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Spa Article – Montegrotto Terme, Italy

Montegrotto Terme


Now a spa, once a pagan sanctuary

Now a spa, once a pagan sanctuary

Montegrotto, Italy – It’s taken awhile but I’ve finally found the sacred lake – at least the former site of it. Bubbling hot and vaporous, set in a wild marshy forest at the bottom of Monte Castello, it was a place of mystery to the ancient Venetians, a holy site devoted to the cult of the horse.

A high-pitched shriek distracts me, followed by laughter as two kids jump into the pool. Maybe several millennia ago it was a sanctuary – now it’s the grounds of the Hotel Preistoriche in the Italian spa town of Montegrotto, 45 km from Venice. Today, instead of sacred pottery vessels and chanting priests, it’s aqua exercises and deck chairs around a sprawling thermal pool.

Oh, how things change.

Sitting on a mossy stone bench I pick up a stick, tempted to dig into the cracked dry soil where a number of votive offerings like tiny bronze horses and chalices have been found.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain about progress. If this were still the 8th century BC I’d be up to my ears in magical rites and sacrifices instead of a week’s worth of spa treatments, and the accommodations wouldn’t be nearly as comfy as my 5-star hotel, the Grand Hotel Terme, down the street but I can’t help thinking something has been lost.

At least the water hasn’t changed. Travelling down from the Lower Dolomites it takes a 25-year underground journey, soaking up mineral salts before gushing out at a temperature of 87C. Good for the joints and muscles, it’s a big hit with the German, French and Italian spa lovers who flock here.

The next morning I enter a tiled treatment room in my hotel wondering if the ancient Venetians ever wallowed in mud. If they did, it would have been an instinctive pleasure. Today it’s a science. The mud, a mix of clay, thermal water and beneficial microbes, is cured for two months. Analyzed for its healing and pain relieving properties, the mud here is taken so seriously that the European Patent Office has declared it a drug. Finally, a healthy way to get high.

            Though the heat is a bit of a shock. “Yeow,” I say, sitting down on what looks like a hot mud pie.

            Anna Marie, my therapist, laughs. English isn’t her first language but that much she understands. “Yeow is international,” she says, coating my legs and back with maternal care while murmuring things like perfecto and brava! as if I have accomplished a far more heroic feat than simply getting out of bed.

            Is it any wonder this is my favourite activity of the day? 

Fangotherapy, or mud treatments, are the keystone of the region’s spas, offered at more than 100 hotels in Montegrotto and its larger sister spa, Abano. It’s a simple three-step process. After soaking up the minerals in the mud, I relax in a bubbling thermal bath then retreat to my hotel room where a second therapist gives me a quick circulation massage.

In the afternoon I consider taking the train into Padua, 11 km away, but Montegrotto is weaving its spell on me and I end up lounging by the pool. Finally at dusk I rouse myself, wandering through the town’s boutiques and then, because I’m nosy, into the various hotels. Some have extensive park-like settings dripping with chestnut, acacia and oak. Many have fenced off ‘mud farms’ where troughs of mud and hot spring water lie steaming in some mysterious alchemy.

At the Hotel Neroniane a row of weathered columns stands spot lit in the garden – a legacy of the Romans who eventually (and peacefully) mixed with the Venetians and dedicated the area to Aponus, god of the springs.

By then Montegrotto was more spa resort than holy site, but there were still some otherworldly figures around. Strangest of all was a monstrous god named Gerion imprisoned deep in the earth. His prophesies of the future were interpreted by an oracle, or priest, who read the signs either through the misty sulphurous water or by tossing golden dice. It’s said Hercules consulted the oracle here as did the emperor Tiberius.

I stare at the ground. There’s a lot going on under here: roiling water, prophesizing gods, Roman relics and offerings to the cult of the horse. The magic of Montegrotto hasn’t been lost, I realize. It’s just gone underground.


Just the Facts:

For spa and vacation packages, hotel reservations, airport transfers and customized tours in Veneto Province contact Veneto Marketing at For information on the Grand Hotel Terme visit A cheaper alternative is the 3-star Eliseo at


2 Responses

  1. […] my own vacation dollars go to towards European spas. This year it was a week in Montegrotto Terme, an Italian spa town. Last year it was five days at the Grand Hotel Pupp (my Czech friend, Lenka, […]

  2. Italy is a fascinating country with historical cities, scenic countryside, mountains, picturesque coast and art riches.

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