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Monday, March 24, 2014

Sulfur Baths Relaxation

   I love Tbilisi sulfur baths - uniquely Tbilisian, casually mentioned in several books I read long time ago. The whole bath area is one of the oldest in Tbilisi. There’s a monastery on the left that is built upon wine cellar built upon church built upon a house built upon a cemetery….dating couple of thousand years…if you’ve done any Tbilisi research (or went to a Georgian school), you know that here the king-killed peasant fell into a hot sulfur river, thus prompting him to establish capital city in the middle of the forest. Hence the name Tbilisi (warm).
   According to Wikipedia, 65 sulfur baths operated in Tbilisi in XIII century. Most of the modern baths were created in XIX century. Of course, the insides were renovated during soviet times, ruined during 90ies, some of them renovated again for the modern consumer. But the walls and interior counts 2 centuries, which is impressive in my book.
   Sulfur is known for antiseptic and medicinal purposes. So people went there to feel better. Later, in infinite history of female discrimination, future mother-in-laws took young girls to check out their bodies for defects. Legend has it that my grandfather took my father there to check out his potential for giving offspring. As a result of the successful inspection, I am typing this post today.
   Tbilisi sulfur baths have been traditionally gay-friendly since XIX, a tradition that did not die during soviet times, when baths became a main place to seek a partner, under a regime that imprisoned homosexuals. Research has it that men looked at each other and wrote phone numbers on the walls.
   For a recent while, baths turned into brothels (as did all the hotels and any rent-a-bed place in Tbilisi), where sex-hungry Tbilisian males would bring girls, bang them on a couch in a private pre-bath room and then, I guess, disinfect in a pool of sulfur spring (just my sick fantasies). This reputation still hangs upon some of the baths and though many places successfully moved on to regular spa services, some of my friends’ husbands still act very offended when I try to get their wives into the baths.
   As for my practical experience: I used to go to the Chreli Abano (the one with beautiful Persian-style blue ornaments); ironically I used to go with my mother-in-law :-) It was freshly renovated. They closed it indefinitely. So after wandering around to Royal Baths, Baths #5 and others, I finally chose my favorite – it is an old XIX century bath, away from the main dome-shaped ones. You have to walk up a bit, see a sign “Bohema” (that’s a fancy restaurant), follow the sign and discover the bath next to it. Other baths were not that well-kept. My favorite Orbeliani baths have original XIX century bricks inside. Regular rooms are smaller than in other baths though. Usually, renting a private bath means you get two rooms: one for de-clothing and resting and one with big tub/small pool of constantly running hot sulfur water. It cost around 50-80 Lari/per hour, depending on the place. Most baths also provide “lux” option – you get a bigger tub and sauna and pay 90-120 Lari. Sauna is redundant, of you ask me. Being in naturally-steamed room and occasionally dipping your body into hot sulfur water does the trick.
   Please do not attempt public rooms. Dirty and unappealing. It’s much better to find two friends and share the cost.
   I recommend paying for hour and a half. Hour is just not enough to strip clothes, get into the pool, get out, get in, etc. speaking of clothes, nude bathing is healthier and more comfortable. I’ve taken timid American friends there who quickly shed their polyester swimming suits and enjoyed diversity of human bodies. It feels librating. Just bring a customary sheet to wrap your body when you’re out.
   Finally, order some 5 Lari tea. You’ll get thirsty. Let your pores breath. It feels great once you get over the smell :-)
P.S. Pic: Orbeliani baths.

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