Sulfur baths in Tbilisi

Tbilisi is the city where you desire to walk and enjoy its special atmosphere, marveling harmonious combination of pretty old buildings and the modern ones. The each guest of the city would like to visit the most famous attractions. One of the paramount places is the sulfur baths of Tbilisi.
A bit of history and fairy legends
According to the legend, the ancient capital of Mtskheta surrounded by forests was the place, where the king Vakhtang Gorsalali was hunting. One day during the hunting the king’s falcon was chasing a pheasant when the falcon suddenly vanished. After a long search, the birds were found scalded in a hot spring. King Vakhtang gave the order to build the city in this place and to call it Tbilisi (translates as “warm”).
You can hear another story about king’s hunting. It describes how the king wounded a deer and the animal plunged into the sulfur spring whereupon it instantly healed and disappeared. It impressed the king and he decided to build a city on the site.
These beautiful legends are far from reality. In fact, the city was built long before the reign of Gorsalali. The first mention about it was in the IV-III centuries BC.
Anyhow the hot mineral springs contributed the development of the city and the construction of sulfur baths.
The number of Sulfur springs flowing from Mount Tabor is huge. For example, in the late 19th century, it was counted about thirty-one. Their temperature is quite comfortable (about 37 Celsius degree). That’s why it’s the favorite place for bathing among residents. Gradually springs turned into the modern baths. They were built by Georgians and Turks as well as the Persians.
During the Soviet period due to the high temperature of the springs in the plateau Nitsubidze (area in the mountains), springs were sent directly to the apartments and residents could live without boilers.
Over its history, Tbilisi baths were repeatedly ruined and restored. Many of them exist today and their architecture remained unchanged.
Sulfur-alkaline springs occupies the central part of Tbilisi where was formed a bath area (Abanotubani), extending along the street Grishashvili.
In ancient times the most influential people tried to build in the area a bathhouse named in their honor. Changing an ownership meant changing the name of the bath.
Extant baths were built in the XVII-XIX centuries. The oldest one is Iraklievskaya (known since XVI century). Jet set and church representatives as well as royal family were arguing about possessing of this bath. Sumbatovskaya bath is about the same age as Iraklievskaya. In the 17th century Kazennaya and Bebutovskaya baths were built. In 1840 Sendabadskaya sulfuric bath was built.
Following the reconstruction of XIX-XX centuries, the number of baths decreased greatly, many of them have been demolished.
About architecture
Sulfur baths have become an integral part of the traditions and culture of Georgia. They are built in the style of oriental architecture (mostly Persian) with a large basement room which looks like a low building with a dome and a small turret. Through its openings sunlight enters the bath. Walls are made of brick while flooring and bathrooms are made of gray porous stone slabs. Soft lightning contributes total relaxation for bathers.
The only structure that is not hidden under the ground is Orbelianovskaya bath, also known as the “Blue” and sometimes “Colorful”. This beautiful and relatively tall structure has a facade and side minarets decorated with blue tiles. Internal walls are lined with a mosaic of white and green tiles.
Famous people about sulfur baths
Many famous people reviewed the baths of Tbilisi. Russian traveler V. Gagara was admired with their beneficial effects (visited these places in 1630). Baron Korf colorfully described all the bathing procedures in his treatise "On the Tiflis baths» (1868).
Alexander Dumas got involved into this topic as well. In his memoirs devoted to the Caucasus travel, he dedicated an entire chapter to Tbilisi baths. In addition, he regretted there are no the same baths in Paris.
U. Tynyanov in the novel “The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar” colorfully described the sulfur bath visits of Griboyedov.
Pushkin liked spending time in Tiflis baths, getting a lot of energy. He described the experience in a work “Journey to Erzerum”. This creation has caused extraordinary interest. The Moscow baths owner Lamakina attempted to apply Tbilisi baths’ features in Moscow. But this innovation didn’t work in Russia.
Baths as part of the local life
Bath has always been considered as a special place for Georgians. Honored guests were invited there all the time. Hosts were arranging a feast with loud music and tasty food. Important events were celebrated there. Often the baths were the place where deals and prospective family unions were discussed. Many visitors could spend there the whole day. As Tiflis baths were open around the clock, the visitors could even spend the night there. It was a kind of club. The latest news was discovered there, and attendant (mekise) was not only a massage therapist, but also an interesting conversationalist who is well versed in the human soul. The morning tradition was a tea party at the samovar.
Initially, hot water sulfur spring was provided to the pools with clay pipes. Subsequently, the system was reconstructed and modern sulfur baths are complemented with the shower.
Men's and women's days at the baths were alternated. In ancient times visiting baths was almost the only entertainment for women. Therefore women were preparing for this event in advance and tried to spend a long day there. The singer was singing and women enjoyed conversations with friends, delicious delicacies and showing their clothes with a veil at the end of a day.
Today these practices have changed a little. Often men and women have a rest in the bath in the same time and everyone is fine with that.
Anyhow baths have kept the popularity through the centuries. Their supporters are the people of all generations.
Changes of our time
Modern Tbilisi sulfur baths are the usual public baths that make up the whole complex of bathing establishments located in the district of Abanotubani. This area is unique that is considered to be one of the main attractions of Tbilisi. Georgian poet Joseph Grishashvili expressed this concept as: “if you visit Tbilisi with no visiting of sulfur baths, it is equivalent of traveling to Paris without visiting of Eiffel Tower”. Probably that’s why the street around the baths is named after the poet.
Along the district you can see the river which was previously driven into the tube, but in 2013 the river was opened and the waterfront was restored. Flowing into the river sulfuric springs’ smell is nasty but going up the river, you can reach the spectacular waterfall.
Tbilisi baths’ feature is that they receive water from underground sources which contains a lot of sulfur and has warm temperatures (by the way, these baths can be found only in several countries – Italy (Tivoli region) and England).
The interiors of the modern sulfur baths are not luxury. You can see marble facing in the baths of VIP-class only.
Baths visitors can wash, take a massage or relax in a pool filled with cold or hot sulfuric water. You can visit baths alone or with friends, washing in a private room or in a common room.
Stable microclimate is good for health of everybody. In present days many baths use the most advanced systems for water purification and reconstructed sewerage. As before, the most colorful figures of these places are mekise (attendants), who can clean the body with wisp and make massage procedures.
The geothermal water of sulfur springs has a unique healing composition. It contains bromine, iodine and other useful minerals. Sulfuric water has a smell of rotten eggs (it quickly disappears), but it’s very soft and pleasant.
There is a popular idea that beauty, health and attractiveness of Georgian women depend on their constant visits to the baths and taking bath procedures.
Changes of our times involved Tbilisi baths as well. Three baths in October 2007 (after the auction) have been transferred to private owners. The new owners have committed to maintain the original appearance and way of the service.
Generally Azerbaijanians own the bath business in Georgian capital today. Their compatriots work as attendants.
The most popular modern baths
Bath “VIP”
This one is an elite and very expensive place. It’s believed that the patriarch visits the bath. Ordinary tourists are not the frequenters of the place, but businessmen and politicians are the main guests. And it is not surprising because not everyone can afford this kind of rest (75 euro per hour).
Bath #5
Located next to the bath "VIP" this one offers democratic price. Visitors can take advantage of private rooms (5 standard rooms and 2 suites) with swimming pool filled sulfur water or relax in the common room (1.5 euro per hour), which has a stylish look and a lot of space. Anyone can use the sauna or take a massage. Unfortunately, there is no swimming pool in female baths.
Samepe Abano (Imperial)
It is one of the ancient baths with solemn interior decoration. It offers cheap massage (2.5 euro) and expensive rooms (about 50 euro per hour). Usually there are no many visitors.
Orbelianovskaya bath
It was the bath where Pushkin had rest in former times. Today you can see there a memorial plaque with enthusiastic remarks of poet about the Tiflis baths. Almost all the tours include observation of the place. This is the most beautiful bath and it looks like the Uzbek madrassa. Number of visitors is always huge. The price is 1.5 euro per hour in common room and 20 euro in private room.
Nowadays the bath that was once visited by the famous poet is rebuilt, but sulfuric water, soap and attendants with woolen mittens remained unchanged.
Bath of Mirzoev
The bath is almost similar to "#5", but the common rooms are more spacious and the women's wing has the swimming pool. Outside the building is unattractive and resembles structures in the Jewish style.
Something about the history of money
From the 16th century currency of the country was the Persian coins Abazi, but after 1835 it was replaced with Russian rubles. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1993 Georgian coupons were used as money. Later in 1995 country introduced the currency of GEL. To sort out the local prices you can halve them and get the approximate cost in Euro (GEL = half of the euro)
The peculiarities of visiting and behavior in common baths (not VIP)
At the entrance visitors are met be a nice girl who looks out through a little window. She can sell a ticket (3 GEL), soap, shampoo, slippers and other accessories.
In order to take bath procedures you should go downstairs where you can find two sections – male and female.
Entering the right section you will find yourself in the locker room, where the duty meets visitors. He gives the keys of the metal lockers. If you have silver jewelry, it is better to remove it (under the influence of hydrogen sulphide it can turn into black). After closing the locker key should be given to the owner (safety of the possessions is guaranteed). He would take an interest, whether you need a massage (standard cost is 10 GEL). Massage therapists are not so good, but in recent years they can boost the price to 30 GEL for foreigners. So you shouldn’t accept them, but remember the real cost of the service.
In the center of bath room you may see a row of water sources with cranes (like showers). It is necessary to have a wash at the beginning. Then you can dip into a pool with azure water. The water temperature can be different. But you should remember that hydrogen sulfide interacts effectively only in hot water. So, if the water is warm, feel free to ask about turning on the hot.
The peculiar smell in the hall can be unpleasant, but 15 minutes in bath is enough to stop noticing the smell, as a rule.
In the pool you can sit some time while sulfuric water is cleaning your skin. Little skin lesions immediately drawn out. Sometimes people feel drowsiness. The first dive doesn’t have a significant effect, but the second one relaxes much stronger. Subsequent dives increase senses. The maximum number of dives is four, so an hour is enough.
Next to the pool there is a Finnish sauna. Apparently so tourists often call this place «sulfur pool».
Breaks between visiting the pool and sauna are used for a massage and a cup of tea with fragrant herbs. It is served in elegant glasses on the hot-water bottle, so it does not cool down for a long time. The cost of the tea is about 4 GEL.
You can also order various bathing procedures like service of attendants (mekise) who make a massage with peeling skin sponge called mitten. This procedure is not cheap (about 30 GEL). Deciding to give mekise a try you have to be sure about new sponge. Otherwise attendant uses old one, because the price of new sponge is about 6 GEL for visitors.
The procedure of washing in Tbilisi sulfur baths is similar to the Turkish hammam: the same grinding and soap massage with a following dive into the pool. But the essential difference is the composition of water. That’s why the same therapeutic effect is not approachable in any other baths.
There are several rooms in all premises. One is for communication equipped with a sofa, a table and a phone. The second room is a bath which is decorated with tiles and a niche depth of about half a meter, which is filled with sulfuric water.
By the way, paying per hour system is only for private rooms. In common room you can spend as much time as you wish. Common room is open from 7 am to 9 pm. Private rooms are open around the clock.
About health improvement
Of course, one bath visit hasn’t any noticeable effect. But due to the fact that some of the baths transformed into spa you can get a health treatment. It consists of 12-14 procedures of 8-12 minutes. You can visit bath every other day. Before the treatment it is necessary to consult a doctor. Leading doctors and spa therapists recommend these treatments for people suffering from back pain, metabolism problems and obesity.
Advantages and disadvantages of sulfur baths
The main advantage of Tbilisi sulfur baths is continuing interest of tourists. Loads of guests are happy with combination of acceptable prices and nice leisure. Except for a few baths with VIP service, literally everyone can afford it. Therefore it is always crowded and in order to get into the bath you should take care of this in advance.
It is very important that only three or four visits allow removing skin irritations of all kinds and allergy.
The disadvantage of these places is not quite proper maintenance. The pools are cleaned infrequently and the visitors are not required any medical reports. But locals advise not to be afraid of any infection, because sulfur kills all kinds of microbes. Water in the springs is updated on Monday night. Therefore, you can try the most hygienic condition of the baths at the beginning of the week.
When to go to the bath
People visit baths anytime, but the best season is winter. You can have an unforgettable feeling entering to hot bath from frosty atmosphere of outdoors. This procedure is especially useful for skiers, because healing water helps to get rid of the pain in the muscles.
These days 15 sulfur baths are open for visitors. As a rule, the difference is only the number of rooms. There are baths for 15-20 people as well as places for a few visitors. Often companies rent common room and then the price per person is lower.
Useful Tips
Visiting sulfuric bath you should bring your bath accessories, footwear and a towel. Of course, you can get them in the place, but they are reusable items. There is a hair dryer, but it is usually one for all the guests.
Women should wear swimsuits and men should wear swimming trunks. You can swim naked if you reserved entire room.
If you are lucky to find yourself in Tbilisi, it’s necessary to visit the sulfur baths! Due to the miraculous features of local springs and the combination of massage, wash and lots of communication you would forget about the pain in the back and feel total relaxation. Have a great health!