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Sulphur baths

Walk away from the river and Gorgasali Street onto Abanos Street, home to the sulfur baths and immediately recognizable by their domes. Almost all of the baths of Tbilisi are in this vicinity. The baths are, of course, an inextricable part of Tbilisi's history- responsible, according to legend, for Vakhtang Gorgasali's decision to move his capital here. Rich in hydrogen sulfide, these waters have curative effects that have been commented upon by numerous travelers.

In the 12th century, according to historians, some 68 baths used these waters. By the 17th century, however, six were left. At the corner of Abanos and Akhundov streets is the oldest remaining bath: the Herekle Bath. Like all the sulfur baths in Tbilisi, the baths themselves are below ground. The domes serve the bath as a cupola does a church, providing wonderful oblique illumination that adds to the near mystical experience of it all. Anyone fortunate enough to have enjoyed the pleasures of the Cagaloglu Hamami Baths in Istanbul will have an immediate sense of deja vu, especially if you have a massage.

The massage is an absolute must. For a reasonable amount of lari, a small, wiry masseur (or masseuse) will come wearing a black khalat (robe), strip down to shorts, lay you down on a stone slab, thwack and rub your back, legs, and arms, stand on your back and walk up and down your spine, take off your dry skin with horse-hair mitten, and show you to a shower. A most extraordinary balloon of soap is created from a piece of old material with which you are given a washing of delicious refinement. Lying down on the slab again you are gone over with a lighter mitten and receive another massage. Buckets of warm water are unceremoniously thrown at you to finish you off. Few pleasures in life are better.

At the end of the square, at 2 Abano Street, is the unmistakable Orbeliani Bathhouse, distinguished by its blue faience facade, lancet arches, and flanking minarets. It is the single best remaining example of Islamic architecture in Tbilisi. Also called Chreli Abano (Motley-colored Bath) and Tsisperi Abano (Blue Bath), the building dates from the second half of the 17th century, though the facade was largely redone in the 19th century.

Whether you go to the Herekle or the Orbeliani baths or both, be sure to arrange for a pot of tea after your session. As Peter the Great himself said, "Sell your white stockings if you have to, but have tea after your bath."

Other baths in the area are the 18th-century Bebutov Bath on Akhundov Street and the 17th-century Sumbatov Bath on the right bank of the Tsavkisistskali River. While you're on Akhundov Street, stop at the bakery (at number six) to see a baker at work and to try a variety of Georgian breads.

The area immediately around the baths affords some of the most interesting walking you can do in Tbilisi. Walk up Botanikuri Street to the only remaining mosque in the city. This Sunnite Mosque was built in the 19th century and serves the largely Islamic population of this neighbourhood and others throughout the city. Feel free to enter. You will, of course, have to remove your shoes.