Steam rises from the streets ahead of me – it’s as if the flat-roofed houses are on fire. I breathe in the hot, humid air, choking on the rotten egg and old sock stink, as a tortoise the size of a small terrier waddles across my path. Is this a vision from hell? No, it’s my first glimpse of Edipsos on the Greek island of Evia, the Euboea of Homer’s Iliad.
Ever since Plato’s time, temples have been built wherever hot water sprang from the earth, but a lot of the sources where the ancient Greeks once wallowed have since dried up. Even so, there are still more than 700 of these sites whose mineral-rich therapeutic waters are said to cure everything from gout to heart sickness. Evia, the first stop on my Greek springs road trip, is one of them.
It’s a chilly spring evening and I’m shivering as I pedal my bike through silent streets criss-crossed with steaming streams to Thermae Sylla Spa. Turning my back on the grandiose 19th-century spa hotel where Greta Garbo, Omar Sharif and other 20th-century screen idols all loved to take the waters, I head across the road to where a hot stream pours from a hole in the cliff into four stone basins. They were probably in use when Roman general Sylla came here some time in 115BC. Hanging my towel on a nail conveniently hammered at head height into the age-old rock, I slither into one of the stone bathtubs. Moulded by centuries of slippery bodies, the stone is smooth as silk and my body fits perfectly. Lying in the bath-hot water, watching the moon rise over the glittering bay, I can almost make out the ghostly shape of Agamemnon’s fleet sheltering here before heading out to wage war on Troy.
Early the next morning, the twice-daily ferry putters me and my hire car over the Euboean Gulf to Glifa. Following a rutted coastal road looping around the bay via a string of tiny villages, I reach Kamena Vourla in time for lunch.
According to legend, Kamena Vourla was a sanctuary to Asclepius, the god of healing. Sitting at a vine-shaded taverna table overlooking the sandy bay, I tuck into a dish of local speciality spetsofai, a concoction of sausages and peppers, as the waiter tells me about the resort’s famous radioactive springs. “Come back in summer when they’re open!” he urges. “They’re full of radon – it’s good for your bones. We say around here that it also saves on batteries because you glow at night,” he jokes.
Still relishing the subtle, spicy flavours of flame-seared local sausage and sweet red Florina peppers, I head out into busy traffic. Just outside Thermopylae, a life-size statue commemorates Leonidas (aka Gerard Butler), the Spartan king who launched a suicide mission against the troops of Persian king Xerxes here in 480BC. A few miles further on I see a battered sign for Loutra Thermopilon. I know loutra means “spring”, so I jam on the brakes – much to the disgust of the Porsche driver who's been tailgating me since Kamena Vourla – change into swim things, and follow the eggy stench of sulphur to a waterfall pouring from a gap in the cliff opposite.
Clambering over slippery rocks, I join an elderly woman splashing around in the hot thundering spray. “Greek legend says that this is where Hercules was sent to recover after killing the Nemean lion, so it must be good for you,” she shouts above the deafening noise.
The stench of sulphur – a mixture of rotting egg and blocked drains – is overpowering and the hot steaming spray pummels my back like angry fists, but afterwards my skin feels smooth and toned. “Sulphur is good for healthy skin, nails, hair, bones and joints – and even for mental wellness and weight loss,” the receptionist at spa hotel Thermae Platystomou tells me when I check in later that evening.
Vouliagmeni, a half-hour drive south of Athens, is the last stop on my hot springs road trip. Elegantly sprawled across the pine-studded foothills of the Hymettus Mountain, this is one of the wealthiest seaside suburbs in Greece and the waterfront buzzes with hip cocktail bars and ritzy tavernas serving brine-fresh seafood. There are plenty of luxury spas in the surrounding streets, but most people head for Vouliagmeni Lake to bathe in the open air, just as the ancient Greeks did some 2,500 years ago.
A path through lemon-scented pine trees leads to the lake’s edge. Hemmed in by high pink cliffs, the lake is actually a sunken cave and the lava-hot water bubbles up from deep within the Hymettus. A chilly breeze rips across the still black water as I step in but soon I’m toasty warm. “The water is always around 80 degrees fahrenheit – I come here even when it snows,” a tanned octogenarian tells me.
Floating on my back, I watch steam rise from the water like ghosts of the ancient Greeks who once bathed here. I remember that Greek priestess Medea once turned a ram into a lamb by boiling it in hot spring water. Looking up at the perfect Greek blue sky, I know just how it must have felt.
With the exception of Vouliagmeni Lake (£10.50pp), all hot springs are free
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