In a city that - despite being visually attractive - has little in the way of tourist attractions, the sulphur baths of Tbilisi are a welcome diversion from viewing churches and musuems. On a three month trip you can suffer culture fatigue after a while but it was nice to know that even in indulging ourselves and shunning the churches, we were experiencing a little bit of Georgian culture that goes back to the founding of the capital city.
It is claimed that Tbilisi was founded in the fifth century; the legend says that King Gorgasali was hunting for deer and shot one that fell into a hot sulphur spring. The deer strangely and miraculously healed and this is how the restorative powers of the sulphur springs was discovered.
However, it is more likely that Tbilisi existed as a stopping off point on the Silk Road at least a century before this but one thing is certain - the King moved the capital from Mtskheta to Tbilisi, most probably on the grounds that the water springs would provide a good means of heating the city. Even today, some districts of Tbilisi use the warmth from the underground springs to heat their homes.
The "Abanotubani" is the name given to the district in the Old Town of Tbilisi where there is a whole street (Abanos kucha) of public bathhouses that use the hot sulphurous waters (abano means "bath", ubani means "district). The baths themselves are underground, but beehive-like domes are above the ground and now and again little blasts of steam spurt out of one of the vents in the domes. There is a gentle whiff of slightly eggy sulphurous gas in the air but this is only really in the immediate area (unlike -say - Iceland where the smell is there most places you go).
Unlike the hammam or Turkish baths, the sulphur baths are much more a social and medical event than a spiritual one. As a result there are no restrictions in bathing for mixed sex groups or couples. Furthermore, men may go naked (which is strictly forbidden in a hammam) and so more modest bathers may prefer to take a private bathing room.
We went to the Orbeliani baths which are reputed to be the most impressive. We were confused at first because this one does not have steps that descend from street level to the entrance. Instead you enter through a rather ornate entrance that, with its pointed arch and blue mosaic tiles, looked more like a mosque than my idea of a sulphur baths complex. The heat and the sulphurous smell hit you when you enter but you you quickly become accustomed to it.
One of the ladies on reception spoke a little English and explained the pricing system. There was a small room available and she took us along a dimly lit corridor, swimming in water and halfway along threw open the door to an even more dimly lit room that looked only to contain a plastic patio chair.
Further inspection revealed a place to hang clothes and , in a very dark corner, some steps going into the a small bathing pool.
However, before we could agree another member of staff came along to say that a larger room had just become free. This room had a separate dressing room which was much better as it offered more chance of keeping our outdoor clothes dry. In this room was a leather-look two seater sofa and a hanging area for clothes.
Beyond this room was the actual bathing room; there was a pool in the corner with three steps going up to it. Above the pool was a brick dome and through the narrow vent came a faint chink of daylight. Alongside it was a big marble slab that was very warm - similar to the hot slab in a hammam. On the opposite wall were two shower heads.
The room was ours for one hour for around £6.00; for an extra fee we could have had a wash and massge but since we were taking a room together we decided against this. We had brought our own towels but we could have hired a towel from reception.
Now, the most curious thing about the sulphur baths is not the eggy smell but the weird green lighting not just along the corridors but inside the bathing rooms. I have no idea why it is this way but I suspect it is for two reasons. First, it does create quite a relaxing atmosphere that you would not achieve with conventional lighting. The second may be that the water is not just discoloured but has strange particles in it which are probably caused by the oxidisation that sulphate water causes. You can see these on your skin once your eyes have adjusted to this strange light.
Now it's time to get undressed so if you don't mind........
OK, I'm in the water, you can open your eyes now. The water is lovely and warm and I can just touch the very tips of my toes on the bottom. the pool measure about a metre and a half each way and there's a ledge on one side so you can sit down and still be mostly under the water. There's enough room for two in the water but all you can do then is relax; with one you can maybe tread water or kick your legs a little. It's not as hot as a sauna but it's quite nice now and again to get out and lie on the marble slab for a few minutes before getting in the water again.
As the end of the hour draws near it's time to shower off; you need to bring your own shower gel or soap and you must make sure you have a good wash to remove the oxdised particles. The water gets pretty hot and the pressure is quite strong. The green light helps to ensure you get all the particles washed off. All that remains now is to get dressed. It's not until you leave that you realise just how potent the sulphur content is - my silver rings were very tarnished - sulphates cause rapid oxidisation of metals so take care to remove jewellery. It took a few days to get the silver back to original condition and the amber from one of my rings did not lose the tarnish for several weeks. Like at a hammam, you can get a drink and sit and chat in a cafe area upstairs after bathing.
It's hard to know the therapeutic benefits of the sulphur baths. We heard many possible benefits of the hot springs ranging from rheumatic conditions to skin problems. One thing is for sure, you really do come out feeling invigorated and full of beans. A few days later I read that Alexander Dumas visited the baths during the sixteenth century and wrote afterwards "A great sense of freedom and well-being permeated me. All my tiredness had gone and I felt strong enough to lift a mountain". I do agree - I felt infinitely refreshed and ready to tackle anything.
On reflection I would have to say that a visit to the sulphur baths is an essential part of a visit to Tbilisi. I almost didn't go and I know that I would have regretted it very much. It is not such an intense experience as going to a Turkish baths but it is great fun and something that sets Tbilisi apart from other cities in this region.
The different baths have their own opening times and prices; they are, in the main, open daily from early morning until mid-evening.
At the Orbeliani Baths, communal bathing costs about 30 pence, a small room about £3.00, a large room approximately £6.00.
Bath Street is situated just past Gorgasalis Moedani on the south bank of the river near Metekhis Bridge.