My friend Toshio pulled the car off the narrow winding road and squeezed it up against a straggly hedgerow, tires crunching to a halt on the gravel. As I opened the passenger door, the view was less than dramatic. We seemed to be surrounded by rolling green fields, leafless trees, and the occasional weary shrub.
It was a chilly midwinter's day, and we had just driven two hours into the hills north of Rome for the pleasure of indulging in an Italian spa.
I had images of being greeted by elegantly attired attendants who would hand me large fluffy towels as I descended a sweeping stairway to steaming pools....
But now that we were actually in Saturnia, the spring's source and the oldest town in Italy (according to ancient writers), there didn't appear to be a spot of water or a building in sight.
Toshio, a resident of Rome for several years, was unperturbed. He had done this trip several times, and the lack of evidence of a thermal spring didn't faze him.
In that polite Japanese way, he suggested we change into our bathing suits despite the waterless surrounds. Then, slipping on plastic flip-flops, I grabbed a towel and padded down a dirt path after him, keeping my skepticism in check.
It was then, through some patches of tufted grass to the left of the path, that I saw heads bobbing and heard the occasional glug of rushing water. A steaming, murky rivulet, about three feet wide and seemingly coming out of nowhere, was gurgling its way rapidly through the field.
Following Toshio's example, I slid down a muddy bank and plopped into the hot water, latching onto branches and roots as the flow tried to drag me downstream. It felt delicious and oddly counterintuitive: warm, soothing, and luxurious when all my senses were telling me it should be ice-cold and the last place to spend a Sunday in the middle of winter.
Our fellow Romans had long seen past the uninviting environment. Eternally bronzed, they flopped and splashed around, looking as though this were their most natural habitat. With their makeup glistening and hands bejeweled, women swept back damp locks from their faces with practiced nonchalance, as the men lolled nearby.
My silver jewelry, by contrast, slowly turned an ugly black in the hot sulphurous water while my nails filled with fine silty mud from grabbing at the riverbank to steady myself. I was a neophyte among experts.
A few yards away, the water cascaded 15 feet down a rock face and slopped into a series of enormous cockleshell basins, each occupied by more creatures of ease. Sitting in nature's soup bowls, I began to feel that this Etruscan equivalent of a Jacuzzi surpassed any man-made luxury the local hotel spas might offer.
Toshio and I then sat awhile under the waterfall, as the wet warmth thundered onto us, pummeling the world into silence. All I could hear was the crashing water as I looked out on the floating heads below.
We slid back down into the quiet of the cockleshells; then, with the light starting to dim, we reluctantly pried ourselves out of our private pools. My skin felt satiny smooth as I rose, imagining myself some Botticelli Venus, steaming in the cool air. We tiptoed over the lips of neighboring shells to reach dry ground and our towels.
But my Romantic illusions were quickly shattered as I rubbed myself dry. For Botticelli's Venus certainly never smelled as I did ... faintly perfumed with the scent of bad eggs.