Looking back on the past few years, some of my most memorable travel experiences have happened when I was feeling vulnerable. Giving in and going with the flow doesn’t come naturally to a control freak like me; but those times when I did manage to let go – or I was forced to – are moments I often look back on with a smile.
What could possible be more vulnerable than getting naked in front of a stranger?
I’m fascinated by the way nakedness is treated in different cultures. I don’t actively seek out opportunities to take my clothes off in public (control freak, remember), but any time the occasion presents itself, its always going to be a memorable experience – for better or for worse. A perfect example: In Morocco, we visited Les Bains du Marrakech for a black soap scrub. Being manhandled by a robust Moroccan woman was awkward as hell, but we loved it! (These experiences are always better when shared with someone you can giggle about it with later.) When we heard about the sulfur baths in Tbilisi, we didn’t hesitate in booking in for a thermal bath and massage – that’s despite the baths receiving very mixed reviews online.
What unfolded was one of the most absurd, fun, embarrassing, hilarious experiences of our trip. In terms of vulnerability, I think this tops them all. My account of our visit to Gulo’s Thermal Spa should hopefully answer some of your questions about how it all works – and maybe even make your bath seem less awkward by comparison.
The history of Tbilisi’s Abanotubani district
Abanotubani is one of Tbilisi’s most recognisable neighbourhoods, famous for the domed brick roofs of its subterranean bathhouses. Tbilisi actually earned its name from the natural hot springs that run under this part of the city, so these baths are a pretty important part of the area’s history. People used to congregate at the Abanotubani gorge (which still looks much the same as in this archive photo I found) to do their laundry.
Persian-style baths were erected all over the area to make the most of the hot and cold sulfur springs. Once playhouses for the rich and famous, today a visit to the public bath is a weekly (or even daily) ritual for many Georgians. As long-stay travellers, it was something we didn’t want to miss out on – and it’s an activity I’d recommend to any visitor.
How to have your very own sulfur bath experience
Here’s a detailed account of our trip to Tbilis’
Bath houses & treatment types
First, you’ll need to settle on a bath house and treatment type. There are dozens of spas in and around Abanotubani, most offering both public facilities and private rooms. Both public and private baths offer the same general treatment: an invigorating combination of hot and cold baths, a soapy scrub down (sometimes billed as a ‘massage’), and a sauna. We received a recommendation for King’s Bath, but in the end we went with family-run Gulo’s Thermal Spa because it was easy to book online. This blog lists some other popular options.
Whether you choose to visit a public bathhouse or hire a private rooms depends on the kind of experience you’re after. We decided to splash out on a private room since this was something we wanted to experience together (and the public baths are, of course, segregated by sex). After enquiring by private message on Facebook a few days in advance, someone from Gulo’s sent us a photo collage of the different rooms plus quotes. (I’ve included a cost breakdown at the end of this post.) We reserved a mid-range room for a standard one-hour visit.
A look inside Gulo’s Thermal Spa
On the afternoon of our appointment we left home early just in case we had trouble finding Gulo’s. Most of the spas have no signage (I still don’t understand why) and they all look identical from the outside. Thankfully, Gulo’s staff sent us detailed instructions about their location. We had no trouble finding the unmarked door.
Despite being 20 minutes early for our appointment, we were immediately ushered from the round reception area into the private room we had pre-booked. We requested two big towels and a bar of soap for an additional cost. The lady who showed us to our room asked if we wanted a massage. We agreed.
The room was split into two sections: the first part, a dry room with a big leather couch, had marble walls and beautiful tiled floors. This is where we prepared for our bath. The woman closed the door behind her but we were mindful not to lock it. We changed, hung up our clothes and put our bags on the couch. The second room, the wet room, was separated from the first by a glass door and even though it gets foggy, you can still keep a cursory eye on your stuff from the bath if you wish. (Remember, this is Tbilisi, one of the safest cities in the world.)
Naked and a bit nervous, we headed into the bath room. This particular bathhouse dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Rooms are decorated in both Roman and Arabic style, with marble, tiled murals and brickwork. Ours wasn’t the most luxe interior, but the domed roof and huge hot tub made an awesome impression.
I was surprised that the smell of sulfur wasn’t at all strong; it was actually quite pleasant inside if not a little difficult to breathe. It’s etiquette to take a shower before you jump in the bath, so that’s exactly what we did. The showers are the most rudimentary part of the set up, just a couple of plastic pipes clinging to one wall. Adjoining the main room we noticed a toilet and a two-person sauna. Showered, we cautiously climbed into the larger of the two pools, the hot bath. After a long soak we dunked ourselves in the icy cold plunge pool.
A word of warning: The hot bath is very hot. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling light headed. As soon as we got in the hot pool, the water started gushing over the edge and completely soaked the tiled floor. It gets rather wet, steamy and slippery in there, so watch your step.
After about 15 minutes of repeated soaking and dunking we noticed that someone had entered the other room. By this point, the glass door was completely fogged up so all we could make out was the rough outline of a figure. We sat tentatively on the twin stone slabs that serve as massage beds and negotiated who would go first.
I turned to look again and noticed that the masseuse was taking off her clothes. That makes sense, I thought, as everything was super wet and as you’ll see, the massage treatment is quite involved.
The door finally opened and we both looked over, fully expecting a topless woman to walk in. (It’s funny how we often make these assumptions without any real evidence to support them.) So when a big, hairy Georgian guy in tropical-print board shorts strode confidently through the door, I was pretty taken aback. I wish I could have seen the look on my face.
I squeezed out a pathetic gamarjoba and did my best to play it cool, adjusting my position to preserve whatever dignity I had left. Gingerly, I sat there watching as the masseur started Ross’ treatment.
The VIP treatment
The treatment was less of a massage and more of a full-body exfoliation a la Marrakech. Using a mitten that was abrasive enough to take off a few layers of dead skin, he scrubbed Ross’ entire body – from the bottom of his feet to his face… Yup. Next he took a fabric pillow case out of a soapy bucket, shook it and twisted it so that it was full of air. This technique seemed to make the water extra sudsy. The masseur soaped Ross up, washed his hair then rinsed him off with a few buckets of hot water. Then he instructed Ross to head into the sauna.
Naked, I was now alone with the masseur who was busy washing his gear (and himself) under the shower.
Different scenarios started playing out in my head. Was this guy going to wash me too? Is this appropriate? Should I opt out? He pointed at the hot bath and motioned for me to climb in. Getting from the slab to the tub was probably the most awkward part of the whole experience, but I relaxed once I was safely hidden under the water. I must have been holding my neck, a bad habit of mine, because he turned to me and asked if I was in pain. He was a lovely guy and very genuine – it was a human moment that made me relax a little bit more.
The masseur was still busy washing and rinsing cloths, filling and emptying buckets. Then he told me to get out and lie down on the slab. Face down on my stomach, anticipation was at an all-time high as I prepared to feel the touch of this total stranger on my back. I opened my eyes to try and see what was going on and right in my line of sight… Let’s just say this is the moment I realised the masseur was now naked too.
I snapped my eyes closed, realising I was probably lying in this position for his privacy, not for my own. I started worrying that maybe he’d seen me looking… Argh! So much was running through my head at this point, the next part is a bit of a blur. (I should probably mention that this guy was a consummate professional and that all this awkwardness was totally on me.)
I guess he finished what he was doing because he pulled Ross out of the sauna and they both left the room. I was still unsure of what was happening but feeling relieved to be alone. Not long after, an older woman came in, fully dressed, and proceeded to scrub me down. Having watched Ross’ treatment it was obvious that my scour was a lot less intense. It still did the job and felt great.
When it was all over, she left and Ross was allowed to come back in. We went for a few more rounds of hot-bath-cold-bath before we’d had enough. By the time we got changed and took a few photos, exactly one hour had elapsed. They seem to time everything very well. We headed back to the reception area and sat down for a complementary cup of tea.
We weren’t alone. The masseur was sitting on a couch right opposite us – I barely recognised him with his clothes on. Ever the professional, he politely smiled at us before leaving to tend to another client. We quickly finished our tea, paid in cash, and walked out into a balmy May afternoon.
How much does a private bath cost?
A private room at Gulo’s Thermal Spa cost us 80 GEL for one hour. Our massages were an additional 10 GEL per person, towel hire 2 GEL each, and we also bought a bar of soap for 1 GEL. We paid a total of 105 GEL (43.50 USD) – an absolute bargain for a cleansing skin treatment and a travel experience we will never, ever forget.
Things to know before you book a bath
- There are no clocks in the private rooms, so set an alarm on your phone so you don’t overstay your hour
- If you order a massage, remember to leave the main door unlocked so that the masseuse can get inside
- Do bring your camera if you’re hiring a private room – but please don’t attempt to take photos in the public baths!
- We felt perfectly comfortable leaving our valuables in the private room – if you are concerned about security, bring a lock for your bag and consider locking the door once the masseuse has left
- Bring your own towel, soap and shampoo if you want to save cash
- Being naked is part of the experience – but if you’re too shy, you can wear bathers
Cover photo & archive image by Gulo’s Thermal Spa. All other photos by me.