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In Abanotubani, the ancient district of Tbilisi, children climb on the domed bathhouse roofs, tour guides usher their groups towards the steaming river and backpackers snap pictures of the colourful façade of the Orbeliani Baths. But they weren’t the first people to discover the sulphur springs bubbling beneath the surface of Tbilisi, Georgia.
Legend has it that, in the fifth century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali stumbled across the springs while hunting and was so impressed he built a city surrounding them. In fact, the name Tbilisi means ‘warm place’ in Georgian. His son, Dachi Ujarmeli would go on to make Tbilisi the capital of Georgia, moving it from nearby Mtskheta. Bathing in the sulphur springs would become a Tbilisi tradition for centuries to come.
Because of Tbilisi’s position on the Old Silk Road, bathing became a popular activity not only with locals but with people passing through the city on their journey between Asia and Europe. It is believed that in the 13th century, there were over 60 bathhouses in use. Nowadays, however, there are only around seven.
Perhaps the most noteworthy moment in the history of the baths was a visit from the poet Alexander Pushkin in 1829. A plaque on the entrance to the Orbeliani Baths shows a quote from Pushkin, where he describes the baths as ‘luxurious’. The bathhouse now has a room named the A. Pushkin Suite.
During the Soviet era and in the early years of independence using the sulphur baths became more than just an opportunity for a luxury soak. Hard times and political turbulence resulted in the constant loss of electricity, heating and hot water. The springs were a natural source of warmth and a place where people could wash themselves during the harsh winters.
Another, fortunately extinct, tradition that took place in the baths is what was known as the ‘bride check’. Female family members of the groom would take the bride-to-be to the springs in order to establish she was still a virgin and to check for any signs of disease or defects.
Today the baths are still used by many locals, particularly the elderly who come to benefit from the healing properties of the sulphur. It is said to help in the treatment of eczema, arthritic pain and digestive problems.
Tourists are also keen to reap the benefits of sulphur bathing and partake in a tradition that’s been around for hundreds of years. Beneath the domes of the old town are a variety of rooms ranging from public baths to deluxe private suites, with a sauna, hot and cold pool and a room for relaxing with drinks. A visit to the Tbilisi sulphur baths is a great way to combine learning about the area’s history and culture with some relaxation time during your trip.