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The Smells and Scrubs of Tbilisi's Sulfur Baths

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TBILISI, Georgia -- If standing naked under a trickle of brackish water that smells of drains and bad eggs is your bag, you couldn't do better than to visit Tbilisi's sulfur baths.

Poet Alexander Pushkin enjoyed them so much that he penned an epithet about them that's engraved on a dusty black and gold plaque beside the entrance.

"Since the day I was born," he wrote, "I have yet to come across anything as luxurious as the Tiflis baths." (Tiflis being the old name for Tbilisi.)

There are those who will suggest that the great poet must have lived a somewhat frugal life until the day he removed his trousers and hunkered down in the lukewarm ooze at the Old Bath House beside Tbilisi's Mtkvari River.

Not me. If you ignore the smell and don't look too closely at the grimy tiles underfoot, it's a singular experience.

My friends and I paid three lari at the door (just under 50 cents each) and climbed the stairs to the women's baths. For 10 lari, we could have had our own private room with sauna and plunge pool, but we plumped for the communal section instead.

"Shoes off! Clothes off! Bags in the cupboard!" a naked babushka chewing on a corn-on-the-cob ordered as soon as we opened the door.

Dutifully we stripped, wrapped ourselves in white sheets and headed for the bathing room, where a dozen or so women were scraping, pummeling and lathering themselves under showers of sulfureous water.

A scrawny woman wearing nothing but a purple woolly hat said she'd give us a massage. "Lie down on the marble ledge while I get my kit," she instructed.

Moments later she returned with a bottle of vinegar and a none-too-clean piece of carpet, fashioned into a large mitten. She sprinkled vinegar onto her make-shift glove and gave us all a brisk rubbing down.

"Look at the filth you've been carrying around with you," she chided, as layers of dirt came off our arms and legs and backs. I thought perhaps some of it had come from the grubby square of carpet, but I didn't like to argue.

Next she massaged us with soap suds and finally hosed us down with more of the foul-smelling water.

Back in the changing room we drank herbal tea and climbed back into our clothes. Our skin tingled and shone and our clothes and shoes felt much looser.

I wouldn't go as far as Pushkin and call them a life-long luxury, but the sulfur baths certainly provide a restorative tonic after all that rich Georgian food.

Then again, maybe the great poet had a deluxe bath all to himself and brought his own piece of carpet.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.

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