Category Archives: Catalonia
If you are in Barcelona or anywhere in the Costa Brava or Dorado and are looking for a curious place off the beaten track which has that real Catalonian feel and have an interest in healing springs Caldes de Malavela is a must. It is a town which has been attracting seekers of healing waters since the Roman times and is still a major spa town with waters rich in in sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate and are thermal arising at around 60°C,
In the middle of the 1st century B.C., the Roman settled in the area and constructed the baths. Being located close to the Via Augusta and many would have stopped here for the hot water and thus a Roman town developed. It was in 1897-1902 that archaeologists revealed the remains of the baths. The complex was a simple one, being composed of a central pool surrounded by rooms given over to curative treatments. It was believed to be a simple building, lacking any detail and had a ten metre rectangular swimming pool with changing rooms and massage rooms.. The water itself was delivered to the baths via an aqueduct from Ànimes hill although there is no sign of water in the site now one can see how it flowed. through.
“Sacred water spring The central room in the east wing is one of the most important spaces in the thermae due to the presence, in Roman times, of the thermal water spring that was the raison d’étre of the site. The water emerged from the lower part of the east wall, at the north end, from where it was channelled diagonally into a small square regulator controlling the flow into the pipe that supplied the natatio. The curative and therapeutic properties of the water made this room a sacellum (small sacred space). On the north wall, we can still see the remains of a small altar flanked by two affixed pilasters, which must have housed one or several images of healing divinities. These most likely included Apollo, whose cult has been documented in Caldes from inscriptions found in the locality. A bench on the south wall provided seating for visiting devotees. Furthermore, this was the only room in the whole thermae enclosure where the walls were stuccoed and decorated with polychrome paintings. Later on, but still in the Roman era, several alterations were made to this room; these mainly consisted of walling up the three accesses from the ambulacrum, and adding a small piscina or water deposit in its interior. The altar was no longer used. The spring and the regulator, however, continued to operate as before. In the medieval period, all these structures were “buried” under two new small pools. The water supply now emerged from a different point located one metre higher on the same wall; the pools were drained through a hole in the south wall leading to the adjacent room, which gradually became covered in calcareous concretion.
By the end of the 4th Century the site being developed as a castle and then converted into a hospital for the poor.
A lost pagan cult?
What’s in a name? Caldes translates in Catalan as hot mineral spring. This enables non-Catalan speakers to identify spas in the area. The general agreed name of the Roman site was thus Aquae Calidae although some have called it Aquis Voconis. Its modern name Caldes de Malavella is interesting. This second part of the name – “de Malavella” – comes from a local legend, of a local “bad old woman” who lived in the now-ruined castle just outside town. Thus “Malavella” in Catalan comes from two words: mala (bad) and vella (old woman). Thus “The Thermal Springs of the Old evil one”! The story dates back to 1057 which may suggest it has an ancient pagan origin? Was it an attempt for the Christians to demonise the focus of a local cult. Quite often of course, springs are associated with female deities, and it is interesting to consider the Scottish tradition which one assumes descends from the Celtic tradition where there is of course the Old Hag or Cailleachan. This might at first be irrelevant but is worth considering that this region was settled by the Celts too in 1000 – 300 BC in two migratory waves: 900 BC and 700 – 600 BC. It seems likely that this does such record a Celtic or even Roman tradition. Mind you if the intention was to demonise the deity has not really worked as the Evil Old one is everywhere and whilst I was there I was privileged to see a parade of Giants, where she featured prominently.
Taking the waters today
All around the town can be found three natural hot mineral-medicinal fountains: La Mina or Raig d’en Mel, Sant Narcís and Bullidors. In some cases such as La Mina these waters were utilised for safareigs or municipal cloth washing areas and indeed I was informed at the museum that people still use them although generally it was around the 1960s that they generally fell out of favour. However, the Font Raig d’en Mel arises at the base of a large wall of rubble and feeds quite modern looking washing areas.
Around the town there are other springheads/wells- Font de Bullidors of the kettles and Font des Saint Narcis. Both well preserved in a modern setting, although the former is dry. Both lie close to the baths so presumably their source. The later well appears to be a holy well named after the patron saint of Girona. On the subject of holy wells, there is also an unnamed and unheralded well under the church, which surely is something significant but not mentioned in the town maps or guides. There is also the modernist font of Font de la Vac and associated music room and conduit.
The use of the water for medicinal purposes it appears that this did not start to happen until 19th. Three spring sites were tapped: El Puig de Sant Grau (utilising four springs), El Puig de les Ànimes (three springs), and El Puig de les Moleres (two springs). Spas were developing elsewhere and what with its close proximity and easy reaching from Barcelona, it was perfectly situated for the wealthy to visit and those expensive villas and chalets were constructed. The springs themselves were enclosed within splendid spa buildings which provided then and now various hydrothermal therapies and treatments.
In the 1800s, the water was bottled commercially with three brands coming from the town: San Narciso (since 1870), Vichy Catalan (1891) and Agua Malavella, formed by a merger of two companies after the Spanish Civil War and later acquired by Vichy Catalan in 1985. Of the spa the first of these modern spa was built in 1840 and is called Balneari Prats. Here one enters an archway boldly exclaiming the name and there is a large pool and to the side a small white19th century building which is the spring house. Here the spring flows from a wall mounted spring head and can be sampled
Then in 1898, Vichy Catalan was established. This is a far more august and spectacular building done in a classic Spanish art nuovo style, much of the building is private treatment rooms but there is also a chapel. The spring arises in a wall mounted spring head surrounded by an ankh shaped surround. The water appears more iron rich from this spring.
The town is a delightful one full of interest and their spa heritage is well looked after and describe I cannot recommend it enough.
Last month we discussed Jafre’s holy well but there at least two other healing springs in the locality. The most peculiar is The Pou de Goiges or Goges or Well of Joys or Well of the witches. The well takes one of its names from the folklore that supernatural feminine beings live in the spring, hiding during the day and appearing at night dancing and screaming – which certainly seems eerie!
Indeed the well is rather eerie. It is enclosed in a concrete small house which was built in 1985 as a place for people to have a picnic and there is a picnic table outside. However, I do not feel this still happens as the site has a derelict and rather abused feel, parts are boarded up and debris and foliage is encroaching. Inside rather graffiti filled and it certainly does not appear to me a place for family picnics.
The spring itself, which was donated to the town as a public resource by the landowner. The spring arises in a stone and concrete lined deep pool, where people used to immerse themselves in and may still do so but by the look of the algae and debris its left to those elemental creatures I feel now. Not sure what joy could be received at the site today though!
Not far away is a better looked after site, the hot water well or ‘oil well’; a fairly recent establishment being opened by an Italian company called SISPA whilst they looked for oil in the 60s. When the company reached a depth of 1000 meters they hit hot, sulphurous water. This was at first covered but the pressure repeatedly shattered this cover. So the spout remained permanently open and soon word got around that the water was sulphurous and people came to use it identifying the water as being good for bone diseases such as osteoarthritis or decalcification.
Thus, the base of the drilling tower was thus turned into a small pool of five or six square meters. A decree of the Generalitat recognized the site as having mineral-medicinal potential signifying its role with some bone, rheumatic and arthritic pathologies.
On my visit I first noticed the smell of sulphur which lead me first to the spout and then to the orangey pool. It did not look very enticing and although no one was around it was clear that people did use it. Steps were inserted to one side and a small spent tea light was on the side.
Despite the availability of free mineral water it is clear that commercial enterprises have attempted to utilise it. A company once tried to use to cultivate of algae for medicinal purposes. They failed. However, the same company in 2005, that owns the land still plans to commercially exploit the place and build a spa with complementary facilities. Whether there will be any free access is unlikely and so this rather odd site may be lost to a generic spa!
De Jafre you are the crown, the joy and the consolation; your love caresses, the region as one; our faith kneels, with your grace and virtue.
The Joys to Our Lady of the Fountains of Jafre by Mn. Francesc Viver and with music by Salvador Dabau. 1945.
Many visit Catalonia in Spain and visit Barcelona, Girona and of course the wonderful coastland, but for those interested in healing, holy and in this case water used for ritual purposes will find Catalonia a very rewarding location. Sites range from thermal springs to ritual mikveh and in at least one holy well. To find this holy well, a journey inland is necessary to locate the Santuari de la Font Santa with its fountain ‘dels Horts de Mari’.
Why a holy well here?
Why in this fairly remote location should there be a shrine to Our Lady you may ask. Well unsurprisingly this was due to an apparition of the Virgin seen by a local person. This was a local farmer, Miquel Castelló, who in November 1460, received a warning that the water of the spring would become miraculous. Interestingly, Miquel Castelló written statement and a document collating the witness testimony of a number of people which was commissioned by the Bishop of Girona are preserved. The following account gives fuller details of it:
“on a Friday in the year 1460, when Miquel del mas Castelló was plowing his field in Bosc Gran, a young stranger appeared to him and told him that the water from the spring had healing properties. Faced with the farmer’s disbelief, who did not believe his words, the young man prophesied that a child would die in Jafre that very day. Miquel Castelló hadn’t finished plowing when he heard knocking. When he returned home he learned that Bernat Dolza’s son had just died. Terrified, he told the rector what had happened to him and he immediately exhorted the parishioners to have faith in the waters of that source.”
Very soon after this news spread and people begun to visit to spring from all over the country. Its waters were said to be good for eye disorders, especially it is said for blind people. However, it was also good for paralysis, fevers, sore throat and rheumatism. Such was the popularity of the site that on the 25th June 1461 there was a general assembly of the local households and councillors which was presided over in the parish church by the vicar general of the diocese. At the meeting it was decided that a chapel, decided to Our Lady, would be built by the spring and make pools and eye washing places although they appear to have been now lost. The spring was formally then adopted as a holy well. The waters could be spiteful though and it is said if sinful people washed there the water would stop!
The sanctuary complex and springhead.
This 15th century complex consists of unified building made of rough stone and angular ashlars with a central chapel with outbuildings with the different rooms and a large atrium to which a lowered arcade gives access. The chapel has a single nave with a barrel vaulted roof however the cambril is modern having been destroyed in the 1930s Civil War.
The font itself flows from a small barrel vaulted arched structure with the water flowing from a metal pipe into a natural basin of rock covered with moss. One accesses the spring by a small set of stone steps down to the water. On ledges flowers and small offerings were placed indicating still an active shrine. The whole structure is made of undressed stone and pieces of pottery. Above the spring in a niche is a figure of the Virgin Mary.
This figure replaced one lost during the Civil War and is made of plaster with. She has the child Jesus on her knees and holds in her right hand a representation of the spring head and the child carries in his right hand the ball of the world. This figure was blessed on November 11, 1939, after the cult’s restoration on the 8th of September.
A place of pilgrimage
When I visited it was quiet and desolate feeling, the chapel was locked but access was easily found to the spring. However, at key dates in the Catholic and local calendar the sanctuary is busy with processions and people taking the water. The year starts with a local mass of thanks giving for the water’s role in the local town’s cholera epidemic in 1884, on or around the January 20th. Understandably the main days of procession and pilgrimage are those associated with significant feast days of our Lady such as March 25th, Feast of the Virgin Mary of Gràcia when the water from the fountain is blessed. On the May 1 or first Sunday in May there is also a blessing of the fields and of course the whole month of May being Mary’s month it is generally a popular day of devotion. The Assumption of Mary in or around the 15th August and perhaps the most significant the 8th of September, the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary with the 8th of December being recognised for the feast of The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Another notable day is Corpus Christi when a flower carpet is laid within the chapel’s aisle. Today the site is really only of local importance its countrywide fame disappearing over the years, but it remains and important holy well in Catalonia and one well worth visiting.