one of the things the capital of Georgia-the-country is famous for are the sulfur-rich thermal baths, and whenever i’m in a place with a hammam culture, i gotta check it out!
all of the bathhouses are consolidated in a small area just to the southeast of the old town called Abanotubani which is identifiable not only by the domes of the bathhouse roofs but by that unmistakable hot springs smell. this blog post i found lists them, and based on this post, decided on Bath Fantasy, one that’s slightly off the beaten bath (at least, i think they are all talking about the same ones). as an aside, i went a little before noon.
the one i chose (which, given my experience below, seems like a reasonable choice) is pretty easy to find as long as you follow some landmarks: if you’re standing where i took the panorama above, start up the hill on the road on the left side of the picture.
you’ll see a sign for Bohema restaurant on one of the walls of a building (just to the top right of center in this next photograph):
what to expect
in most bathhouses you have a choice of hanging out (literally, as most people do it nekkid, from what i’ve read) in a public bath or getting a private room. i went with a private one, and i suspect most people should too. from then on out it’s a very similar hammam experience to others you may have experienced. if you’ve never been to a hammam before, don’t worry — you can’t muck things up because ain’t nobody around to judge you!
it cost me 52 lari (almost $22) for an hour-long experience: 30 lari for the room for an hour (which i don’t believe is per person, so if you’re going with friends you can split that cost, although depending on number you may be placed into a larger room that costs more), 10 lari for a scrub and 10 lari for a massage, and 2 lari for a towel (pretty much a large cotton sheet). the lady that helped me at the front desk spoke English fairly well and i think they take credit card, although i paid in cash (only because i withdrew some in case they didn’t take card).
i was shown to my room and told to soak in the tub for 15 minutes until the guy came in to give me my scrub and massage. this was great! a (relatively) clean, private experience where you’re not being eyed as a tourist (even though i suspect most people who go to the baths in Tbilisi are not locals anymore) — and no worries of committing some sort of faux pas because you’re the only one around!
there’s an anteroom with a bench to put your stuff on and a table and chair if you want to sit or hang out (with a drink menu of water, soda, tea and the like). a door leads to the actual bath which has a soaking tub straight ahead, showers to the left, and the massage/scrub table on the right.
i stripped down to my birthday suit and gave myself a rinse under one of the showers before gingerly sitting down in the tub. MAN IS IT HOT AND SMELLY. if you’re from Iceland this water smells just like your normal water, or if you’ve ever been to a geyser in Yellowstone, same smell. rotten eggs everywhere! but yeah, the water is HOT. it definitely takes a few minutes (if not more) to get acclimated and for a while i kept standing up to cool off before sitting back down again.
after 15 minutes or so, a guy came in (in swimming trunks) and proceeded to give me a light scrub with a scrubbing mitt and then a soapy rubdown with one of the largest shower poufs i’ve ever seen. his English was ok and there was only minimal trouble understanding his commands (lay down, flip over, sit up, etc.). i wish the scrub and the massage were a bit more thorough — i have had much better exfoliations and painful-body-bending in other countries. this was for sure the weakest part of the whole hour — i’m not sure if he half-assed it or what, but it was very meh. if i did this again, i would probably skip both of those and just do the 30 lari for the room (and 2 for the towel).
after he was done, he told me to rinse off in the shower and then go back into the hot water for 2 minutes, then stand under the shower for 2 minutes, and repeat until my time was up. by this point i had gotten comfortable with the hot water and really started to relax. i left the shower running with a cool stream of water and dutifully did my rotations. while it was nice to cool off under the shower i (surprisingly, given how hard it was to get used to) began to like the hot bath and ultimately 2 minutes seemed like too short of a time for each. i probably did four or five rotations before taking a nice long cold rinse to cool off (though really, it’s so warm and humid in there you’re sweating when you emerge no matter what you do).
yeah, i tried to dry off but with the cotton sheet and the humidity you can only do so much — i put my clothes back on and headed out, so relaxed. i didn’t expect to be so tired and lethargic (in a good way) afterwards:
i just stood there for a good five or ten minutes cooling and drying off (well, that was my excuse anyway for not wanting to move) before forcing myself to head to the subway stop (Avlabari — which is up a hill and, as such, not ideal for my newly rubbery state). i headed straight back to my Airbnb and plopped into bed for a three hour nap — which i just woke up from.
some dos and don’ts
- …make a reservation if you’re in high season and wanting to visit during busy times of day (which i think are evenings, but i could be wrong). i was worried i couldn’t get in without a reservation but the place i went to was pretty dead so it may just be that i lucked out with timing or reservations may not be necessary (though from what i’ve read in other blog posts, it seems like people are always calling ahead?)
- …bring your own towel if you feel like lugging stuff around to save yourself some money. i use the slippers provided by them but i suppose you could bring your own flip flops too.
- …go during the heat of summer days unless you’re prepared to sweat like a pig when you leave.
- …worry about not bringing any supplies with you — i didn’t and as long as you’re fine using their slippers and being naked (only to be seen by the massage/scrub guy or gal), you’re good to go!
- …forget to just relax despite being thrown into a completely new situation — there was a point after the massage guy left and i was sitting in the tub when something in my mentality switched and i started to really enjoy it and just let everything go and soaked in bliss.
bonus food tip
thanks to foursquare i went to a place called Retro Cafe (not far from there) for breakfast (they open at 10) and got the “Caucasian Breakfast” — so yummy with air-dried cured sausage and a crisp edible bowl!