*Interior shots by food stylist Erin Merhar
|Interior photo from the pool by Erin Merhar|
The name Tbilisi derives from an old Georgian word meaning “warm place.” The word applies to both the glorious sulphur baths on which the city was founded, as well as the generosity and warmth of the Georgian people. I visited the sulfur baths during the International Wine Tourism Conference feeling quite depleted after a long flight, late night feasts and preparation for two presentations at the conference. I had a reservation at 9:00 and, though I was up until 3:00 the night before drinking exquisite Georgian wine with new friends, there was no way I was missing that appointment for a private room with massage and scrub. My body and soul ached for that appointment.
The legend of Tbilisi's foundation is based on these baths, which are built around naturally occurring hot sulphur springs that can be located by smell alone. Hot sulphur water helps a variety of ailments including skin disorders, arthritis, autoimmune disease, muscle tension and sports injuries. The baths are designed to allow the visitor to relish in the warm bounty of the earth, to provide a relaxing experience enjoyed with with friends and family. The baths are in the old town, dome-shaped and reminiscent of both Etruscan funeral mounds in Cerveteri and a scene from a 1970s sci-fi flick. Slipping into the baths, one feels as though he or she has entered the womb of Gaia herself.
|Little beehive domes of the sulphur baths|
When I arrived I wasn't sure I was at the right place. My partner for the morning was late, so I decided enter the private room and change. Then, I opened the door to an oasis: a private pool. There was a large bath in the center of the room that brought to mind a full-immersion baptismal. The water temperature was perfect. It was hot, but not overwhelmingly so, and there was space for at least 10 people. We had a private sauna, showers and an ice cold bath. There were also two marble beds for a massage and scrub (both part of the package). We had the pool for and hour and half—though 2-3 hours would have been more ideal. I had to speak at the conference later that afternoon, so I couldn't linger. I was afraid that if I stayed too long, I'd be too tired to even participate.
I entered the warm pool and just sat there, relaxing and letting the water wash away the filth from body and the tension from soul. The sulphur springs flowed continuously, renewing the pools as I sat. After about 20 minutes, a topless lady came in to scrub and massage us with a special exfoliating glove similar to those used at a Turkish hammam. At the baths, women scrubbed women and men scrubbed men. Since we were a female party of two, we were taken care of by a lovely woman with a gentle face and strong hands adept at removing layer upon layer of dead skin to reveal new skin I never knew existed. Who knew I had freckles? After exfoliation, she massaged me from head to toe and I felt like butter under her warm hands. She released me back to the warm pool and her next patient took her turn.Everyone has their own bathing or showering rituals, but nothing compares to an intimate, sumptuous, and invigorating full-body deep exfoliation. The baths were an intimate luxury very few of us in the West experience. Who else bathes us but our own mothers? Even then, baths between a mother and child lasted only until we were of a certain age, after which we lost that connection and began to bathe alone. Allowing a stranger to touch and bathe you—without a common language—can be intimidating. Eye contact, smiles and hand gestures were our only language, yet I knew when I needed to turn over or lift up my arm.
Since I've been back in Italy, more than one person has remarked that I seem lighter and more carefree. Before I left for Georgia I felt a lot of pressure from my work life, home life and the normal day-to-day problems of life. We had experienced a great and devastating death in the family and I felt broken. I was burdened by my feelings of deep grief and felt my life slowly unravelling. I could not control the sudden waves anger or sorrow I was experiencing. But those burdens were lifted in Georgia. They were washed away, exfoliated from my body and my spirit, and drained into the Mtkvari River to the Caspian Sea. They are no longer my burdens.
In the warmth of the springs under a tiled dome I felt every nerve and muscle of my body relax. I focused on my breathing; I meditated and felt deeply relaxed and sleepy. Before I left, I plunged into the ice-cold pool to awaken myself once more. This use of hot- and cold-water therapy has been found to have cardiovascular benefits and to help migraine sufferers. My body stayed warm despite my quick cold-water plunge. Afterwards, I felt reinvigorated and ready for the day ahead of me, ready to speak to a room full of people with my colleagues and participate fully in the journey ahead of me.
I came to Georgia for the wine, but the baths prepared me for the warmth and generosity of the entire land. A visit to the sulphur baths is an essential part of the Tbilisi experience. Rent a private room, or join the gender-segregated pools. The springs are a gateway to understanding the foundation of the city. They are a part of life and not just for tourists.
|Interior shot of private pool by Erin Merhar|
Bakhmaro run by Gulo (599 58 81 22)
There are totally 7 rooms for 20 - 50 Lari, 2 rooms for 60 Lari and VIP for 100 Lari (for 20 persons).Open 07:30 – 01:00.
Address: Grishashvili 5