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Greece's soothing hot springs

Special to the Los Angeles Times

A fly landed on my nose, and I wanted to sneeze, but I didn't dare. Muscled masseur Manoli, who had just caked my face with a slime-ball of stinking sludge, warned me not to move a muscle if I wanted this sulfurous mud pack's miraculous properties to work. It dried hard and tight after 30 minutes, turning my cheeks and lips as rigid as Agamemnon's gold death mask. My face tingled and itched as I rinsed it off, but after the burning had subsided a few minutes later, my face felt toned and purified, just as Manoli had promised.

I was sitting in a deck chair on the public beach at the lake at Vouliagmeni, the first stop on my four-day road tour of Greek springs. A half-hour drive south of Athens — and just a drachma's throw from the ancient home of the Delphic oracle — this seaside suburb is one of a dozen sites where Greeks in the know flock to indulge in smelly health cures before tumbling into one of the hot springs that are another of the country's best-kept secrets.

About a mile southeast of its eponymous town, the lake bubbles with hot springs and it shores are littered with ancient ruins, including the Sanctuary of Hera, where Euripides tells us Medea buried her murdered children when she fled Corinth.

Since antiquity, temples and towns have been built wherever hot water springs from the earth. Many of the water sources and mud holes in which the ancient Greeks disported have since dried up, but there are still more than 700 of these mineral-rich therapeutic sites in the country — and because most of them are near well-known archaeological sites, bathing in these curative waters is a unique way to learn about the country's past.

Luxury spas have been built at many of these sites, but at Vouliagmeni, the mineral waters are free and are taken in the open air, as they would have been when the Greeks used them 2,500 years ago.

Manoli, who comes to the lake most days and loves helping fellow bathers with their mud pack, pointed out the best place to try the hot springs. Shivering in the November chill, I stripped to a swimsuit and joined a group of elderly Athenians in the water.

Stinking plumes of steam rose around us as we wallowed in the glassy green waters and gazed at the pinkish-gray limestone slopes above us. "The great thing about coming here in winter is that the water stays a constant 27 centigrade [80 degrees Fahrenheit]," commented one elderly man, who came every year to soak in the waters, which are said to cure disorders as diverse as back pain and skin diseases.

The following day, a half-hour drive west from Vouliagmeni, on a twisting road through olive groves, carried me to the resort town of Loutraki.

Loutraki was first mentioned in Xenophon's epic narrative "Hellenica," and legend says its hot springs cured Roman conqueror Gen. Lucius Sulla of a mysterious disease that had caused his teeth to fall out. Its waters are also believed to have curative powers, which has made the resort popular, and the town's three gleaming hydrotherapeutic centers buzz with wealthy Athenians.

I stayed at the Club Hotel Casino Loutraki, a vast resort with carefully manicured gardens dotted with fountains and pools, and a wide range of facial and body mineral water therapies.

As a chill wind whipped waves to white peaks on the Gulf of Corinth, I luxuriated in the hotel's hot spring-fed pool, before losing one chip too many at the resort's 80-table casino.

Fleeing temptation, I headed north the next day to Kamena Vourla, about a four-hour drive, stopping first in Thiva (ancient Thebes) to marvel at the ornate sarcophagi and Mycenaean palace masks in the archaeological museum.

Kamena Vourla is one of a plethora of hydrotherapy resort towns near the ancient city of Lamia. Its numerous springs are said to work magic on maladies, including sciatica and bronchitis, but I came to town to cure hunger pangs.

The resort's pretty bay-front promenade is fringed with an uninterrupted row of pastry shops. Lured by the heady scent of honey-crisp baklava, I joined the tangle of families out for the weekend and supped on moist chunks of walnut cake, karidopita, and iced tumblers of café frappé on one of their terraces.

A life-size bronze statue of Leonidas stood guard over the town of Thermopylae, just outside Kamena Vourla. Named for its hot springs, it's also the site of the Spartan king's suicide mission to defend Greece against the vastly superior troops of Persian king Xerxes in 480 BC.

A short hike from the hero's statue, past loose boulders as big as a giant's dice on the banks of the sulfur-scented Phoenix River, took me to a mineral-rich waterfall. Here, according to legend, Athena told Hercules to bathe and regain energy after his 12 labors.

I followed other bathers along a narrow, slippery path to the base of the skyscraper-high waterfall. Deafened by the noise of the water, I curled up, knees to chin, in a sauna tub-sized rock pool and gave myself up to the pummeling of the hot spray.

After my free treatment, my body ached as if I'd just left the fists of a too-energetic masseur, and sulfur residue stained my towel yellow, but my skin glowed and felt smooth and soft. "Sulfur has been used medicinally since ancient times and is a natural component of the cells of the body. … It's important for healthy skin, but also for nails, hair, bones and joints," said Maria Kounelakis, a fitness specialist at the nearby Thermae Platistomou Resort, a well-equipped spa complex where I was pampered that evening in the mineral water Turkish baths.

Early the next morning, a ferry from Aghia Marina, just outside Lamia, whisked me across the Euboean Gulf to the island of Evia. With 80 hot springs (and counting), the Euboea of Homer's "Iliad" sits on a bubbling cradle of geothermal energy, with water, heated nearly two miles below ground, spouting from the earth at 160 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit.

Edipsos, the island's main spa town, was popular with archaic greats from philosopher Aristotle to Roman Gen. Cornelius Sylla, and it enjoyed a between-the-wars revival when celebrities came for thermal R&R.

I skipped over the steaming streams that crisscrossed the paved alleys and headed for the Thermae Sylla Spa & Wellness Hotel overlooking the bay, where strong winds had forced Agamemnon and his fleet to seek shelter.

The lavishly refurbished spa is renowned for its algae treatments, so I decided to try one. After a gentle exfoliation, I was swaddled in heated bandages to open the pores, then coated with a thick algae paste smelling of pond water. "Algae wraps tone the body, firm the skin and soothe the muscles," Sofia the massage therapist told me as she wrapped me in a heated blanket.

Relaxing afterward in the spa's large indoor pool, which was bubbling with blood-hot, mineral-rich water, I felt every bit as good as the legendary ram that Medea rejuvenated in a cauldron of thermal spring water.

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