20 Jun 2021

RANDOM Times •

To survive, you must tell stories…(“,)

Salice Terme: the sad story of a beloved tourist destination and its decline

5 min read

Hotels no longer have a single free room, streets and nightclubs are overflowing with tourists, while flocks of photographers swarm from one limo to another in search of some VIPs.
Who will be the winner this year?
The jury is hard at work and will soon issue the verdict.
It seems like the description of one of the highlight days of the Venice or Cannes Film Festival.
But no, we are in Salice Terme, in the heart of the Po Valley, in the mid-1960s, when the spa town in the Province of Pavia, in addition to being one of the most renowned health centers in Northern Italy, was also in all the magazines a because of the intense social life it offered its visitors: prestigious concerts, dance evenings, sporting events, beauty contests and a prestigious film award.
In June 1964 it was Aldo Fabrizi who won the award as the best comedian of the year, to whom the organizers did not give a prize in money, but in durable goods, namely a piece of land and a beautiful villa near Salice.
It doesn’t matter if Fabrizi never set foot there, what mattered was to increase the sale or summer rental of villas in the area by displaying the names of VIPs.
It is difficult to imagine that today’s spa, after a long and painful failure and left to itself and neglect, had been one of the most chic places in Lombardy for many years.
With empty streets and businesses closed forever.

But let’s start from the beginning: the Salice thermal baths make use of waters from Fonte Sales, whose healing properties were already known in Roman times. Whole legions stopped there to heal and rest after the campaigns in Gaul or Northern Europe and even Julius Caesar, to whom a spring has been dedicated, apparently frequented Salice to cure himself of a bad psoriasis.
The center, however, began to take on its current form towards the end of the nineteenth century, when private companies sniffed out the economic deal and even came to think of selling water abroad, an idea that was wrecked very quickly for a clear (and predictable) opposition from the locals.
Like all other Lombard spas, the source meant work. Therefore, the water was not to be transported anywhere.
If anyone wanted to experience its benefits, he had to go there in person.
And in fact, starting from the Thirties, but especially after the World War II, Salice literally exploded, also thanks to the decision of the private individuals to sell the structure to the State which, starting from the Fifties, began to send here thousands of people with dermatitis or with breathing problems.
However, contrary to what one might think, not only human beings of poor health were wandering through the streets of Salice, but tourists of all ages, from young men to families with children.
In fact, Salice has a unique and privileged position, right in the middle of the Milan-Turin-Genoa industrial triangle: easy and quick to reach, and within the reach of most people’s pockets even if, behind the success of Salice, there was not only the privileged position and low costs, but also a continuous flourishing of summer events of all kinds that attracted every kind of people.
In fact, in the summer, Salice literally increased its population almost tenfold: from a thousand inhabitants to eight thousand, with a relative surge in house rents. It offered trendy shops and clubs, swimming pools and tennis courts, VIPs and ordinary people.
The town had an open-air cinema, nine restaurants, 16 hotels with over a thousand beds, nine tennis courts and six boules courts.

Dreams, however, don’t last forever.
The first hint that something was not going the right way in the Salice baths came in the mid-nineties with the decision of the former Dini government to privatize the state spa.
Thirteen centers in total, including that of Salice, which for almost a decade had been showing profoundly red balance sheets, were privatized.
A first alarm bell was followed by a second shortly after. In 2003, in fact, the Terme di Salice concluded a contract with Juventus to host their summer retreat, but within 12 months the deal fell through as a hole in the accounts of over four million emerged.
It was the beginning of the end.
The vacationers who arrived by bus went from several thousand to a few hundred, while at the same time the one-week vacation in the Maldives was becoming a mass phenomenon.
This is how the ultra-centennial history of the Terme di Salice ends, in a courtroom amidst stamped papers and judicial documents, with a gap of 10 million euros.
Nothing remains of the dance evenings and concert lights of the 1960s.

Along the tree-lined avenue that leads to the center of the little town, the doors of clubs and discos are locked.
The excitement of the summer months, the music, the crowded tables of the outdoor bars, clash with today’s silence.
For restaurants and pubs it is not convenient to stay open during the rest of the year, with signs hanging from the lowered shutters with the words “See you in spring” and the outdoor terraces covered with dry leaves and stacked chairs.
The fact that during the winter season there is a decrease in the number of tourists has always been a constant for the town of beneficial waters, but today traders and hoteliers struggle at any time of the year and, in many cases, they give up, and eventually they close their doors.
The empty hotels and abandoned bar tables remain, but also the echo of those words spoken by Ada Negri during one of her stays: “In Salice you dream and heal”, to whom the centuries-old oak of the Park saved from abandonment is dedicated.