The Spas of Tskaltubo

As with all proper legends, Tskaltubo’s story begins with a shepherd. Or a chieftain. And undoubtedly somebody tells it as a virgin who first found the miraculous healing hot springs in what is now western Georgia. They were quite popular by the 12th century, though sources know of them as far back as the 7th, which was not a century during which people knew much of anything at all. This has been a noteworthy place for a very long time.

The area became state property of the Georgian Soviet Republic in 1920 after chemical analysis began to understand the unique radon-carbonate water. They built several sanatoriums, which were used as hospitals during WWII, but Tskaltubo really took off during the postwar boom, eventually reaching 22 sanatoriums, bathhouses, and balneological centers in a ring around the town. The water’s special properties dissipate within hours of leaving the ground, so you can’t bottle it, you have to come to the source. And people did. The 5,800 beds were constantly overbooked.

Recreation centers like this were a big deal in the Soviet Union, and doctors could write a prescription for 22 days of rest and rejuvenation. The remarkable thing for me, surrounded worldwide by overworked and burned out peers, is that your average worker could get this treatment just as much as the elite. It was seen as a responsibility both of the state to provide and the individual to take. Including Joseph Stalin.

They built a special bathhouse for the mustachioed murderer when he came in 1953 to treat some leg pain, as well as surprisingly modest little dachas for him and his top lieutenant from the NKVD. They’re still there, along with most of the other facilities, decaying in the quiet after the fall of the USSR, falling apart bit by bit.

Some of the chandeliers still hang, sparkling through the dust. Stairs can carry you up and up, but the banisters might be rotten or gone completely. Opulent halls are now cracked, filling with dry leaves and drier spiderwebs. Stray dogs dance in the ballrooms. And the hot still air had a certain tension, slightly from the prospect of a floor collapsing beneath my feet, but mostly because these spas are not entirely abandoned.

I was exploring Metalurgi, a particularly scenic spa, when I heard racing engines approaching. Outside the cracked windows I saw several shiny black BMWs scream up and into skidding turns outside. I was considering moving in the opposite direction when all became clear, in high heels, a glittering veil, and the rich white cloth of a very expensive wedding dress.

I’m not the only one who finds the buildings eye-catching. Wedding photographers use them too. Though judging by the entourage, this may have been the wedding itself.

Their shouts were a stark contrast among the crumbling shadows, but they were not the most remarkable voices to be heard in Tskaltubo. I’d already met one of those…