Friday, June 10, 2016

Bathtime at Abanotubani: a How-To Guide

It's an early summer afternoon. The city has been cooled by the rain that swirled all morning. The normally chaotic sounds of traffic are muted by humidity. Lingering mist mixes with smog and dulls the normally bright colors of the street. It's the perfect day for a trip to the baths.

Abanotubani means "bath district." It is a region of Dzveli Tbilisi (the old town) that has been known for centuries for its therapeutic, naturally heated sulfur waters. Even famed Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and French author Alexandre Dumas enjoyed these baths in the late 19th century. The hot springs are an integral part of the city. The name Tbilisi comes from the Georgian word for "warm," and legend has it that the city was founded when the pet falcon of King Vakhtang Gorgasali discovered the hot water. There is some archaeological evidence of Roman-style baths in the area from as far back as the 1st century! At the city's height during antiquity, as a stop on the Silk Road, there were supposedly 63 baths in abanotubani. Today there are 5 baths which offer bathers a variety of experiences.
Orbeliani baths- the most famous (and expensive) option

This article breaks down and compares the different bath options.

Let me explain the bathing experience...

First, you pick a bath - I've been to both Bakhmaro Baths and Bathhouse No. 5. The striking thing about No. 5 is the beautiful mosaic tile work on the ceiling. The public bath is just one small room with showers, but it's very inexpensive (3 lari/person). Bakhmaro has pools as well as showers in the public bath. I don't remember the exact price, but maybe 4 or 5 lari/person for the public bath.

Second, you choose: public or private. A private room is good for couples or a small group of friends looking to relax (think of it like a post-Soviet pool party). Capacity and price varies (check the link above!). Public rooms are my go-to. It's kind of a fascinating sociological experience, and I really enjoy the utilitarian feel. It's probably one of the most immersive, assimilative things you can do in Tbilisi. You can sort of just float into the stream of women practicing the tradition of public bathing that has been carried out at this place for centuries.

Tell the woman at the front desk if you want public or private - sometimes one might be closed for cleaning or maintenance, so you may have to try a different bathhouse. You can usually also rent things at the entrance desk - towels, scrubbers, etc.

Third, you get naked. Descend further into the bathhouse, and you will find the locker rooms and public baths. The smell of sulfur immediately hits you, slightly burning your nose for just a moment until you adjust. Two or three old ladies will probably be sitting at a card table, maybe smoking or organizing something or just chatting. Show them your receipt and they will ask you if you want a massage or a scrub (pronounced mah-ssahzh and skrahb). If you say yes, pay them right away (in cash, of course, usually 10 lari a piece).

If you get a treatment, generally you will go into the shower room, do yo thang, and in about 10-15 minutes a woman will come in to scrub/massage you. Make sure you walk into the shower room completely naked (sometimes women will wear a pair of panties into the room and just take them off there, but remember everything you bring in will get soaking wet). If you try to take in a towel, you will get yelled at. The bath attendants will lock your locker behind you when you leave, so take in everything you want - shampoo, conditioner, soap, washcloth, razor - normal shower paraphernalia. Think of this as the most comprehensive shower ever. Women do everything you can imagine, including but not limited to: puma stoning their heels, combing their hair, shaving everything...
The shower room is a large hall lined with tile from floor to ceiling. Along the walls there is a series of shower heads, spaced about a meter apart. Some bathhouses also have pools of scalding hot water, and sometimes one of cold water. Pick an empty shower head and claim your space. Usually there are two knobs - one for HOT water and one of cold to dilute it. If you struggle to get the balance right (and/or accidentally spray cold water on your neighbor), the woman standing next to you will probably reach over and help you.

Fourth, you get scrubbed. There is generally a large marble slab that the woman will spray with hot water to make it comfortable (some places cover it with a plastic sheet, I suppose for hygienic purposes, but it feels kind of icky to me...). If you get both, the massage will come after. If you're trying to save money or time, pick just the scrub. A scrub takes maybe 7-8 minutes. Basically, you lay on the slab, in whatever position the woman directs you (usually face down, face up, then seated), and she goes to town on your butt naked body (she is usually wearing a bikini). Using an abrasive scrubber glove soaked in some kind of soapy vinegar mix, she rubs every inch of your body (well, not every inch, but almost), accruing little grey rolls of dead skin, shedding you like a snake. It hurts. If you have a sunburn, this isn't for you. You can point out any bruises or cuts you want her to avoid. I have extremely sensitive skin, and yes it's kind of painful in the moment, but afterwards your skin feels sooooo fresh and soft and smooth that the process is definitely worth it. Don't expect the massage to be luxurious. The women probably don't have any formal training, it's more utilitarian. The 5-10 minute rub-down of your muscles is a nice ending to the harsh scrub, but not strictly necessary in my opinion. After a scrub, you'll want to take another rinse in the shower/dip in the pool to wash off any lingering pieces of dead skin. 

Step 5, you emerge reborn. When you have had your fill of time in the hot, wet, steam shower room, simply turn off your water, gather your things, and walk your naked self to the exit. The cold air of the locker rooms hits your soft, puffy skin and tightens everything up quickly. The attendant should recognize you and open your locker right away so you can get your towel and dry off. Many women will bring a full supply of cosmetics - makeup, deodorant, perfume, hair spray, etc. There are often manicures/pedicures offered on the way out. Usually there is a small antechamber with a mirror and blow dryer you can use. 

Make sure to drink plenty of water, as the heat can be dehydrating, and the sudden temperature changes can make you feel dizzy and light headed.
Your new baby-smooth skin will probably last a day or two, but your memories of a butt-naked 70-year old woman bending over in front of you will last forever.

A note on etiquette: as I have discussed before, Georgia has a culture of staring. Here, it is just not considered rude as it is in the US. That being said, staring is significantly reduced in the bathhouse. A quick glance at the other bathers' nudity is basically uncontrollable impulse, but try to avoid eye contact. People tend not to be self conscious of their bodies, though, and I find the whole experience intensely freeing - sort of like streaking the UVA Lawn with your girlfriends  ;)
The communal spirit still thrives, I mean, you are sharing a shower, after all, and people are willing and forward in helping you if you seem to be confused or do something wrong. On the whole, however, the bath is a more personal experience. It is practical, functional. Most people don't consider this a spa day. Feel free to chat with a friend, but it's not that common.

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