Wandering Sardinia

The amazing Roman thermal baths of Fordongianus live on because they have been in constant use for 2000 years.

Fordongianus: The Living Ruins of a Roman Spa

Updated Dec 20, 2020

Sardinia has many fine examples of indigenous architecture. The island’s nuraghi and sacred wells will amaze you.

And then there’s the “Roman Stuff”.

I was shown the ruins of the Roman thermal baths at Fordongianus in 1984. They were open to the public, a roadside attraction for tourists that wasn’t locked down. Yes, it was the good old days. Now you buy a ticket.

fordongianus arches
The Thermal Baths of Fordongianus

As we walked around the ruins we came across a women washing clothes in the hot pool. Steam rose from the exceedingly white underwear that she clamped in her sturdy hands.

Yes-siree, the hot, sulfurous waters of thermal baths at Fordongianus have provided healing and cleansing waters for over 2,000 years. How does something last that long?

The short answer—besides the “built like a brick shit-house” one—is reuse. The Pantheon in Rome became a Christian church in in 609 A.D., and this reuse has been cited as a singular reason for its long life. According to modern fact-making, this reuse prevented folks from taking away the stones to build something a little less ostentatious, like a hovel. So now you can have a libation in front of a perfectly preserved Roman building while you watch the young folks make out drunkenly on the stairs of the fountain just in front of it. The benefits to society are clear. Preserve and (you will) Protect.

The second time I visited Fordongianus I came with a noble intent. It was an Olympic year, and visiting archaeologists from England had brought us a bottle of Scotch. After imbibing it they challenged the American team to a faux-Olympic swim-off in the main pool. It was late in the evening. We had seen the pool earlier. It was, shall we say, between infrequent cleanings. The American team would hold out for better water. The visiting Brits were nonplussed, and flopped around in the water before cranking out a few serpentine victory laps. We were losers, but at least we didn’t have to burn our underwear the next day.

fordongianus thermal pool
Natatio, the main pool of the thermal bath after cleaning!

When we returned for a visit in 2016, the place was fenced, and you needed a ticket to get in. I was disappointed. Had the Sardinians come over to the dark side? Sure, they needed the money, but didn’t fencing the thing off mean an end to the glorious era of actually making use of a place to preserve it?

Well, the short answer is no. The clever Sards had created a way to make it all work out in the end.

fordongianus pavement
Fordongianus Pavement

Yes, after walking the pavement of the Roman spa, we exited the complex and walked down the road that paralleled the Tirso river. A construction worker was cleaning his tools in the steaming waters of a hot spring on the banks of the river. When he was almost done, he removed his pants and slid into the healing waters. Now that’s something you won’t see every day.

We turned around to make our way back to the car, when we noticed a man scooping water into several buckets. He was outside the archaeological site. Intrigued, I asked him what he was doing. He answered that he was taking the waters back to his house to put them in his bath tub.

Yes, not all the site was inside the fence. They’d left a little access. For continuity. Sorry, more than that: so that it wouldn’t die.

(Re)use it or lose it? I’m all for that. Value is more than the money you can get out of a thing.

For an excellent article on Fordongianus written by my friend, Sardinian journalist Angela Corrias, click here.

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