With the distinctive dome-shaped bathhouse roofs and elaborately tiled entrances, there are few sights more representative of Tbilisi than Abanotubani–the bath district. Legend has it that Tbilisi wouldn’t be here without it–in the 5th century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali found his hunting falcon poached in the same sulfuric waters that feed today’s bathhouses. Dazzled by the waters, the king ordered his capital moved to the spot, which he named Tbilisi, based on the Georgian word “tbili,” or “warm.” Today, a monument to Gorgasali overlooks Abanotubani from across the Mtkvari River, and a small statue of a falcon can be found among the brick domes.
Documentation of the hot springs goes back to the 10th century when an Arab geographer, Abu Dulaf, noted in his diary that “the water in Tbilisi boils without fire,” but recent archeological excavations indicate an even earlier settlement — Roman-style baths with plumbing that date to the 1st century. The Abanotubani baths are built along Persian traditions, but unlike the water in Persian baths (which are manually heated) the water in Tbilisi naturally comes from the earth with a temperature ranging between 75 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit.
The bathing tradition caught on quickly, aided by the city’s historic position at the nexus of the Silk Road. By the 13th century, there were 63 baths in the area, according to Tbilisi historian Tsira Elisashvili. In the early 19th century, Russian visitors described 10, about the same number that exist today. Known for their healing powers, the Tbilisi baths were strongly recommended to Russian invalids and city-dwellers, who traveled through the difficult mountain passes to “take the waters.” Famous bathers include Dumas and Pushkin; the latter enjoyed them so much that he penned an epithet you can see on a plaque outside the Orbeliani baths today.
Abanotubani is a predominately ethnic Azeri district (visitors will note the recently installed bust of Heydər Əliyev), so many of the bathhouse employees are Azeri or have Azeri roots. But the gentrification of Old Tbilisi is making its mark on the neighborhood’s traditional lifestyles, and many locals are no longer interested in visiting the baths. Another tradition, known as the “bride check” (in which potential brides met their future female in-laws at the baths, so the girl’s body could be examined for defects) disappeared almost entirely over the last few decades, although this is probably for the better.
However, there are a handful of expat groups (it seems to fluctuate with the enthusiasm of the grantees and volunteers stationed in Tbilisi each year) that make a point to keep the tradition alive and visit Tbilisi’s oldest public bath (Bathhouse #5, approaching its third century) on a weekly basis. Because I have not yet been initiated into the Tbilisi women’s banya group, a few of my friends met up and we decided to book a private bath together–“Bakhmaro” run by the mercurial Gulo (599 58 81 22). Each of us paid 20 lari for an hour and a half (there were only four of us; many prefer to go in larger groups to split up the price)–our suite contained a sitting room (you can order tea and water), massage table, showers, bathroom, and a large hot tub.
Two of my friends had already been, and told me that the full experience (we decided to opt out of massages to save another 10 lari each) starts with a long soak, followed by a rigorous massage on a slab of marble. The masseur/masseuse then uses a coarse mitt to exfoliate the skin–I have heard mixed reviews about this; some describe the after effects as refreshing, while others describe it as being rubbed raw over the entire surface of your body. This is followed by soap and a rinse.
Some advice for bathers:
- No, sulfur doesn’t smell good. You will probably smell Abanotubani before you see it–a bit like pungent eggs. I swear I sometimes smell it on the metro (between Freedom Square and 300 Aragveli) and become terrified that the underground system is going to be flooded by some long-forgotten sulfuric aquifer, and I’ll drown in boiling fart-water. But personal nightmares aside, it’s not unbearable and has several documented health benefits: sulfur is used as a topical treatment for skin conditions like eczema and acne, and soaking in sulfur water is known to reduce swelling, which can alleviate arthritis and muscle/joint pain.
- Don’t eat too close beforehand! The water and general atmosphere can be hot, especially if you book a suite with a sauna. You might get nauseous. But going on a totally empty stomach can also make you dizzy. Note: “I’m going to the baths soon” is the only excuse that Georgian bebias will accept in good grace when it comes to declining food.
- If you don’t know Georgian well, don’t worry. Most of the bath employees prefer Russian (or, if you know it, Azeri can get you bonus points).
- There are public baths (2-4 lari, with an extra 8-15 for a massage) and private baths (priced by the hour for a suite of rooms, usually 50-70 an hour). Public baths are divided by gender, but there’s no issue booking co-ed private suites. The public bath is basically just a place to go for a hot shower (many people in the old town do not have regular hot water): you pay the small entrance fee (which covers a locker), and you can bring your own extras (soap, towels, flip flops) or pay to use the ones there. It isn’t exactly luxurious or a place to hang out in the way that private suites are, but if your hot water at home stops working, it’s a good backup.
- Don’t plan to do anything afterward–the baths are very relaxing and you will not feel like working, partying, running errands, or doing anything aside from having a large meal and then sleeping. We planned our bath on a random week night, so it would be easy to get a booking and so we could have dinner and drinks afterwards at a nearby Ossetian place.
- Don’t bother with a bathing suit. Like in Russian banyas, the expectation is that you will have a towel toga (all bathhouses will provide one if you ask) and that’s about it. Be prepared for nudity.
Rimple, Paul. “Georgia: Soaking Up the Dying Tradition of Massage in the Tbilisi Baths.” Eurasianet, 2012.