Visiting the Sulphur Baths in Tbilisi
On my recent trip to Tbilisi I finally figured out how to arrange a visit to the legendary sulphur baths and what happens when you get there. This post probably contains tmi (too much – personal – information), you have been warned.
The Sulphur Baths in Abanotubani, in the midst of the old town in Tbilisi are famed to be the source of the city’s existence. When the city was contained within walls, visiting merchants along the spice route were ordered to use one of the 64 baths before they were allowed to enter. The name Tbilisi comes from the Georgian word for warm ‘თბილი—tbili’ so the site of the city was probably dictated by the location of the hot, sulphurous springs. Legend has it that in the 5th century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali’s hunting falcon brought back a pheasant which had been poached in the warm water and ordered his capital moved there. There is evidence that the Romans, legendary bathers, settled here too. The number of baths have dwindled to a handful but are still a fascinating sight from outside with their brick domes rising up out of the ground. The water, full of natural therapeutic minerals, springs from the ground at about 40 C. Poets and writers have bathed away their days (and hangovers) there including Pushkin and Dumas.
Drawn and repelled in equal measure by going to the baths, as someone who goes weak at the knees at the thought of hot water and a massage but completely lily-livered about contemplating embarrassing nakedness. This poetic post by my friend propelled me on, but fear of the unknown, including unacceptable levels of hygiene, filled me with trepidation; I’m not overly picky but wary after reading the accounts of hammams in Istanbul on Trip Advisor and this account …
However I took the plunge. A Georgian friend made an appointment for me and I asked which bath it was. “Oh you just go to the very back of the baths, there’s no sign, everyone knows Gulo’s.” I was now stressed on many levels, fear of getting lost, being naked, being ripped off, or immersed in filth. Luckily our guide briefed the taxi driver to take me to the door (it was pouring with rain too), even he had to ask directions twice, but it was actually quite easy to find.
Forget the Zen-like atmosphere of spas and their plinky plonky music. A couple of young men lurked outside the heavy wooden door and inside the large octagonal entrance children chattered on a sofa, ladies milled in and out of a kitchen, and the whole place had the feel of a rather odd living room. However, the lady on the desk was friendly and when I muttered indecisively in reply to her questions about sizes of rooms she just led me to one. OK? Yes I replied and also agreed to “washing” and a towel.
She instructed me to put my belongings on a battered vinyl sofa in an ante-room. Toilet? In the baths and it turned out to be a squat loo, basic but clean.
I believe that none of the baths have original tiling (probably a good thing for hygiene), even the most ornate Iranian-style baths at the top of the square, which is currently under renovation, had utilitarian Soviet-style interior. The walls of this one were covered with a modern irregular mosaic with brown tiles on the floor. It wouldn’t win prizes for beauty but there was an exotic feeling of being under an ancient brick dome with light streaming in from a round skylight. There was a tiled slab, two ropey looking basic showers and a big rectangular tub at the end which I slid into. A sulphurous cloud of vapour surrounded me and I displaced a big wave of water onto the floor. The heat of the water and a bird-brain mentality of not being able to do nothing for very long meant that the 15 minutes in the tub was just the right about of time to soak.
My therapist arrived. Topless. I gingerly hopped out of the bath and onto the slab – face down thank goodness. She scrubbed me back and front with a loofah mitt. The pressure was perfect for my hot-water-lobster-tinged skin; if you are used to the severe excoriations of Moroccan baths you might find it too tame but I’m sure you could ask for harder pressure. Soaping with a flannel, including a light massage, and sloshing with hot water followed. All stresses had evaporated by the end, although I still couldn’t make eye contact when asked to ‘sit’ and buckets of hot water were poured over my head. My masseuse asked “good?”. On my affirmative answer she proceeded to whip off her pants and shower thoroughly in front of me. I was too relaxed to care at this point and spent a little longer soaking before floating out to change in the ante-room. My towel was a very old, but clean, bit of cotton sheeting which actually did the job very well.
After I paid, a mixed party of Russian girls and boys were being shown round the larger room so I joined them to look. This was of more elegant proportions with a cold water bath too. When I started to take pictures the ladies were keen to show me everything including a bare portion of brickwork “antique”.
I felt my lungs had been cleared of the passive smoking from dinner the night before (Georgians chain smoke at the table in restaurants) although my friendly taxi driver also lit up on the way home. Argh! I was completely wiped out for the rest of the evening and enjoyed the complete sense of lethargy and relaxation this imposed for a night in. My skin stayed soft for days and days after. A big tick on my ‘to-do in Georgia’ bucket-list and overall spa-type experiences (including a hammam in Istanbul).
These pictures are by my friends who booked a larger room.
Where to find it
The Abanotubani area is not far from Gulo’s – walking towards the baths with the river behind you and the baths on your left, turn left into a small street between the domes, going up hill take the first right into a large car park style courtyard. In front of you are two doors. Gulo’s is the central door, dark wood with black iron fixings (there is no sign).
Or try one of the other baths in Abanotubani.
How much to pay
At Gulo’s I was charged 40 GEL for the room and 10 GEL for washing – and there for just over half and hour (some people spend hours there). Larger private rooms are at higher prices. I gave a tip too.
Other baths charge similar rates plus there is a much lower rate for communal bathing (not my cup of tea). Initially I asked the guide how much it would be and was quoted some silly prices so better to go direct in my opinion.
Other things to know
Taking your own towel is a good idea and going with a friend and booking the larger room is a more luxurious experience. Samira is our favourite masseuse. This bath didn’t appear to have lockers and I had a lot of expensive kit with me (cameras etc.). There is no hair drying facility to my knowledge so either take your own or take something to wrap around your head and go straight home.
Open 07:30am – 01:00am.
Address: Grishashvili 5
Food and Drink: If you are in need of sustenance after your bath, head towards the river and turn right along the main road. The large restaurant set back off the road is called Breadhouse (but only has signs in Georgian). I’ve eaten in both sides and the food is good, particularly the khinhali (dumplings).
This was part of a trip to Georgia courtesy of the Georgian National Tourism Administration, National Georgian Wine Agency, the Georgian Wine Club and Taste Georgia. My visit to the baths was paid for and arranged by me independently.
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