Expect the unexpected with a traditional Georgian bath
It was not so much the fact that I was naked that unnerved me, neither was it the fact I was face down on a hard marble slab. I can even get over the possibly unnecessary slapping on the arse by a burly Georgian man. It was however, the fact that the same robust Georgian man, who carried his body much better than I did, was just as naked, that made my experience in the famous sulphur baths of Tbilisi such a memorable one.
Now travelling is all about experiencing weird and wonderful things. I do love a massage, and will often look to treat myself to one whenever I am away, but this one was probably one of my most bizarre, and by far the most unique.
Tibilsi itself means ‘warm’ and the city was built on the natural springs. Although the number of baths in the old town has dwindled over time, traditional bathing in these 40°C springs is still very much part of the local culture. Locals still flock there to unwind, often whilst drinking and eating and this is seen as very much a social pastime. The traditional bricked domes that raise up from underground are set amongst the backdrop of the botanical gardens, and instantly gives you the impression of history and transports you back centuries in time. The sulphur steam is vivid as it vents its way out of the domes and gives you the first slightly eggy odour that will become more apparent inside.
I will do my best to describe what happened in the 75 minutes I spent as part of this tradition.
The previous day I went on a walking tour of Tbilisi and my guide had already recommended ‘The Royal Bath House’ or ‘King Erekle’s Bath’ as best for tourists. Due to the former being full I was left to visit the latter. I could not get away with the slightly seedy feel on arrival, perhaps it was the slightly shifty looks as a foreign guest walked in, or the line of masseurs sat waiting for their next client to arrive. Perhaps simply it was the small dark corridor I suddenly found myself standing in. I was nevertheless shown around the bath chamber to make sure I was happy with the arrangement and then left to get undressed in the small changing room next door. It is preferred that you are completely naked, but I understand you can wear a bathing costume if you like. I tried to immerse myself in the culture and went with the ‘when in Rome/Tbilisi’ attitude! The local man who showed me around and eventually gave the massage, spoke about five words of English and a few French words, so I was still a little confused as to exactly what would be happening! I was a bit startled as he shouted ‘douche’ repeatedly, until some of my GCSE French I studied 17 years previously came back to me and reminded me that he simply wanted me to have a shower.
The bathroom itself contained a six-foot marble plunge pool, a long massage slab and a shower. All looked dated, but were clean and added to the historic charm of the place. After I was asked to douche/shower I was told to enjoy the very hot relaxing bath in the plunge pool for about 15 minutes. And by hot, I mean hot. The type of hot when you run a bath and you forget to add any cold water, but this time without the luxury of being able to cool it down yourself. You certainly get a sweat on and I was starting to regret not taking a cold beer in with me. You quickly get used to the eggy sulphur smell and you certainly feel the warm water relaxing your body.
The masseur then returned, sporting a new pair of y-fronts! I was asked to move to the massage slab where
I was exfoliated, rubbed down, lathered up, dowsed in hot water and generally slapped around- it was quite brutal at times. I resembled a snowman at one stage as I had been lathered up so much, and I even sensed a feeling of enjoyment from the masseur as he was forcibly throwing water his unsuspecting victims face.
The most bizarre turn however was when the Georgian masseur decided to remove his Y-fronts and give himself a quick exfoliation! There was a moment when we were both naked and he was nonchalantly hurling water over both of us. Once he had finished his ‘routine’ I returned to the bath for a final relax for half an hour or so, and to let what had just happened sink in, as my masseur left me in private. I was politely informed that my time was up by the flickering of the light switch on and off, but by that time my body had found the heat too much and I was simply paddling over the side of the bath.
The total price was 52 GEL ($20, 16GBP) including the massage, but 32 of that was hiring the room out, so if you were to go with friends or your partner then that cost would obviously be shared. And to be fair, although a little unconventional, my skin felt super soft and I certainly felt relaxed. Even though it was minus temperatures outside, by body was still really hot so it certainly needs a few post massage beers to cool down (which you can buy in there if you want). A strange experience yes, but one I would definitely recommend to do if you ever find yourself in Tbilisi!