More than a massage

An Irishwoman’s Diary: Close encounter in a thermal pool

“Brandishing a   pot scrubber and grabbing my left arm she proceeded to scrape most of the skin off my arm.”

“Brandishing a pot scrubber and grabbing my left arm she proceeded to scrape most of the skin off my arm.”


I was born in the month of February, so am, therefore an Aquarian. My friend Elise was born in March, so she is a Piscean – both are water signs. I wonder is that the reason we both have a predilection for swimming? Everywhere we travel we manage to find somewhere to have a bathe. Sometimes it will be a proper swim in the sea or a lake. Sometimes just a wallow in the shallows of an otherwise dangerous river. Sometimes an exciting plunge under a waterfall.

And a few times we have had bathes in thermal pools, both in Kamchatka in Russia’s far east and in Georgia in central Asia. It is the latter that became a most surprising event.

Elise and I were back in Tblisi having visited the Caucasus in northern Georgia and trekked up the Sno Valley to the tiny and very poor mountain village of Juta. The scenery had been spectacular, but now we were back in town and doing a bit of rather gentler sightseeing.

Among other places of interest, it had been recommended that we should have a relaxing session in Tblisi’s famous thermal pool and indulge in a massage.

The baths are beautiful from the outside, covered in turquoise and cream mosaic tiles – very Turkish looking with two elegant minarets either side of the arched entrance way.

Naturally enough, we didn’t speak Georgian, nor even Russian; nevertheless, we thought we had made ourselves understood when we ordered a bath and massage. We were given a large white sheet each and rubber flip-flops and shown into a long tiled changing-room, off which was the art deco tiled pool-room, all faintly smelling of sulphur.

We had the place to ourselves so undressed and launched ourselves into the pool which was just about large enough to swim a couple of strokes. It was quite deliciously warm and relaxing.

After half an hour or so, we expected our masseur – or masseuse – to come and call us but nobody had arrived. We drew lots for who would have the first massage by throwing our flip-flops as far as possible. I won, or lost, depending on how you looked at it.

Eventually, wrapped in our sheets, we opened the door and waving to the reception desk, with rather strange gesticulations, mimed massage. Within a few minutes a small dark, rather fierce-looking lady in an operating gown arrived with us and beckoned me on to the marble slab. She whipped off my sheet, leaving me naked and nervous, then, to my utter amazement, as swiftly, dropped her gown to the floor and stood before me similarly unadorned – might it possibly have been a masseur?

Brandishing a green nylon pot scrubber and grabbing my left arm she proceeded to scrape most of the skin off my arm.

When I uttered a yelp of anguish, she glanced angrily up, eye-balling me, and challenging any further cries for help. Every so often she knocked the dead derma off the scrubber on to the floor. I could see Elise behind my torturer doubled up with silent laughter.

I endured a defoliation of the right arm before being laid on my front and almost enjoyed a similar treatment to my back, bottom and backs of my legs, only tempered by the dread of having my front attended to in the same way.

However, she finished me off with just scraping the fronts of my legs. I must have lost pounds of skin as I saw it in nasty little grey piles, like dead leaves, on the tiled floor.

Needless to say, I was absolutely delighted when it came to Elise’s turn and I could laugh at her discomfort. When at last we had both been flayed almost to the bone, and our butcher had re-robed and left us along with our dead skin, we returned to the pool floating listlessly on our backs and laughing at what had befallen us.

Sometime later, not having had the relaxing massage as recommended, but spotlessly clean and somewhat lighter in weight, we sailed out of the baths, walking on air and feeling much refreshed from our experiences. It wasn’t until the following day that I noticed the bruising on the tops of my arms!

Diana Gleadhill is the author of Kamchatka. A Journal and Guide to Russia’s Land of Ice and Fire, Odyssey Publications