Some countries have a bathing culture. My German friends will happily list the huge variety of steam rooms available in any self-respecting town in their home country; the Finns wax lyrical about the health benefits of rolling in the snow in between sauna sessions, and won’t send their soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions without one. Some countries do not, and Britain is one of them; communal bathing being considered as an activity that is acceptable for Scandinavians and possibly sports teams, but otherwise frequently viewed with a degree of suspicion.This was an attitude I shared until recently, venturing into hamams and hot springs (oh God, that time in Tajikistan with the frogs) only in extremis. But the baths can’t really be avoided in Tbilisi, which has a whole gently steaming and distinctively fragrant bath house district nestling mushroom-like at the foot of the old fortress. They range in age from eighteenth century to Soviet, and in character from mildly sleazy to entirely luxurious. So in the name of cultural research, I grit my teeth, banished my cultural conditioning and allowed myself to be dragged along by some friends and yes, OK, fine, it was brilliant.
Here it is obligatory to recount that that Tbilisi was legendarily founded in the fifth century after the magnificently-named king Vakhtang Gorgasali , who, when out hunting in the forests of the Mtkvari gorge, lost track of his hawk. Eventually he found it in a spring, clutching a pheasant; both hawk and prey had been poached by the naturally hot water . Being a far-sighted kind of king who liked the idea of clean subjects (or possibly he was simply a big fan of poached meat), Gorgasali immediately proclaimed the springs the site of his new capital, relocating the site of your major cities every so often being considered a regal kind of thing to do back in the day. So the city was founded, and named after the Georgian word for warm, which is tbili.
Bathing went from strength to strength: in the thirteenth century, when Tbilisi was occupied by the Persians, who were great bathers, there were reputedly 63 baths in town, which was no doubt nice for anyone who had been on the Silk Road and had spent the past six months smelling of camel, and in the nineteenth century, when Tbilisi was a place one passed through en route to being Tragically Exiled or inventing the Russian novel or dying dramatically in a duel or possibly all three, people bathed like mad. Pushkin, when he could spare time from chasing other peoples’ wives, was bathing in the hamam in Tiflis and leaving testimonials; Dumas bathed off his hangovers from drinking competitions with Georgians (pro-tip: don’t ever do this. Drinking competitions with Georgians, I mean, not bathing off your hangovers, which is actually a pretty good idea), and Tolstoy lounged around in a tub fantasising about being a Roman emperor.
Things have settled down a bit since then (fewer poets), but the baths are still pretty great. My error, it turns out, was in assuming that going to the baths was something that you did in order to get clean. A closer equivalent is in fact going to the pub. You go of an evening in order to hang out and chat with people you like, and the cleanliness is merely a side effect (one that is definitely not associated with going to the pub) And while as far as I know, it is no longer possible to have a full-on supra in the bath while simultaneously arranging your children’s marriages and doing a business deal or two, a beer or two or possibly a bottle of vodka is all but obligatory. But there is nonetheless something rather wonderful about lounging in a hot pool under an echoing brick vault a with a handful of friends sipping raki and getting scrubbed within an inch of your life, safe in the knowledge that you are taking part in a Cherished Local Tradition and therefore being Culturally Improved.
Thus, with the evangelistic zeal of the recent convert and in the spirit of my friend and occasional banya buddy Emma, whose blog is the one you want in case you actually want to find out actual useful practical information about Tbilisi, here is How To Have a Bath for people like me who think it is merely a matter of getting wet in the vicinity of some soap and shampoo.
1. Get some people together. Nothing to stop you hiring a whacking great VIP private room on your own, or just popping in to use the public baths for a few lari if you’re in urgent need of a hot shower, but it’s more fun with company. There are a womens’s and a men’s banya group on FB where you can usually find fellow bathers if you’re keen, but mixed groups are also fine if that’s your thing.
2. Reserve a room. You can just take a risk and turn up, and if you don’t mind hanging around for a bit, that’s probably fine and you’ll get a room somewhere. But booking is a good idea, especially on weekends or if you want more than an hour, and even better if you can collar a Georgian, Russian or, occasionally Azerbaijani (bath attendants are historically ethnically Azeri) speaker to do it for you. Aim for a room with hot pool, cold pool and sauna. The sauna is worth it, not least because it will allow you to have an actual conversation, as the echo in the pools tends to put paid to that.
3. Prepare. Do not eat too heavily. Bring a towel and shower stuff (you can usually hire a towel if necessary), and some water is a good idea if you are not used to steam. Alcohol is also good (remember the shot glasses). Body lotion is a great idea, as is a hairdryer if you want to avoid being castigated by random old ladies for being outside with wet hair (social suicide in Georgia).
4. Luxuriate. Share a bottle of vodka. Retreat to the sauna as the only place to have a conversation, owing to the high ceilings and excessive echo. Brave the cold pool. Accept that the cold pool is a snare and a delusion, and you’re never doing that again.
5. Have a massage. Not really a patch on the old days, these days this mainly consists of an old lady with a ferocious scowl rubbing you down with a glove made out of a combination of sandpaper and wire wool and something that might be shower gel, might be bleach (rumour is you can request a guy to stand on your shoulders if you really want to). You will in any case be lighter by a good pound or so of dead skin cells once you’re done.
5. Go and eat a large meal. Alani is good, and has Ossetian khachapuri. Feel suffused with a feeling of immense goodwill, cleanliness, and a faint whiff of sulphur. You’re welcome.
Frequently asked questions:
Which bath house?
I have had a good time at the three below.
Bath No.5: The one with the hammer and sickle in front. It has great mosaics in some of the rooms, but only takes reservations at the whim of whoever picks up the phone, and not on Sundays (except when they do). Get a Georgian speaker to book, and double check your booking. Tel: +995 322 72 20 90
Bakhmaro: Behind the Old Tiflis hotel. They take reservations that are usually honoured, and frequently have an English speaker within yelling distance of the phone. The 60 GEL room with hot pool, cold pool and sauna is excellent value, much more so than the 100 GEL room. The massage isn’t always terribly impressive and they are sticklers for timing and will charge you for another 15 minutes if you go over. Tel: +995 322 72 05 94
Irakli: The oldest baths, built in the eighteenth century. Run by very nice people and has a bar, but they were doing a tonne of construction work last time we visited (Nov ’13) and only had one bath open, which was very noisy. Good scrub though. Reservations in Georgian and Russian only. Tel: +995 322 14 15 20
Is it expensive?
Not very! Usually 3 GEL for a public bath, and a private room varies, but is rarely more than 10 GEL a person in a group. Extra 10 GEL for a massage/scrub, 2 GEL for a towel. Prices seem pretty similar across the board.
Does it smell?
Yep. But not too badly, and you get used to it pretty quickly. If you’re an absolute sulphur refusenik I wouldn’t recommend it; ditto if you have very sensitive skin. But otherwise, if you can hang around the Abanotubani district without being put off by the smell, you can deal with the baths themselves.
Do you have to get naked?
If it’s a private room, degree of nakeditude is up to you. Some people wear swimming costumes, some half a bikini, some nothing. In the public baths, full on nudity seems to be the general deal.
How hygienic is it?
Well, no one that I know has got the plague yet? I would say no better or worse than your average public pool. Cover open wounds, that kind of thing.
Do you need to bring an extra towel for the sauna?
I am the last person who should be advising anyone on sauna etiquette, having been pronouncing it wrong for the past 28 years (did everyone else know it rhymes with downer?). But, I guess? If you like?
Why does the masseuse hate me?
Your guess is as good as mine.