in Europe.  Most of the hotels have their own thermal water pools and spa treatments, and are many thermal water parks where you spend the day relaxing in various pools of different styles and temperatures.  

This is not just idle bathing, however.   During the summer months, Italians, Germans, and Russians all flock to Ischia to experience the healing power of Ischia's famous thermal waters.  Rich in sodium, potassium, sulphur, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, iodine, chlorine, iron, the thermal waters get their special properties from the volcanic soil, and benefit various systems of the body, 

The waters here are recognized by the Italian Ministry of Health as a legitimate treatment for arthritis, osteoporosis, chronic inflammation of the sciatic nerve, inflammations of the primary respiratory tract and skin disorders, most effectively when taken in a course of daily treatments over twelve days.  Taking the waters -- or  salus per aquae --  is also extremely relaxing and an overall tonic to the system.

Modern spa development on the island has taken place since the 1950s.  But the waters have been appreciated for thousands of years.  The Greeks settled on the northwestern corner of the island in 770 B.C.  and found the volcanic soil excellent for pots.  They even called the island Pithecusae, "land where pots are made."  The native vines were a source of excellent wine.    A volcanic eruption 300 years later brought Pithecusae to an end, killing many and driving the survivors away.   

The Romans settled here in the 2nd century B.C.E. and, because of their strong bathing culture, they immediately began developing the thermal waters.  They built the Cavascura near Maronti Beach, a sophisticated system of channels to cool the 190 degrees (Fahrenheit) water to various temperatures for bathing.  You can still experience bathing at this location.  

Romans believed that nymphs were protectors of these natural springs.  They placed marble tablets of nymphs at the springs and made daily offerings of food and flowers.  In Roman times, the baths were used primarily for cleansing the body, not so much as a "cure."  Romans left in the 2nd century A.D. after the caldera (an underground hollow) upon which their city was built, suddenly collapsed.  The underwater remains can still be viewed from a glass-bottom boat on an archeological tour.

In the 16th century,  a Napoli doctor named Guilio Iasolino visited the island and recognized the medical potential of the thermal waters.  He began to do empirical research by treating six or seven patients in each spring and describing the results.  Over time he discovering which springs were most beneficial for specific conditions and published a book, Natural Remedies That Are The Island Pithaecusa, Known as Ischia. It is still considered a great resource on understanding the beneficial impact of various springs.

 

The modern spa culture of Ischia began in the 1950s, when publisher Angelo Rizzoli decided to build L’Albergo della Regina Isabella in Lacco Ameno on the northwestern corner of Ischia.   It was the first hotel on the island, and is still the finest.  Its spa is special, with its own thermal water springs and mud it makes in a complex next door.   It also has a medical doctor on staff.  Poseidon, a stand-out water park in nearby Forio, was also built in the 1950s. Together the two ushered in the modern age of Ischia tourism, which centers on one of the most authentic spa destinations in the world.