Brandy at 9 am is surprisingly pleasant. My day starts with a little old lady bringing me cold breaded fish, coffee, and then after a brief moment, and she reappears with a water bottle.
The bottle is filled with a golden liquid which she pours for me, homemade brandy. Jenn and I are in a small guesthouse in Borjomi, Georgia, a country located south of Russia in the Caucasus mountains. I'm here sitting at the kitchen table with our host, a friendly elderly Georgian woman. She is smiling at me while speaking Russian quickly as I make one cultural breakfast mistake after another. Coffee and then a sip of cold water, bad for your stomach, I learn. I am offered a 2nd serving of fish and attempt to turn it down...that does not work here. No matter how full you are, you don’t refuse food from a Georgian grandmother. Well, at least I can show my gratitude by clearing the table. Just as I pick up my plate, a hand taps me on the shoulder. "Sit, you are a guest! Drink''! Well, who am I to argue, and also, what's this another glass of brandy? Sure this brandy is actually pretty good. It’s better than some of the store-bought brands back home, and she tells me it's made by her son Georgi. I ask if Georgi sells his brandy using hand gestures paired with the three Georgian words I know. After failing miserably, I then use google translate or, as my host has taken to calling it, “the machine” to get my question across. What does a bottle of homemade brandy in the mountains of Georgia run, you ask; $1.50 USD.
I would eye a random water bottle filled with homemade hooch with suspicion in my early travel days, but those days are past me. Hell, I may be starting to believe that this stuff is a remedy for all the world's ills. After breakfast was finished, we decided to explore the town. On our walk, we are joined by a few stray dogs. If you visit Georgia, you undoubtedly run into the street dogs, they are everywhere, but most are good-natured and friendly. The dogs, after a few head rubs, lead us down the main road into the town.
In the distance, there is a bridge that loops in a circle, something that appears straight out of a cartoon that the characters would run upside down through. There is a massive hotel as you look past the bridge; it looks like something celebrities or foreign dignitaries would stay in. I have no idea what it costs to stay, but it looks expensive, probably a place a former Russian tsar would have enjoyed. Oh, did I mention the Romanovs had a summer palace here? They were the last tsars of Russia, hung out with that Rasputin fellow, and the Bolsheviks killed the whole family in the Russian revolution.
The town of Borjomi as it was in the Romanov's time is still today a resort town. Borjomi is situated in the Mtkvari river gorge and produces famous mineral water. Depending on which Georgian you ask, it either rivals the French(Perrier, Evian) or is well above the dirty French water. They also have a bridge here built by Alexandre Gustav Eiffel, the architect of the Eiffel Tower. I'm not sure if the Georgians are rubbing it in now on the French, or they’re going after wine and baguettes next.
Borjomi Mineral water is the number one export of Georgia, so the mineral water is pretty well known, it might even be sold in your local store, or you can snag yourself a six-pack on Amazon, but it will run; you $30 bucks! If you visit Borjomi, come to the town’s central park, bring your own bottle and try some for yourself. The water is free straight out of the fountain spring in the park. Borjomi Mineral water is supposed to be good for your digestive health, cure people of various illnesses and get rid of hangovers. This last part is helpful if you decide to drink in Georgia and it is difficult not to. The local alcohol called Cha-Cha is strong, unregulated firewater brandy. No need to worry, though, as Georgians say that this too is good for one's health, so you're good either way! In fact, mixing a glass of mineral water in between the shots of Cha-Cha is an excellent way to slow down your drinking without offending your Georgian hosts.
At the end of the town’s central park, a trail leads into the forest towards the Tsar baths. Ah, a lovely day sitting in the hot springs relaxing just what we need.
It is nice but let me tell you, the middle of December in Georgia is cold, and it will be a bit of a hike to get from the park to the springs. The hike itself is not steep, but the ground is uneven and rocky, so suitable footwear is a must. The trail follows a river at points that offers beautiful views along the way. As we approached the hot springs, they appeared empty, aside from a solitary worker sitting inside a wooden shack. Entrance to the springs is 9 Georgian Lari or $2.50 USD a person. From my online research, I know that one should be warm, one lukewarm, and one is cold as I look out at the three pools. No signs are telling the temperatures of the pools that I can find. Next, I look to see how far it is to the changing rooms. The changing rooms sit up on top of a small hill in the distance with snow-covered steps zig-zagging up to it from the pools. I think to myself; this is going to be like the Russian roulette of polar plunges.
We plan to change quickly into our bathing suits, hustle down the snowy steps, and pray we choose the pool that is not cold. To make it more difficult, upon entering the changing rooms, we find they are not heated and causing us to shake from the cold as we undress. A few moments later, Jenn and I are in our swimsuits, and we say to each other that the closest pool to where the water comes out of the ground should be the warmest. The air temperature outside here is cold enough that your feet freeze and stick to the cement if you don't move quickly. An odd feeling being barefoot in that level of cold, one I imagine that Cha-Cha would help a person cope with if we had any. It is only minutes but feels longer as we walk down the snowy steps and plunge into the pool.
The water is warm as we sink into the pool so that our heads are just above the water. A slight odor of rotten eggs is in the air, as these are sulfur pools. However, one cannot complain about the smell when freezing your ass off. Also, I would feel like a colossal pussy complaining as two grandmothers have shown up and are swimming in the next pool over, farther away from the hot water source, so obviously colder. I decided to test my mettle and go over to that pool and stick my foot in; at this moment, I discover I am indeed a pussy. I scamper back to my warm pool with Jenn. The water the old ladies were in was barely warmer than a swimming pool at home, and the temp outside here is below freezing. Luckily, Georgian women are more concerned with my well-being than laughing at me, pointing to stay in the water. We spend another hour in the pools, and during the last ten minutes, I begin thinking of the changing room; it looks so far away, and this time I will be soaking wet and going uphill to get there. I come up with an ingenious plan to quickly dry my upper body, throw on my coat and then go as fast as I can up the hill. The moment comes to put my plan into action and with a mix of adrenaline and old ladies yelling at me push myself through the subfreezing temperatures up the hill to the changing room. I'm sure those ladies had a better plan, but alas, I can’t understand what they were yelling at me to do.
On the way out, fully clothed but still slightly wet, we wave goodbye to the ladies and start the hike back to town. The sky is beginning to get dark by the time we get to town, and you know what? I feel pretty good, and maybe there is something to the medicinal qualities the locals talk about. Now is it the Sulfur springs, mineral water, Brandy or Cha-Cha? The only way to find out for sure is to spend time here yourself, but I think these Georgians are on to something.