Public means: accessible to all, no changing rooms, no fees, open. Private baths are often associated with resorts or hotels, may have specific hours and seasons and are often modernized (including dressing rooms, lockers, etc.). Oh, and at least re: this wintery time of year, the private baths are busier.
I wanted free, open, authentic. So we went for public baths, though were fortunate to have a private bath fee inclusive in one of our stays so experienced the posh side of terme as well. In the end---private or public---no two baths are alike. In fact, they aren't even close.
The temperatures vary from body temperature to a the hottest of hot tubs. Some smell heavily of sulfur, and some only offer a faint glimmer of their sulfury source. Some baths are small, some large; some are more like a waterfall and others have all sorts of pools lined up for the taking. Some merge with large rivers, so you can jump from hot to cold... the experiences are as diverse as the baths that populate Tuscany---and there are many.
Here are 5 pictures and quick excerpts re: the baths we sought and sank into. All 5 are in Tuscany, south of Sienna. In order:
- Terme di Saturnia: cascading waterfall pools, body temp. Out of a dream!
- San Casciano dei Bagni: smallish, hot tub temps, relatively unknown.
- Terme di Sorano: private. Included actual pool where boys used goggles; just above body temp. (can also pay for massage, other services, etc.). Quite busy.
- Bagni di San Filippo: calcium deposits look like huge snow drift. Really hot water spilling over. Runs into river. Hiked a path to find it; boys LOVED this one!
- Bagni di Petriolo: hot hot wonderfully hot. Smallish hot-tub like pools to populate with friends. runs into cool river---nice contrast. Busiest of them all (at least the day we visited). Bring wine!