On a recent fall morning, I pull up to a set of wide tile domes in the old part of Tbilisi, Georgia, and suddenly wrinkle my nose: The air is sodden with an egg-like smell that creeps its way into my nostrils. Turns out, this piercing scent is common around Tbilisi, permeating from the historically famed sulfur bath built on top of hot springs, coating sections of the city with whiffs of omelette.
Noxious fumes aside, I am curious with an hour to kill—and I look forward to spending it by basking in a hot pool of yolky elements. After all, I have an exhaustive case of jet lag, having just arrived in the capital after an overnight flight from New York City, and I’ve heard endless stories about the magical healing powers of the B.C. tradition.
“Hot sulfur baths have come from the earth for many, many centuries in Tbilisi. The city is built on hot water. Even the name of the city comes from this. ‘Tbili’ in Georgian means ‘warm,’ ” says Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi founder Sofia Tchkonia, who it’s worth noting has an impeccable complexion. “This water is perfect for skin diseases, nervous system, insomnia problems. And there is a special scrub, which takes away dead cells—so much that afterward, you have baby skin.” Rich historical and cultural explanations aside, the idea of sitting in a relaxing bath, complete with a massage, sounds great. Plus in Tbilisi, it’s cheap—it will only set you back between 20 to 70 dollars. I’m sold.
As I reach the entrance, a group of thick-browed men smoking cigarettes and drinking tea is gathered near the front door. An Azerbaijani woman greets me inside and gives me directions in Russian for the bath process. First, I am to sit in a steaming pool for 15 minutes and then she will give me a “massage.” Easy enough. I strip down to an embarrassing neon pink thong and submerge myself in a mercury-soaring pool of sulfur water. Though I get used to the smell and scalding water, five minutes in, I feel like I’m going to pass out. It’s too much to handle, and I get up and walk around the private bathhouse: It’s the modern image of through-the-looking-glass ancient opulence—a massive room slathered in tan tiles, a large pool, and two smaller hot and cold versions. The one indicator that I’m not in a Roman Empire time warp is the shower nozzles and a giant, Versace-esque mosaic logo.
Fast-forward to a few minutes later: I’m back in the searing pool, feeling like a poached, wobbly egg. Thankfully, the same woman comes into the room for the second part of the sulfur bath experience, the “massage.” Only now, we are twinning: She’s also now topless. I am ordered to lie on a granite bed and she begins sudsing up my bare chest with a generic bar soap. Despite having three kids, including a 19-year-old son, she is Rubenesque, plush and stunning, like a Caucasus Aphrodite with nary a wrinkle and not a drop of cellulite. I want her skincare secret—because right now, I’m slightly broken out and my pallid sickly face is on fleek.
Her solution, she says, is simple: She uses nothing but has been going to the baths since she was a child. She explains to me that the waters have healing powers, ranging from curing skin ailments like psoriasis to eczema, as well as arthritis. And her reasoning is no old wives’ tale, having been documented by specialists like Irina Toidze, a neurologist at the Institute of Neurology and Neurophysiology in Tbilisi, who has written of its antiseptic, as well as calming benefits on skin. (International studies have also been done on the effects of balneotherapy, or mineral baths, showing that wading in the nutrient-rich hot water could reduce pain for osteoarthrosis or improve antioxidant levels.)
Whatever the health effects are, I’m now conscious of the massive amount of dead skin that is being sloughed off with a hard sponge. After my shedding moment, I am instructed to rinse in a shower, which is also flowing with the same sulfur-rich water, and then submerge myself back into the pool. Afterward, I take the advice of my new friend and dip into the smaller, freezing pool of sulfur water. “It’s good for the skin!” she tells me. “Gets the blood flowing.”