While in Tbilisi, Georgia, we had an opportunity to visit the city’s famed sulphur baths. Not that popular in Europe, but as you go further south-east, say towards Bulgaria, Turkey and then to the Caucasus, the idea of hot communal baths gradually becomes more common.
Right in the city centre, we could see this beautiful building, adorned with its blue-tile mosaic façade and its beehive-looking domes sticking above the ground. We didn’t really know what to expect, but I guess, you must try these things in life to find out. So in we went.
Despite not having even entered the building, we could smell the intense, well recognizable odor of sulphur. ‘We’re in the right place,’ I thought. Right at the entrance a woman behind the counter made us choose one of two options: a small private room where we could experience the baths together or three times cheaper communal baths divided according to sex. As we thought the second option seemed more authentic, we decided to split and experience the baths on our own.
First, to the changing room. A standard changing room, with a line of lockers and a line of women undressing themselves. And the familiar feeling of a person, who doesn’t often go the gym and all of a sudden has to undress herself in front of a group of strangers. I put on my bikini, but the ladies quickly made me understand that it wasn’t the right dress code. Fair enough, let’s do it naked if we must.
The proper bathing place was a small room, which looked more like a communal shower than a communal bath. There was no actual bath or any water container whatsoever. Instead there was a pipe running beneath the sealing and providing hot sulphury water tipping on people’s heads. And as you might expect from a communal bath, there were obviously no separate showers or any curtains.
As I entered the bathing room, for a few seconds I could see nothing but a thick cover of sulphur-smelling steam. When I got used to the steamy conditions, my eyes registered the most curious look. Under the pipe, there was a line of women. And every single one of them was shaving her intimate bits. Not something you often see in Europe.
On the opposite side, there was a wooden bench with a fat naked old lady who, speaking to me in Russian (which I wasn’t used to yet, giving that it was our third or fourth day in the Caucasus), offered me a massage. I couldn’t simply say no, so I took the beating and rubbing, and the pouring of boiling-hot sulphury water on my head with pride.
That was all I witnessed in the women’s part of the baths. What Jon encountered, he can tell you himself…
The changing rooms of the men’s sulphur baths provided the first taste of what was to follow. Several fat, hairy men naked as the day they were born, with the obligatory cigarette drooping from the corners of their mouths.
Using the international sign language for what I hoped was a massage, I managed to organise something to happen at some point but the finer details would have to be worked out later as my Russian wasn’t really beyond the job of pleasantries and asking how much is it. Being British the state of nakedness doesn’t come naturally to me, but seeing that now was not the time for coyness I stripped off and headed through the wooden partition door, into the baths themselves.
The smell, like how I imagine being trapped inside a thermometer or a stomach must be like, intense yet cool, hit me as soon as I entered. The bath was designed over 2 levels. Along the left wall were showers with two other sulphur pools dotted against the back and right walls. There were also a few marble slabs which I supposed would be used for the massage.
After overcoming the original smell my eyes were drawn to another strange feature of the room. Along the left wall were seven or eight men showering. Not so strange you might think but I was taken aback by the fact that they were all shaving. Now shaving, in my experience, is a private activity, best undertaken alone, but for these men it was a communal. When they had finished the accessible areas they then took to shaving each other’s necks. All naked, forming a kind of shaving train.
After observing this scene for a moment I decided to take a dip in one the pools. The baths were almost silent the entire time I was in there and this, mixed with warm sulphur pools and intoxicating smell, gave a unique and spellbinding effect. Bliss, tranquil bliss, no more heavy bags, twenty minute walks to find a bottle of water, meeting places and back-up plans, all of that mattered a little less. On the upper level was a sauna and cold bath combo familiar to many.
After some initial confusion I remembered that I had organised a massage and went to the marble tablet. The men’s massage was not for the light-hearted. After being lathered up the burly masseur decided to introduce his elbow to my back, repeatedly, then flipped me over and worked over the ribs. Still, all that rib tension must really have been worked through as they have been relatively docile ever since. Still, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience.
Just as my time was coming to an end another European entered. As he did, I gave praise to my earlier courage. He was wearing long swimming trunks and shyly trying to cover his upper body with a towel. What is the Georgian for ‘who’s the twat in the trunks?’
Only after visiting the Tbilisi old town, with its shabby old houses and run-down alleys, did we understand the purpose of this shaving-business phenomenon. Some of those buildings defied all the laws of physics and geometry, and looked like they had no right to still be standing. Seeing their walls leaning in all possible directions and roofs looking as if they were attached by a piece of string, we understood there was no way they had decent (if any) bathrooms in their houses, which explains the common use of communal baths.
Address: Orbeliani Baths, Abano street (აბანოს), Old Town.
written by: Ania & Jon
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