Joseph Stalin’s private bath house, Tskaltubo

Spring No. 6

Spring No. 6

Joseph Stalin’s private bath house, Tskaltubo

Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, used to return to his home state of Georgia (in the Caucasus) to enjoy the benefits of the spa waters of the town of Tskaltubo – which was also a popular health resort for hundreds of thousands of Soviet workers and peasants – but if he was making this very long journey then surely he was returning to a site where he could enjoy the benefits on offer in the height of luxury, no?

Stalin wasn’t keen on air travel (from what I’ve been able to learn he only ever flew on two occasions, to the Tehran Conference and back in November/December 1943) and usually travelled by train – probably in a carriage similar to the one that is currently sitting outside the Stalin Museum in Gori. To make that journey to the spa town of Tskaltubo in western Georgia, therefore, was quite an investment in time and effort. Even today the journey takes at least two days and nights so there must have been something special awaiting him in Spring No 6 – the finest of all the spa buildings in the resort.

Spring No 6 is one of the few that are functioning in the town now. (Springs No 1 and No 3 are also functioning as of 2019 but they are much more modest structures.) However, the renovation of Spring No 6 has destroyed much of the original decoration from the time of its construction – apart from the main entrance portico and the entrance hall. In fact although very smart and clean the facilities that present day visitors use are somewhat sterile and lack any of the decoration I’ve seen in some of the ruined structures that are in and around Tskaltubo’s Central Park.

One area that has not undergone total renovation (there has been a replacement of the exterior windows as part of the general clean up of the building and also some work has begin on the ventilation system) is the room that I was directed to when I asked ‘Which was Stalin’s private bathhouse?’

I was directed to a woman who was sitting at a desk at the far end of the long, ground floor corridor that goes off to the right of the main entrance hall, running parallel to the frontage of the building. She had been asked to direct me to this special location.

It was with a feeling of suppressed excitement as I walked down the corridor. What was I going to see? What little hidden gem seen by relatively few people from western Europe (and many more from the east) was about to reveal itself to me? Surely the leader of the USSR, the country that had defeated the fascist Hitlerite beast only a few years before would be revelling in glory and have a private bathhouse rivalling those of the Roman Emperors?

Stalin was a megalomaniac and monster (according to the fascists he defeated, the capitalists and imperialist whose rule and control of the life of billions of people he constantly challenged, and those trotskyites, revisionist and social democrats whose lying and duplicity he spent much of his life uncovering and crushing with the necessary force) so what I was about to enter would be a grand arena, decorated in a manner paying homage to the Generalissimo.

According to the fascists, imperialists, revisionists and other anti-Communists Stalin would have surrounded himself with memories of his past actions – such as the destruction of the traitors, splitters, wreckers, renegades and fifth-columnists in the Soviet Union, the the late 1930s, before the imminent war against Hitlerite Germany.

Surely in the tiles on the floors and the walls there would be the severed heads of those internal enemies; Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev and other Party members who sought to undermine the iron unity of the Marxist-Leninist Party and colluded with the enemies of the Soviet people; Tukhachevsky who saw the Red Army as just another, more modern, army of Tsarism; the kulaks who sabotaged production in the countryisde and did everything they could to prevent the transformation of the agricutural economy through collectivisation; and the external enemies, especially the Hitlerite fascists.

And I was really interested in what sort of desk would be located in the bath house. Every picture (photo or painting) I’ve ever seen of Joe sitting and writing at a desk has had the caption ‘Stalin signs yet another death warrant.’ This was even when closer analysis of the actual document said ‘Dear Mr Milkman, no milk today’. I have never seen a semi-naked Joe doing this but if he spent so much time in such activities then he wouldn’t have wanted to have wasted time when he was up to his chest in warm spa water. So a desk which could have held stacks of pre-printed death warrants, a bunch of pens and gallons of ink would have to have been part of the architects remit.

My heart started to beat faster as I approached the woman sitting at her table at the end of the corridor. She didn’t speak but indicated a door way just behind her, on her left. I walked the handful of metres to the door and realised it was an ante-room.

But what an ante-room. If was about twice the size of my bathroom – and I live in a modest flat. How could this room cope with the large entourage that would have accompanied Comrade Stalin on his journeys. There was a window to the outside, in one corner was a single leather covered armchair but apart from that the room was devoid of any decoration – but with a parquet floor in a fairly reasonably condition.

Entrance to Stalin's private bath house

Entrance to Stalin’s private bath house

To the right another door led to a room with tiling on the walls and the floors. I took two steps to the door and had my first view of Comrade Stalin’s private bathhouse.

My first reaction was shock and surprise. I uttered a few words, I think audibly.

‘They’re taking the piss.’

In front of me was a tiny space – considering the size of the building. My first view was towards the corner of the room with two large windows at 90º to each other. I looked to my right thinking the main body of the room was there. All I saw was a tiled wall.

The room was about 6 metres square, with a high ceiling and with the walls covered in blue and cream ceramic tiles (some missing). There was some decoration on the walls but this was of a simple, geometric design. There was a walk way around the room which was covered in small square tiles that were set in simple geometric patterns, in places starting to come loose. In the centre of the room was a sunken bath, about 4 or so metres square. At one corner there were fours steps down to the pool with a tubular steel handrail on the left side. Around the edge of the pool were tiled covered concrete benches. There was no sign of a desk at all. But most shocking of all was the decoration at the bottom of the pool.

Stalin's jelly fish

Stalin’s jelly fish

In place of the images I had expected there was a mosaic of cartoon like jelly fish – with anthropomorphic characteristics. Four of these giant jelly fish were half out of the water and seemed to be about to attack a very strange creature (possibly representing a crab but if so it’s missing a couple of legs) which is sitting on a round patch of sand. In the water are cartoon fish and a huge number of starfish.

There were signs of renovation of the space, which seemed to have stalled. The only new work that had been completed was the replacement of the large windows – this would have taken place so as not to spoil the look of the facade of the building from the park. If the present owners follow their past practice then the jelly fish will go – that would be a shame.

The knowledge then crept up on me. This wasn’t a room built especially for one of the greatest leaders of the working class of all time – this was a children’s paddling pool.

But it was also Uncle Joe’s private pool. He is recorded as having been there some time in 1951. The search is on for photographic evidence.

Just goes to show that you have to be careful what you wish for. You will almost always end up being disappointed.

Location

Spring No. 6 is in the northern part of Tskaltubo’s Central Park, about a ten minute walk from the present day market in the centre of town.

GPS

42.3223

42.5989

How to get to Tskaltubo

Marshrutka number 30 leaves from its terminus on the western side of the Red Bridge, which crosses the Rioni River beside the main Kutaisi market. Closer to the market is the stop for a number of buses but you walk through that area (passing a cheap out door bar on the right) to cross the red painted iron bridge. The marshrutka will be on the left once on the other side. They leave roughly every 20 minutes. Cost GEL 1.20 (not the GEL 2 as in some guide books – although some of the drivers will take the GEL 2 and say nothing although others are honest). The price will be on a piece of paper somewhere, normally at the front of the vehicle.

Journey takes about 30 minutes to get to the centre of Tskaltubo. Once you cross the railway track (after 20 or so minutes) you are at the bottom end of Central Park. The marshrutka then follows Rustaveli Street on the eastern edge of the park passing the railway station and information office, the Municipality, Court and Police buildings, and then the entrance to the huge (now luxury 5 star) Tskaltubo Spa Resort all on the right. (The marshrutka takes the same route when going back to Kutaisi and can just be flagged down anywhere along this road.)

When you get to the northern edge of the park the road widens out and after passing the Sports Palace on the left and the now being renovated (although seemed stalled to me) huge Shakhtar Sanatorium on the right the marshrutka heads up to the main market. Get off when the bus turns right at the corner by the ugly, modern Sataplia Hotel. This is where you would look for another marshrutka if you wanted to go to the Prometheus Cave.

To get to Central Park go back along Tseretseli Street (not the road you came up), pass the mural of the telecommunication workers on your left and head down to a very wide road junction. Cross this wide expanse of tarmac towards an arch and at the open space at the top end of the park head south and pass by the right hand side of Spring No. 3. Continue south until you reach the white, side wall of Spring No. 6. The entrance is on the west side of the building.

Alternatively (if arriving by marshrutka) you could get off at the main entrance to the Tskaltubo Spa Resort and walk towards the back of Spring No. 6 through the park.

Tskaltubo – Prometheus Cave

Prometheus Cave

Prometheus Cave

Tskaltubo – Prometheus Cave

What’s there?

A wonderful and not too exploited and damaged natural wonder. There may be many of them in the world – after all so much of the world’s land mass was once under the sea – but that doesn’t lessen the amazement of what you see and pass that took millions of years to create.

And I think the Prometheus Cave is a good example of the different manner in which these limestone caves evolved into the natural wonders they are.

There are the classic stalagmites (rising up from the ground) and the stalactites hanging from the ceiling – the way we were taught to remember the difference when I was young was the idea that tights come down.

But as in all limestone caves there is everything in between – and more.

Cascades that look like frozen waterfalls. Huge globes of accumulated limestone which have percolated through the rock above. And shapes which are difficult to imagine how they were formed with the accumulation of a grain of sand at a time. Every time I’ve had the opportunity to visit such caves I’ve seen something I had never seen before.

Once you have an idea of the process of the construction of these weird and wonderful formations you realise how insignificant our short time is on the planet. When it takes a thousand years for a small stalactite to grow one centimetre and then you see huge pillars that have taken millions of years to reach such proportions we should reflect of the minor part we play in the Earth’s development although play the major part in its destruction.

We are told that Georgians have really embraced religion since the fall of the Soviet Union. How deep that religious feeling is I don’t know. When certainties collapse people have often, historically grasped for something to take its place. The fact that such beliefs can provide some comfort goes no way in solving the economic, social and political problems that gave rise to the uncertainty in the first place.

That being the case I always wonder how Georgians, clutching at these religious straws, rationalise locations such as the Prometheus cave. Why would a all-powerful God make something of sea creatures, then push that land high into the air and then ‘destroy’ the creation by forcing water through it? It must be great when you accept a religion (of whatever brand) as it allows you to avoid the awkward questions of life and you can just switch the brain off.

Why go?

Because if you are near by it would be a shame to miss it. You could take the approach that once you’ve seen one limestone cave system you’ve seen them all. But that’s not true. Every time you go around a corner you see something unique and unrepeatable. A result of the structured chaos that is nature.

And the way the whole cave is illuminated makes a difference. I thought, in the main, the lighting in Prometheus was used in a reasonably subtle manner. And digital cameras are great at creating a colour scheme that wouldn’t have been possible with film – unless you spent hours in a darkroom.

What’s presented in the slide show below is an idea of what you would see in an hour or so walk in the semi-darkness.

It might be worth mentioning that there are a lot of steps, both going up and down, on this expedition. It’s also wet, after all the water dripping through was what created the cave and its architectural wonders in the first place. If that’s a problem DON’T GO!

How to get there

From the nearest town of Kutaisi (unless you are staying in the spa town of Tskaltubo) take the No 30 Marshrutka from the other side of the Red Bridge to the town centre – to the west of the market area. They leave every 20 minutes, more or less, on the hour, 20 and then 40 past. The guide books say GEL 2 but the cost is GEL 1.20 (shown normally on a piece of paper above the driver’s head at the front of the mini-bus). Journey takes about 20 minutes and get off at the market area, just after you pass the large Hotel Prometheus on the left. The road into Tskaltubo goes around the outside of a park and it’s when you leave the park behind and head into the commercial part of the town that you want to get off.

When you get off the No 30 look for the No 42 – or if you look like a tourist they will look for you. This has no set timetable but will leave when there are at least 3 people. In the low season that might mean a bit of a wait – I was there for over an hour before two other people arrived looking for transport. The journey takes less than 20 minutes and you will be dropped off at the car park at the entrance to the Visitor Centre. Cost of one way journey GEL 2. The driver will wait to take you back – about an hour or so later.

Cost of visiting the cave

I thought it was against World Trade Organisation rules for there to be a different price for locals as opposed to foreigners. That is increasingly not the case as I have now experienced this situation in a number of countries.

Assuming anyone reading this is not Georgian then the prices are:

Adult entrance: GEL 23

For the boat trip at the end of the walk: GEL 17.25

Prices for children are roughly half the adult fare.

Sitting in a boat in a cave doesn’t really rock my boat but it might some. More for the children, I think.

Once out of the cave system turn left, uphill a bit, and about 10-15 minutes later arrive at the car park where the No 42 Marshrutka that brought you will be waiting.

Opening times

10.00 – 16.00

but last ticket will be sold a little more than an hour before closing time.

Closed on Mondays.

Sataplia

There’s another cave system close to Kutaisi, this time at Sataplia. This is not that easy to get to by public transport as some guidebooks would suggest. The direct marshrutka wasn’t running the day I visited and I had to take the one that dropped me off at the bottom of a 2.5km climb up quite a steep road. The road is a dead end as it only goes to the cave.

Sataplia is now open everyday, 10.00 – 18.00. Cost is GEL 17.25 for foreign adults (less than half that for locals).

There is a guided tour with set departure times. They alternate between being Georgian/Russian and Georgian/English. Apart from the cave there’s also a small ‘museum’ with information about the park (in Georgian and English) as well as a moving (and roaring) model of a meat eating dinosaur.

A cafe and viewing platform – with a glass floor – has also been constructed which provides a view down on the valley of the River Rioni as well as the town of Kutaisi.

Personally I was disappointed with Sataplia. Perhaps I had been led to expect more. I thought Prometheus by far the better of the two. And unless you have your own transport it isn’t always convenient to get to and away from.

Dinosaur footprints

Sataplia is also unique in the fact that it is the site of an small area where dinosaur footprints, dated more than 100 million years ago, can be found. What also makes it quite unique is the fact there are prints of vegetable feeders as well as meat eaters – although separated by a few thousand years.

This, I must admit, I found slightly underwhelming. The fact they are there is more interesting than the reality. Preserved footprints, however old, don’t look much more interesting than a dog’s footprint in modern cement. But then I might just be being churlish.