The town of Caldes de Malavella has been renowned throughout the Province of Girona since Roman times for its mineral water and thermal springs that are said to have healing properties. The municipality’s coat of arms is even a girl bathing in a tub with a silver cauldron on each side. But did you know how the town got its name and what it actually means?
What’s in a name?
The “Caldes” part is pretty straightforward: it translates from Catalan into English as “mineral water baths that spring from the earth at a temperature higher than the ambient temperature”; or, in short, thermal springs. You may occasionally see it spelt as ”Caldas”, which has the very same meaning, only in Castellano. Both come from the Latin name Aquae Calidae (hot waters) given to the town by the Romans. Either way, the waters here are rich in sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate and spring up at up to 60c. The second part of the name – “de Malavella” – comes from a local legend, recorded in documents dating back to as long ago as 1057, that says a “bad old woman” once lived in a now-ruined castle just outside town. “Malavella” in Catalan comes from two words: mala (bad) and vella (old woman). So the name of the town could be translated as “The Thermal Springs of the Evil Auld One”!
The Castles of Caldes de Malavella
There were once two castles at Caldes de Malavella. On the hill of Sant Maurici, just over 2km from the old Roman nucleus of the town, are the remains of the old Castell de Malavella. This 11th century castle was the one where lived the evil old lady and, although only the ruins remain today, it was once of significant proportions. According to the legend, the evil old woman (who, naturally, was also hunchbacked, of course!), had made a deal with the devil promising that she would hold power over the inhabitants of the region as long as she ate the heart of a small child every night. Maurici, an outsider, came to the area and heard about the disappearance of so many children, discovered the old witch’s pact with the devil and (not being of the region) was able to promptly drove her out of her castle, banishing her forever from the region. (The precise wording is always important when striking bargains with the devil!) The town celebrates the event on the last Saturday of every April with the Festa de la Malavella and also marks the feast of Sant Maurici on 22 September at the hermitage dedicated to the saint which was later built using the stones of the towers of the ruined castle, which seems kind of apt.
Within the town itself some sections of town walls and three circular towers can still be seen today at Puig de Sant Grau, within what would have been the Roman nucleus of the town. This is where the old Roman baths were and the remains of the towers also mark where the Castell de Caldes once stood, documented for the first time back in 1362 when the Bishop of Girona stopped there to take the waters. It was actually built right on the site of the old baths and became a symbol of local feudal power within the Barony of Llagostera. The baths were not accessible by the public during those times but years later were used as a hospice for their curative properties. At different stages during the last century major archaeological excavations were carried out to uncover the site, but it was discovered that its exposure was causing further deterioration. A four-sided protective roof using wood and glass panels and supported by metal pillars was built to protect the more delicate features around the walls while leaving the central part open to the sky allowing natural light in.
In addition to what’s left of the castles, there is also the Romanesque Church of Sant Esteve, originally built in the 11th century but greatly reformed and modified in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Caldes de Malavella is located in what is called the Selva Depression, an ancient tectonic ditch caused by large faults and volcanic activity. It is also on what once used to be the historic Via Augusta, the longest Roman road on the entire Iberian peninsula that ran from Narbonne all the way to Cádiz with a spur to the important port city of Cartagena. Archaeological digs tell us that there was plenty of human activity in the area long before the Romans arrived, and also that in the centuries after them a number of other civilizations passed by this way too and also left their footprint. Aquae Calidae was different from other Roman cities, usually founded for military or strategic interest, in that it was born mainly for health and leisure purposes. People came to use the baths as the thermal waters were believed to have healing qualities and its position on the Via Augusta made it a popular refreshment stop for travellers.
So, Caldes de Malavella has been a well-connected town since ancient times. As well as being on the Via Augusta it later became a crossroads of several Caminos Reales, or “royal roads”, between Barcelona and Girona in the Middle Ages and also a point of access to the Costa Brava. Nowadays, Girona-Costa Brava airport is very close by and Caldes is also on the railway line that runs between Girona and Barcelona.
The Railway Station
Caldes de Malavella railway station was inaugurated in 1862 and is of a style typical of the 19th century with symmetrical cornices and windows. It became a vital addition to the town almost immediately, bringing visitors who wanted to avail of both the town’s thermal springs and its proximity to the beautiful beaches of the Costa Brava. Later, during WW2, the station came to be of strategic use when over 1000 soldiers from the Italian navy came through the station in the first couple of months of 1944 and were held in Caldes. In October 1943, following the ousting of Mussolini a couple of months earlier, Italy had switched sides in the war and declared war on its former ally Germany. Although Franco’s Spain was officially neutral in the war, in reality it favoured the Axis powers following their aid during the Spanish Civil War, and to whom Spain was indebted, and so the Italians, now officially enemies of the Third Reich, were held captive for a while. In April a number of the Italian sailors attempted to escape on a freight train, but were caught and sent to a concentration camp in Miranda de Ebro, Burgos. (This camp was one of a number of such established under Franco during the Spanish Civil War and was in fact the last one to close in 1947 – 8 years after the Civil War ended.) The remaining Italians were eventually sent back to Italy on a 30-carriage train that left Caldes two months later. From November 1944 through the end of WW2, and even for a while afterwards, Nazi spies would arrive at Caldes de Malavella railway station to be accommodated in the spa hotels, chalets and villas in the town. WW2 was a pretty complicated time in “The Thermal Springs of the Evil Auld One”!
Nowadays the rail travel through Caldes is a bit more mundane. Although trains heading up into France don’t stop at the station, it’s only a 15-minute hop to Girona where you can board an AVE/TGV for Paris, Lyon and Marseille. If you’re heading south to Barcelona and beyond there are regular trains that take 70-75 minutes, plus a few others that take the scenic route along the coast that take about 110 minutes if you’re in no hurry.
Walking and cycling trails
As well as being on important road and rail routes, Caldes is also an ideal base for anyone who enjoys walking and cycling in the country air. If cycling is your thing you’ll probably already know about the Vies Verdes, and if not, then you should check them out! The Vies Verdes are part of a larger circular cycling route known as the Pirinexus that runs from Sant Feliu de Guíxols at its most southerly point all the way into the French Pyrenees and back again. There are a number of spurs off the main Pirinexus routes, and one of these (off the Carrilet II section) is called the Thermal Greenway – and guess where that ends up: yep, Caldes de Malavella! Of course you can walk the trails as well as cycle them and there are plenty more signposted hiking routes around Caldes too – about 150km of them in total in fact. The Municipality of Caldes de Malavella covers 56km² and its forests include groves of oak, cork oak, holm oak and pine with routes suitable for all fitness levels. If you just want to go for a bit of a wander in the local countryside without exerting yourself too much at all, you could just stroll out to the ruins of the Castell de Malavella where the Evil Auld One is supposed to have lived, and then check out the crater of Camp dels Ninots with its opal deposits and the Bosc Terapèutic on the way back to town. It should take you about 90 minutes in total.
Also nearby, just in case you want to spend even more hours in the countryside, is the PGA Catalunya Golf and Wellness Resort. Just over 4km from Caldes, their “Stadium Course” regularly plays host to PGA European Tour Events and is claimed to be the No.1 golf resort in all Spain. As their name suggests though, it’s not just all about the golf. Apart from their two golf courses, there is also a 5 star hotel, a wellness centre, a range of activities on offer and 5 restaurants offering a selection of local gastronomy and fine dining.
Speaking of gastronomy, you’ll probably have worked up quite an appetite after all that fresh air! Caldenc gastronomy is based on traditional Catalan cuisine, using its unique native ingredient, the thermal water, to bring out the best in local recipes while also emphasizing its health benefits. In other words: Caldenc cuisine is thermal cuisine! There are a number of restaurants in and around the town as well as some more upscale establishments in the spa resorts.
And so to the famed water itself. Although the thermal springs had been renowned for centuries, it wasn’t until the 19th century that Caldes de Malavella really became a proper spa town. It was then that the spa resorts began to be built, bringing with them an increase in both economic activity and population with many of the new arrivals being wealthy folk from Barcelona who built impressive chalets and villas for themselves. Today there are a couple of spa and wellness centres exploiting the thermal waters where you can enjoy hydrothermal therapies and treatments, including swimming pools, saunas, inhalations, pressure showers, horizontal showers, massages, lymphatic drainage, slimming or firming treatments, and other therapies related to beauty and welfare.
The springs that made it all possible were located on three hills: El Puig de les Ànimes (3 springs), El Puig de Sant Grau (4 springs) and El Puig de les Moleres (2 springs). The first of the modern baths, Balneari Prats, was established in 1840 with the other best known balneares belong to Vichy Catalan being inaugurated in 1898 (the same year as FC Palamós, the oldest football club in Catalunya!). The commercialisation of mineral water for drinking also started in the 1800s but did not really build up a head of steam (!) until the 1930s. Nowadays, as well as its spas, Caldes de Malavella is also synonymous with its bottled mineral water 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.
The wealthy folk from Barcelona weren’t the only ones to enjoy the spa resorts of Caldes de Malavella however. In December 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the Vichy Catalan spa was converted into the “Girona District Military Clinic No. 2” and ended up with over 1,000 wounded soldiers, even though the maximum capacity should only have been 800. Later, during WW2, a number of Jewish refugees of multiple nationalities, mostly women and children who had escaped into Spain across the Pyrenees, were also given shelter there but when the Italian sailors we mentioned earlier were brought to Caldes, the Jewish refugees had to be moved on.
After the war ended ended, several former Nazis also stayed there, spending their time playing football on nearby pitches, and chess and dominoes in the Tea Room. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was supposedly responsible for maintenance costs, but rarely paid, resulting in the spa director filing a claim for an outstanding payment of 85,000 pesetas. We’re not sure if he had any luck!
The Balneari Prats also accommodated refugees and Italian sailors during the war and in late 1944 a high-ranking Nazi spy called Meino von Eitzen spent some time there recovering from war wounds. He must have liked it because he survived the war and his family came back to summer there in later years.
Caldes de Malavella today
Nowadays Caldes is a quiet and tranquil, even sleepy, town, but with plenty to do in the surrounding area. For some it’s a commuter town or just a handy place to park-and-ride on the railway line serving Girona and Barcelona. For others it’s a perfect place for golfing or to go hiking or cycling the beautiful trails in the region, but it’s mostly famous as a perfect place to come chill out, destress and recuperate in one of the spa resorts that have been treating and healing people since the Romans were around.