Time-Traveling—Tskaltubo’s Soviet Ghosts

Exactly 10 minutes from Kutaisi, I find myself on a different planet completely by accident. That’s the only feeling one gets at the swimming pool of the abandoned Bathhouse #8 in Tskaltubo. I knew about this pool mostly from photo sessions by my friends and foreign photographers. And now I’m here in person, still suspecting that it’s just a dream.

Text by Nino Kvirikashvili

Bathhouse #8 opened on September 2, 1958. The idea was conceived by architect Ioseb Zaalishvili who, together with Valerian Kedia, developed the master plan of Tskaltubo.

The bathhouse used the first heavyweight, 42-ton reinforced concrete dome roof in Georgia.

“Architecture is the main attraction in Tskaltubo,” Nino Metreveli says. She is standing by to help you plan an architecture tour here free of charge. All you need to do is contact Tskaltubo’s Tourism Development Coordination Center at 39a Rustaveli Avenue at the old railroad station.

“This place seems pretty inconspicuous, an oval-shaped structure somewhere in the park. But once you enter, you are in the presence of magnificent architecture. This element of surprise must be what draws people, along with the removed dome and personal lockers.”

Initially, Bathhouse #8 was modeled after the Sports Palace in Tbilisi. The glass dome was removed at some point, so now you look directly into the sky, which makes the place feel even more mysterious.

Ghosts from Stalin’s era seem to be lurking here. The design of Bathhouse #6 intensifies this impression. The white figures on the building’s relief depicts different scenes from Stalin’s life. Word has it that the structure was built in 9 months, a record-breaking deadline, just for Stalin’s visit. The building is a testimony to the workers’ hard, selfless work in depicting the might of imperialistic glory.

Equally impressive is the Iveria Sanatorium. Its construction was launched in 1952 and the facility, large enough to accommodate 300 guests, opened in 1962. Today, its key attractions include an open roof and an enticing combination of colors. The abandoned complex also has an interesting garden with fountains.

Another gripping site is the Miner Sanatorium, presently a private property closed to the public. Constructed under the supervision of Italian Carlo Moretti, it opened in 1952. The sanatorium could accommodate 350 guests. The building was auctioned off, and a hotel will be built here. The new owners pledge to keep the structure’s original appearance.

It used to be known as Tsentrosoyuz. Today, it is named after the statue of Medea inside this building. Visitors praise its magnificent architecture. This sanatorium for 320 guests was built by Georgian architects in 1962.

“At least, 5-6 wedding celebrations are held here on weekends. Medea and the spring #8 get visitors every day. They are especially popular among urbanists and photographers who flock here from Germany, Holland, and Belgium, among others,” my guide, Nino Metreveli, says.

Tskaltubo-native Salome Kutateladze, the head of the Local Tourism Department, discusses the city’s special features and attractions.

“Thanks to its architecture, urban planning, and landscapes, Tskaltubo is in itself a unique complex. Add to that the architectural aesthetics of Stalin’s era,” Salome Kutateladze says. Tskaltubo is the greenest city in Georgia, she adds, with its park covering 74 hectares and featuring 150 species of perennial plants creating a unique climate.

The resort’s planning itself is quite unique, with 19 sanatoria and pension boarding houses, 9 bathhouses and parks built at different times, along with the local branch of the Scientific Research Institute of Resort Studies and Physiotherapy. The city, built around the park, resembles an amphitheater.

“Tskaltubo consists of 3 zones: balneology, sanitary, and residential. The sanitary zone features hotels, the balneology section is occupied by the park, the only place to offer mineral-rich spring water with healing properties, which supplies the spa centers in the area,” Salome explains.

According to her, 9 spa centers drawing on 9 springs used to operate here, though only 4 are still around today. Of the old hotels, just one continues to offer its services, the former Military Hotel presently known as Legends Tskaltubo Spa Resort.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the vibrant resort life died down in Tskaltubo. Next, about 10,000 refugees fleeing the war in Abkhazian found refuge here and settled in the abandoned sanatoria.

The streets are far from crowded, though the city’s center has it all, including a supermarket, hotels, and taxi cabs. Still, the place seems to be frozen in time, as though symbolizing the ruined Soviet empire.

The ceilings, floors, chandeliers, marble, cladding – everything is unique here, a mix of the classical forms of Stalinist architecture and Georgian national décor. And that’s exactly what visitors find especially enticing.

You can get to Tskaltubo directly from Kutaisi Airport, just 25 kilometers away.

250 kilometers separate Tskaltubo from Tbilisi.

“I never imagined that these buildings and ruins would draw so much attention. But one day photographer Ryan Koopmans visited and introduced the city to the whole world. People have been flocking here ever since. That’s how our architecture tour was born, on its own, something we never really planned. And I hope that Tskaltubo will soon reclaim its old glory,” Salome Kutateladze confides in me.

Though glory is a relative term. With possible changes in Tskaltubo, the Soviet ruins and vintage will disappear, too.

By the way, 3 old hotels have already been bought by private entities, and some still owned by the Ministry of Economy are about to be auctioned off.

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