Some cities have an isolated public bathhouse here or there, in a remote corner; others, like Budapest, have public baths strewn throughout. Tbilisi has its own bathhouse district called Abanotubani, with several bathing venues on offer. I’d been looking forward to experiencing one of these baths for weeks. I went with the bathhouse with the most beautiful exterior, Orbeliani Baths, both because it’s fun to judge a book by its cover and because I’d been told that it was particularly worthwhile.
The ornate blue-tiled exterior mosaic of the Orbeliani Baths (see above) is hard to miss. As I approached, a group of backpackers were exiting. “Well, maybe tonight we’ll come back,” one said, something just shy of anxiety behind his careful intonations. Coward, I thought. You won’t be back. You’ll do it now or you won’t ever do it. I handed over a measly three lari ($1.80) to the cashier and walked upstairs to the men’s baths.
What follows is a description of the men’s side of the bathhouse. I can’t speak with authority as to what transpires on the women’s side. I’ve heard rumors, though, and I think it’s safe to say that the female masseurs, like their male counterparts, don’t believe in coddling their charges. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Visitors first enter a locker room. The three lari covers admission plus a sheet-like towel. Your possessions go in a locker, which the attendant shuts with a key. You’ll be naked except for a pair of flip-flops and your towel. (Some guests also brought in little scraping devices and razors for skin care.)
Entering the enormous bathing room, a masseur will approach and ask if you’d like to book a bath (5 lari; $3) and/or massage (also 5 lari). The masseurs are built like tanks, something I found reassuring. At least I’ll get clean, I thought. I opted for both a bath and a massage. My masseur gestured toward the showers, two different pools, and a sauna. I was off.
Twenty minutes of bathing bliss followed. I showered, sweated in the sauna, cooled off in a pool, and repeated. Just as I was starting to feel clean and incredibly relaxed, my masseur bellowed my way. I’d almost forgotten. Almost.The washing and massaging session started off pleasantly enough. My attendant dragged me to the edge of a slippery tiled surface and began to wash me. Then came a massage, firm and intense. At first, his method was unobjectionable. Then he upped the intensity level with broad and very firm strokes, his hands moving outward from my spine to the edges of my back. Still fine, though I felt fear for the first time.
He motioned for me to turn around. He repeated the action on my chest and belly, long horizontal movements. Um, ouch. Were there knives attached to his hands? Was he reaching into my torso and rearranging my organs?
Christ on a tricycle it hurt.
The pressure was unlike any other I’ve experienced in my many years of receiving massages. I began to reason with myself. On the one hand, this sort of thing had to be good for my lymphatic system; on the other, it was easy to suspect that I was in the process of being murdered. Still, I was loathe to request a lighter touch, thinking that the pressure was simply part of the experience. Then, suddenly, he deposited an enormous bubble of soap in my lap and gestured toward the showers. It was over, and I was alive. Was it worth it? Actually yes, absolutely, even with the shockingly intense pain.
I was later told by a Georgian friend that masseurs offer massages in a range of intensities and that what happened to me was not typical. I could have just asked the masseur to modulate the pressure; that’s what my friend would have done. But I didn’t, and huge bruises materialized two days later. But at least I hadn’t been a coward.
Beware of a requoting of massage and bathing combination price at the exit. You should pay no more than 10 lari ($6) for both.
Be sure to check out previous installments of Far Europe and Beyond.