Steam and Sulphur in Tbilisi on The Strangest First Date I Ever Had

What do you get when you combine important historical hot springs and Tinder?

On the morning of the eight day the cousins Sandro, Dodiko, Vamech and Soso came to my room. I dived under the cover like a frightened rabbit. ‘Ali Khan,’ they said mercilessly, ‘today you are the guest of the Dshakelis. We’re going to their estates in Kadshory.’

‘Today I am nobody’s guest,’ I said darkly, ‘today the gates of Paradise will open for me, the poor martyr. The Archangel Michael with his sword of flame will let me pass, for I died on the Path of Righteousness.’

The cousins looked at each other and laughed loud and unfeelingly. Then they said just one word: ‘Sulphur.’

Kurban Said – Ali and Nino

Sulphur baths on the bottom left

Much like the hero of Ali and Nino, the book hailed as the Caucasian Romeo and Juliet, I woke up that Wednesday with a slightly nauseous taste in my mouth and a feeling I hadn’t even slept. The night before had ran long and had involved a few friends from Texas, a bottle of the famously delicious Georgian wine and a 4 a.m. Bolt (Georgian Uber) ride home.

Blame it on my natural low tolerance or the fact that I’d spent the past month and a half first in Iran where alcohol is strictly forbidden, and then two weeks hiking in Armenia, that bottle had done its trick on me.

Luckily, Georgians know a natural way to quickly cure the worst hangover (and mine, on the scale of Ali Khan’s, was still very mild): the sulphur baths.

The sulphur baths in Tbilisi play an important role in the city’s history – in fact, they are said to be the whole reason for its existence. According to a legend, the 5th century ruler King Vakhtang was hunting in the area when he went to pick up a pheasant he’d shot and found it cooked in the puddle where it had landed.

This is how he discovered the hot springs and laid foundation to the city that would get its very name from this discovery: “tpili”, from an old Georgian word meaning warm, became Tbilisi – “the warm place”.

Because of their significance, the sulphur baths have become an iconic tourist attraction in the capital of Georgia. Look up any list of top things to do in Tbilisi and the baths are bound to pop up. I had thought about skipping them – after all, I’m not a big fan of water. And I’d successfully managed to avoid visiting during my first seven weeks in Tbilisi. But after I came back and gathered up a list of things I still wanted to experience before leaving, I begrudgingly had to add the baths to the list.

But I didn’t want to go alone. And as far as I knew, all my friends had already left Tbilisi. So I did what I do best: I took to Tinder and posted an open call for the strangest first date anyone might ever experience.

It didn’t take long for a guy who I’d matched with a couple of months earlier to hit me up and suggest we’d take to the baths on Wednesday and grab a bite to eat after. That had been a plan a couple of months earlier too, actually, before he had to unexpectedly fly back to the States. But now we were both back and he was still cute, so what the hell? Let’s do it, I told him.

There was just one problem: I’d heard that visitors to the baths were supposed to bathe in their natural suit. Meaning: completely, totally, gloriously naked.

This might get weird.

True to myself, I’m running late. By the time I get to the bath house, my date is already waiting, sitting at a table in front of the decorated building looking at his phone. I call his name and he looks up. We hug, slightly awkwardly like two people meeting for the first time just before they are about to take their clothes off.

He is a little taller than me, dressed casually, with a bit of a stubble and black hair a little shorter on the sides. It would be fun to run my fingers through it. I haven’t been on a date in, damn, probably two months now, not since a horrendously bad one in Baku. I make a joke about his hair and he takes it gracefully. I like his New York accent.

In the past, the bath houses were a place where mothers of bachelors would come bathe to meet the local single girls and hopefully find a wife for their son. Female family members of a bride-to-be would also take their future daughter-in-laws for a soak for what was called a “bride check”: to make sure that she was still a virgin and that she didn’t have any strange faults. (I wonder how suited for marriage I would have been considered with all my tattoos.)

Luckily, in 2019 we don’t need nosy relatives for matchmakers anymore. All hail Tinder.

While you can also visit public baths – that are open around the clock, in case you feel like treating that hangover pre-emptively -, I’d imagine that would be the only thing making a first date at a bath house even more awkward, so he’d booked us a private room at Orbeliani bath house, possibly the most famous bath house in Tbilisi.

The first time I saw the structure, I mistook it for a mosque. Intricate blue tile and yellow stars decorate its Islamic arches, and two stubby, minaret-like towers perch on both sides of the roof of the façade. It stands out brightly among the small sand-coloured cupolas of the riverside baths next door.

Apparently even the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin has taken a dip in these warm waters in 1829: by the entrance, a small plaque reads in Georgian and Russian: “I have never encountered anything more luxurious than this Tbilisi bath”.

We pay at the counter and get our towels and slippers before being led down a tiled hallway to our room. Small chandeliers light the way. I check myself in a mirror in the passing and feel very out of place in my crop top and ripped jeans.

‘This place is so fancy,’ I whisper to my date.

The smell of rotting eggs hits me first but it is more faint than I had imagined. Sulphur has a nasty natural smell but luckily our human brains do get used to being around the same smell to the point where we won’t notice it after a while anymore. The room is small and simple, with a bathroom, a shower, a sink and a dressing area reminiscent of a high school locker room. The man shows us the phone by the door. ‘It’s recommended to soak in for ten or fifteen minutes, then take a shower,’ he says. ‘We will call you on the phone when the time is up.’

He leaves. So, the moment of truth.

This is definitely weird.

I slowly take off my shoes and measure up my date, trying mentally to dare him to make the first move. I know I come from the land of sauna but I’ve never actually bee one to take part in mixed saunas. What’s the etiquette of taking your clothes off in front of a stranger?

Just as I’m hesitating, he does make the first move – but not like I expected. As I fidget with my tote bag, he pulls out a pair of Hawaiian-patterned swimming trunks and calls dibs on the first turn to change in the bathroom.

‘Oh,’ I say, and because I really don’t know how to save face anymore, I continue: ‘I don’t have a swimming suit.’

‘Did you –‘ He looks at me quizzically, and I can’t tell if he’s amused or horrified.

‘I mean, I heard you go in like… Like you don’t wear anything.’ I try to play it cool but I feel like I’m blushing. Be chill. ‘I can just go in my underwear.’ Nice save.

As my date locks himself in the bathroom – probably to escape the crazed Finn that was just trying to strip him naked – I give myself an exasperated look in the mirror. Why are you like this?

I go drown my embarrassment in the tub. The water is hot but not burning, it’s the ideal temperature for a nice, relaxing soak. I sink into the underwater bench and rest my head on the hard, curved tile of the edge. Surprisingly comfortable. I close my eyes and enjoy the warm embrace of the water. Oh yes, take away all my sorrows and pains and the traces of last night’s wine. This is the life.

The sulphur baths of Tbilisi are not famous only for their relaxing qualities, though: more importantly, the sulphur water is said to have healing properties and help with such ailments as eczema, arthritis and digestive issues. During the Soviet era, when hot water was sometimes hard to come by, they also played an important role in keeping the local population warm and clean.

I hear my date shower before he gets in too and slinks to the opposite side of the tub. Water sploshes out over the edge en masse as he settles.

‘Wow, that’s nice.’

‘I know, right’, I murmur, eyes still in the ceiling. ‘You know how they said you should get out after fifteen minutes? I’ve heard a lot of people can’t actually stay in for that long. That’s so weak. Clearly they never grew up with a sauna.’

Ten minutes later, I have to eat my words. The heat is getting unbearable and I feel a little woozy. I think I’m sweating underwater. I get up to take a cold shower and drink some water, and when I come back to the tub, I perch on the edge, dipping my feet in but suddenly unwilling to immerse myself back down again.

My date has given up even before me. He’s laying on the tiled bench next to the tub, now completely out of water.

After the initial awkwardness, small talk comes easy. This might be the strangest first date I’ve ever been on but it’s going swimmingly – pun intended – and I wonder why I haven’t thought of the concept of adventure dates before. A cup of coffee and a stroll through a local market? I mean, it’s nice, and the rotting meat doesn’t smell much worse than the sulphur, but at least this is something to brag about afterwards. You know, if you’re desperate for content on a blog or something.

We talk work and travel, and our voices echo in the small space. I’m having a hard time understanding him, the echo really makes it so loud. The gentle splashes of the water lapping up the edge of the pool are multiplied until they sound like waves. I try to discreetly squeeze water out of my bra but I think the loud squishing sound gives it away.

Five minutes before the hour is up, the phone by the door rings, marking an end to our time in our steamy paradise. I’m very done with it. Completely relaxed and happy I’ve done it, I still barge through the door as soon as I’ve got clothes on.

‘Fresh air!!’

We walk slowly towards the river, the statue of King Vakhtang on a sturdy horse rising to greet us on the other side of the Kura. I wonder if the founder of the city had matchmaking in mind when he built these baths here centuries ago. He has, without a doubt, been the oldest wingman I’ve ever met.

I feel relaxed and peaceful, the memory of the warm water like a touch on my skin. I can feel the wetness start seeping into my shirt, but in late October the sun is still warm, the boy is still handsome, and it is my last day in Tbilisi – so let the date continue.

‘So, khinkali?’ I ask.

Can you spot King Vakhtang?

HOW TO VISIT THE SULPHUR BATHS IN TBILISI

According to this blog, there are currently five bath houses in Tbilisi that you can visit. They are located on the edge of the old town, about five minutes walking from Meidan Square or Europe Square, and ten minutes from Freedom Square where the nearest metro station is located.

I went to Orbeliani bath house which also seems to be called Chreli Abano baths – don’t ask, I don’t know. I paid 50 GEL (13 e) for a private room per hour. (The price is per room, not per person, so it’s possible to split it with a friend or a random Tinder date.) Towels are not included but they are available to rent for a small price.

Public baths are cheaper and separated by gender – and yep, that’s where people usually go in naked. Apparently you don’t have to but many locals do.

If you want an even more luxurious experience, there are also deluxe rooms with a hot water pool, cold water pool and a sauna. You can also pay extra for body scrubs and massages.

It’s better to book a day or two in advance to make sure you get the room you want to. And take a bottle of water with you – you’ll need it!

For more tips, check out this awesome guide by Wanderlush.

 

Thanks for reading and co-living my embarrassment!

Who’s planning a trip to Tbilisi?

And more importantly, what’s your weirdest date story?

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