Roman baths & Aquaduct
Sulphur is the ninth most abundant element of the universe and is one of nature´s great jokes on the human race. Known to the ancients as "Brimstone" it is one of the elements essential to life as a constituent of various biologically active compounds. Pure sulphur is odourless, but fun-loving nature frequently combines it with hydrogen to produce hydrogen sulphide, which has the odour of rotten eggs. Nevertheless sulphur has long been renowned for its medicinal properties. Bathing in sulphur springs to maintain or improve the condition of the skin, or even to cure an epidermal complaint, has been common since antiquity.
In the valley below Manilva, close but mercifully not too close to the now closed but still renowned Roman Oasis Restaurant, are the Roman Sulphur baths of Hedionda. The high sulphur content is due to a sulphur spring which flows from a limestone outcrop above the valley. It attracted the attention of the Romans 2000 years ago and an arched bathing complex was created. Four of its chambers still exist, although other adjacent water channels can be seen which suggest the complex was once much larger. During his period as governor of southern Spain between 63 and 60 BC no less than Julius Caesar is said to have cured himself of a skin infection by bathing here.
In an attempt at preservation, a modern concrete canopy has been erected over what survives of the original Roman structure. This has since been painted white, easing its impact on the landscape. The interior Roman stone walls can still be seen from the entrance by those not wishing to take the plunge. A small first chamber leads via an archway and tunnel to a much larger inner chamber. Hardier types not put off by the all-pervading stench of rotten eggs still come to immerse themselves in the cool, murky, health-giving waters. In the embankments of the nearby river, circled by tall reeds, is the aluvial mud scooped up by visitors for use as face packs and poultices (almost as good a skin treatment as the sulphurus water), which is then washed off with a dip in the river.
|Roman Sulphur baths of Hedionda.|
In fact the baths are quite popular on fine Sunday afternoons all year round, and on summer days when a strong wind makes the beach uncomfortable. Families from the village picnic on the surrounding grass under the shade of eucalyptus trees and the children take over the baths. Thankfully during the week this archaeological site is almost deserted.
The site is minimally maintained, some would say abandoned, mainly because it is actually located within the municipality of Casares but can only be accessed and enjoyed from Manilva; this puts a question mark over the responsibility of maintaining the site. In September 2016 rock gabions were placed in the river to create two small open air bathing pools. Years ago there was talk of a luxury Spa Hotel complex to be constructed - although the graffiti clearly warns against this idea. Visitors to the proposed hotel would be well advised to check the wind direction before opening the balcony window.
Across the river from the baths there are ruins of 18th century farm buildings which re-used Roman masonry. It is clear that some kind of service settlement did evolve around the complex . To find these follow the river downstream about 75m until you come to an old but recently restored single-arch aqueduct. This was used to help irrigate the fertile valley further down and its course can be traced for much of the way. This irrigation system is certainly Roman in origin but much of the infrastructure was rebuilt during the Moorish period.
Two km upstream towards Casares, there are some interesting mills and irrigation channels. Access is gained by following the stream bed and this makes a pleasant walk as the river valley closes in. The valley is made for the adventurous hiker. It ultimately connects with the mills of Casares but it is an all-day walk and scramble.
How to get there
The baths are difficult to find. Whilst they are located within the municipal district of Casares they are accessed from Manilva or Sabinillas They can be reached carefully by two wheel drive car by turning off the A-7 at a roundabout by Lidl supermarket or the old "Grand Bar" (the coach trip stopping point before the toll motorway was opened. The building later became a real estate showroom, abandoned in the crash of 2008, and is now a 'Super Asia' Chinese emporium) just west of Sabinillas village and east of the River Manilva. Follow the poor condition road up the valley, passing the Manilva feria and Sunday market ground on the left hand side, continue under the large toll motorway viaduct past the closed Roman Oasis restaurant and the site is below on the right hand side. Visitors used to drive along the dusty track all the way to the baths, but parking inspections are known to take place, so it is advisable to park in the designated car park, 500 meters before the tiny, whitewashed San Adolfo chapel, and walk the rest.
If coming down from Gaucin or Casares, or by the toll motorway AP-7, take the small turn to the quarry from the motorway interchange roundabout just north of Manilva. Pass the quarry down the hill and take a rough track on the right hand side that goes under the new toll motorway viaduct.
The baths are free to enter and from the summer season of 2018 a life guard with defibrillator has been assigned to the baths (1st July- 15th September only)
Due to the increasing popularity of the Casares Roman Baths during the summer holiday periods of July and August, and the first half of September, from 12 midday until 19.00 there was a limited allocation of 24 tickets an hour.
This allocation is only for swimming access to the original baths and not the river pools or picnic area.
Alongside the road between the coast and the baths you will see a 100m long surviving stretch of an aqueduct reputed to be of Roman origin. It does not span the whole valley but was used to drive a large water wheel as part of a mill complex. A rustic cottage now stands on the foundations of the Roman/Moorish mill house. Roman brick can be seen through the structure. Water to power the mill was almost certainly channeled off by aqueducts at the Roman baths which kept the water elevated until it reached the mill.