If you blink, you might miss it. But don't let size fool you in the case of tiny Bagno Vignoni. The center of the perfectly preserved village is a rectangular basin where hot thermal waters emerge from underground springs. This basin feeds the pools of the Hotel Adler Thermae and throughout history this town and its healing waters have drawn popes, pilgrims, poets and saints to this corner of Tuscany's Val d'Orcia. (The entire valley was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.)
The chalky waters of Bagno Vignoni are rich in sodium chloride, calcium, iron, magnesium, sodium sulfates and other minerals, said to be especially good for bones, skin and joints, as well as the reproductive system. The Etruscans were probably the first to realize their healing properties. The ancient Romans who were well-known terme lovers frequently took to the waters here. The faithful following the Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrimage route between Canterbury and Rome, found Bagno Vignoni to be a relaxing stop along the way.
Legend has it that in the 14th century, Catherine Benincasa (later to be canonized St. Catherine) was brought here by her mother in an effort to distract Catherine from her strong religious fervor. While her mother hoped Catherine would meet people her own age, the future saint chose to bathe in the hottest waters as penance. In the loggia next to the basin, there's now a small chapel dedicated to Santa Caterina.
In the 15th century, Pope Pius II commissioned the architect Rossellino (who designed the nearby town of Pienza) to build a palace here. The Palazzo Piccolomini overlooks the water on one side of the town center and houses Albergo Le Terme.
On the few blocks that make up Bagno Vignoni, there are a few stores selling Tuscan souvenirs as well as a lovely women's clothing boutique. Keeping with the theme of healthy living is Hortus Mirabilis, where traditional herbalist Dr. Luigi Giannelli hangs his shingle. He can advise on natural remedies for almost any medical condition and also sells healthy teas, organic cosmetics and olive oil soap.
While the most luxurious way to experience Bagno Vignoni and its waters is with a stay at the Adler Thermae, this picturesque town is worth a visit even if you're just passing through.
Bagno is 20 minutes from Pienza and 40 minutes from Siena. Come for lunch and take a walk through the little park at the edge of town, where you can climb on large chalky boulders. From there you can take in some of the most sweeping views in all of Tuscany as you look across the valley at Rocca d'Orcia, an ancient fortress. If you can stay for the day, buy a day pass to Piscina Val di Sole for 12 euros. This pool owned by Hotel Posta Marcucci, a 36-room inn run by a family who has lived in Bagno Vignoni since the 1700s.
No matter how long you spend in Bagno Vignoni, it is not a place you are likely to forget. Sure in Tuscany, one town seems even more beautiful than the next but few evoke the peace and beauty that the simple treasure of Bagno Vignoni do. The town looks much like it did in the time of St. Catherine and Pope Pius II and the waters and their powers remain unchanged.
Where to Stay
Hotel Posta Marcucci
Via Ara Ureca, 43
(39) 0577 887112 www.hotelpostamarcucci.it
Rates: Start at 82 euros per person, per night, including access to thermal pools. The restaurant offers a 25 euros tasting menu for dinner and a 17 euros buffet lunch.
Albergo Le Terme
(39) 0577 887150 www.albergoleterme.it
Closed during December.
Rates: Start at 58 euros per person, per night with breakfast. The hotel's restaurant offers a 22 euros pre fixe menu.
Where to Eat
Osteria del Leone
Piazza del Moretto
(39) 0577 887300 www.illeone.com
L'Osteria La Parata
Piazza del Moretto, 40
(39) 0577 887508