About 10 miles from Kutaisi – or in marshrutka time, 20 minutes – you’ll find Tskaltubo. The area is home to incredible ancient history with caves like Sataplia holding dinosaur footprints and human remains dating to some 13,000 years ago; and Prometheus steeped in as much lore as the name suggests. But in more recent centuries, this teeny town was famous for its glamorous spas that served as a reprieve for Soviet citizens. Nowadays it’s mostly swallowed by nature and brings the oxymoron “elegant-ruins” to life.
This place is capital F-fizzling with thermal springs. And not just any thermal springs, these are the ultimate, heal-all-your-ailments-leave-your-walker-at-the-door type springs. Well, so they say. These “waters of immortality” as they’ve been dubbed are jam packed with radon, slightly radioactive (stick with me), hover at a balmy 95 F, are entirely unaffected by weather patterns and have been known to remedy pain caused by everything from cardiovascular diseases to neurological disorders and beyond.
The springs were discovered by chance around the 7th century (imagine tapping that keg) where they remained one of Georgia’s best kept secrets until the first bathhouses were built in the late 1800s. Then, a few decades later following the fall of the Russian Empire, brief Georgian independence, and subsequent Soviet occupation, Tskaltubo began to develop. Soviet planners had big dreams to take it from small Imeretian village to bumping Soviet spa hub, and however short-lived, they mostly succeeded.
In no time at all, Tskaltubo became the place for R&R in the USSR with 19 world class sanitariums towering over the central park. It even earned the title of an official balneotherapy and spa center of the Soviet Union; and at its peak, received up to 6 trains a day from Moscow that helped funnel some 125,000 annual holidayers from all corners of the Union looking to cash in on their “right to rest.” It was so popular in fact, that it was a frequent haunt of Stalin, who some decades earlier, was born Ioseb Jughashvili just a few hours east in Gori. In true dictator fashion, he had his very own bathhouse where he’d decompress among colorful horseshoe crab mosaics after a long day of being one of the worst men ever to walk the earth. Bath House no. 6, or Stalin’s Bath House as its sometimes called, is one of the few still in use today.
Ultimately though, in the grand scheme of things, this chapter of Tskaltubo would be little more than a blip. By the spring of 1991, Georgia broke away from the Soviet Union, just a few months before the fall of the Iron Curtain all together. And what it lost in Soviet oppression, it gained in civil unrest which would soon unfold into a nasty conflict in Abkhazia, a northwest region of Georgia framed by Russia to the north and the Black Sea to the south. A conflict which led to Russian military occupation of the region, ethnic cleansing of Georgians in Abkhazia, and the forced expulsion of 200,000 people in the region. Of the 200,000 IDPs forced to splinter elsewhere, nearly 10,000 sought refuge in the newly emptied sanitariums and hotels of Tskaltubo. After all, with new borders being scribbled across the whole of Eastern Europe, who has time for a spa day? Tskaltubo was practically empty.
Thirty years on, what was meant to be a temporary solution has become a seemingly permanent one. Many of those people are still there, and Abkhazia is still occupied by Russia in what has become one of Georgia’s most complex conflicts that I won’t even attempt to summarize in a single paragraph. They’ve had children and even grandchildren, have lived and died, and just like anyone else, have wanted the opportunity to prosper. I say this not to dissuade you from visiting, but to remind you that Tskaltubo is so much more than a ruined Baden-Baden wanna be. Sure, it’s an urban explorer’s paradise, a treasure trove for hidden-history lovers and yada ya. But among the cobwebbed chandeliers, ivy laden foyers, and crumbling spiral staircases, lies a bigger story of time and its passing. From dinosaur migrations to fallen empires, glamorous eras, revolutions and (un)civil wars, Tskaltubo is a place where it just keeps on ticking.