In a Soviet era sanatorium set in a sprawling park in western Georgia, elderly patients wander long marble corridors in white dressing gowns as they await their next treatment. Most are here to bathe in the radon-carbonate thermal springs in private bathtubs and enjoy a hydro massage whereby a nurse applies pressurised jets of water across the body, but other options range from aqua aerobics classes to the “application of mineral mud”.
Bathhouse Number 6 is today the only operating sanatorium in Tskaltubo – a small town 20 minutes drive from from Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city. But before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 there were around 20 establishments and accompanying hotels which provided accommodation for some 5,000 guests.
Natural mineral springs were first discovered in Tskaltubo in the 12th century – some have said earlier – and the first bathhouses were opened in the late 19th century, but it was the designation of Tskaltubo as a balneotherapy resort in 1931 that made the town famous. By the 1980s it was one of the most popular tourist resorts in the Soviet Union.
Spas in the west have elitist connotations, but in the Soviet Union doctors prescribed stays so that patients could benefit from the healing properties of the natural mineral springs which maintain a constant temperature of between 33 and 35C. Under the communist regime’s constitution all citizens were entitled to two weeks paid holiday.
Joseph Stalin himself is said to have been a visitor to Tskaltubo, with his favourite swimming pool apparently being at Bathhouse Number 6. The grand building, with features Corinthian columns in the main airy entrance hall where today treatments are booked, has a frieze on the front facade depicting the Soviet leader shaking hands with a group of people.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 and Georgia subsequently gained its independence, the sanatoriums and hotels lost their regular flow of guests from neighbouring countries and fell into disrepair. Some buildings were converted into make-shift accommodation for refugees who had fled from conflict in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. Others were simply left to the elements and today lie as ruins.
Just a short walk through the park from Bathhouse Number 6, I visited what remains of Bathhouse Number 8. The building stands as a shell, with holes in the ceiling and is covered in weeds. There are no doors, so you can walk inside and clearly see the surrounds of individual baths arranged in circles where Soviet tourists would have come to take the waters. In other abandoned neo-classical buildings you can see grand staircases and colourful ceramic tiles on the walls.
Dodging the pools of rain water in the abandoned Bathhouse Number 8, Tskaltubo’s glory days as a spa resort seemed long gone. But various plans are circulating to transform the town’s fortunes and become a major destination for tourists again. Given the state of many of the sanatorium buildings it’s going to take a considerable amount of investment before visitors are enjoying the mineral springs in large numbers anytime soon.