PREHISTORIC HOT SPRINGS IN SOUTHERN FRANCE? MAIS, OUI!
Every other year I house-sit for French friends who live in Provence. This region is founded on a history going back to the ancient world, which still shapes it today. A year ago I decided to trace the story of Aix en Provence's natural hot springs and discover their influence on the town.
Long, long ago, before early humans migrated north from Africa, hot springs bubbled through rocky cracks in a parched land, forming pools where moss and ferns flourished. Millennia later, our forebears walked around the great inland sea and trekked westward. One group stopped by the springs to rest. They never left. The community thrived and more migrants arrived. Eventually tribes formed. Artifacts excavated here show habitation from 6000 BCE.
In 125 BCE, when their descendants threatened Massalia, a port founded by the ancient Greeks, the occupying Romans destroyed the tribal settlement. The Roman consul Sextius Calvinus, yearning for a traditional Roman bath, selected the hot springs site for the first Roman garrison in southern Gaul, calling it Aquae Sextiae, the waters of Sextius. Pax Romana brought roads, fora, arenas, and aqueducts to the region, many of which exist today.
So, of course, do the hot springs. They still gurgle from the rocks under Aix in southern France, near Marseille, ancient Massalia, supplying some of Aix's fountains with their 34ºC water. The mineral content helps moss and ferns grow on them in such profusion they look like huge green balls, but I know there's more evidence to be found.
Photo 1: Fountain
Armed with the history I'd read, I begin my quest for the springs' source in old Aix by the fountain in La Place des Prêcheurs, Preachers' Square. Market stalls are pressed cheek by jowl, hiding the fountain except for its obelisk. This one commemorates Sextius. I'm early and watch the vendors set up while I enjoy a café au lait. Several of Aix's many squares hold markets every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and they've always fascinated me.
Photo 2: Market
I meander up the narrow, pedestrian-only streets lined with small stores and galleries to discover what St-Sauveur Cathedral can tell me about the hot springs. I admire the 1661 astronomic clock tower and walk into Aix's flower market. Further on, the cathedral's stones glow gold in the sunshine. Small as cathedrals go, this has been a sacred site even before the Roman occupation. The Roman baths were next door and archaeologists recently discovered conduits that carried water from the hot springs to a 6th century, deep octagonal basin in the stone floor. Here new believers were baptized at Easter with full immersion and surfaced as Christians "born to new life." If you're quiet, the spirits whisper in Latin.
Photo 3: Baptistery
My quest continues into an area of old Aix named Thermes Sextius. I march along the restored Roman rampart, close by the cathedral, into the garden of the Aqua Bella Hotel where the wall and a medieval tower becomes the backdrop to a swimming pool. Quite a setting for a hotel pool, I think, and soon discover the pool is fed by the hot springs. I'm getting close to my goal.
Photo 4: Tower and pool
The hotel's assistant manager offers to show me the hot pool in the newly renovated indoor spa. "Yes!" he says. "This water comes directly from the springs below." As I regard the ultra-modern spa with disappointment, the guests soaking in the pool are intrigued by my guide's explanation. They had no inkling of the origin and significance of the hot springs in which they luxuriate. The only nod to the hot tub's Roman connection is newly installed mosaic decor. "Can I see the source?" I ask.
The manager responds with a Gallic shrug. "It's only a pipe well below the hotel's foundations." I sigh - no romance in that.
However, even without romance, the hot springs still exert their ancient magic, drawing thousands of guests to take the waters in Aix and to enjoy the offerings of this modern spa hotel. At lunch, the terrace is packed with red-faced people in terry robes ordering steak frites (fries) and fattening desserts after a morning of expensive massages and cures.
Photo 5: SpaCustomers
When Sextius harnessed Aix's hot springs for his own pleasure, he cannot have imagined their reach before and after his time. The waters are directly responsible for Aix's longevity, its fountains, and its expansion in the Renaissance, to say nothing of today's tourism. The endless springs have poured out their sustenance and comfort for the early humans from Africa to the current Aixois. Even I have been nourished by their bounty.
IF YOU GO
" Best time to visit: spring and fall
Attributions: 1 to 4 - © Julie H. Ferguson 2011
1. Fountain: A mossy fountain fed by the hot springs on Aix's main street, Cours Mirabeau
All material used by Travel Writers' Tales is with the permission of the writers and photographers who, under national and international copyright law,
retain the sole and exclusive rights to their work. The contents of this site, whether in whole or in part may not be downloaded,
copied or used in any manner without the explicit permission of Travel Writers' Tales Editors, Jane Cassie and Margaret Deefholts,
and the written consent of contributing writers and photographers. © Travel Writers' Tales