Notes from Batumi

A sleepy little coastal town that’s shaking off its erstwhile identity as a grubby port town

Among the countries that share a coastline along the Black Sea, Georgia has the smallest share and Batumi, its prominent city on the coast, is a place of multiple identities. Batumi is testimony to the outreach of post-Soviet Georgian economy aided by tourism. In particular, the economy is largely fuelled by its flourishing casinos that attract cash-laden tourists from Turkey and other Arab countries where gambling is illegal. Not to undermine the city’s other unambiguous credentials since it serves as an entry and transit point into Turkey and then on to Europe, but the economic boom is no doubt a product of tourism.

When my friend and I decided to spend a few days on the coast in Georgia, Batumi emerged as an obvious choice because — one, it was the western most seaside town on the coast and the trip enabled an almost cross-country train ride from the capital city, Tbilisi. Second, a travel piece had called it “the most charming” coastal town in Georgia. We didn’t look further. In truth, however, charming may not be the first word I’d use to characterise Batumi. It’s got the makings of a sleepy little coastal town shaking off its erstwhile identity as a grubby port town by gradually redefining itself.

Without running the risk of being too unkind, the city’s skyline and its new buildings, though heavily influenced by modern architecture, lean heavily towards Soviet-era grandiose. Of the three new hotel properties on the beachfront, at least one had questionable design aesthetics (think of a gold-plated miniature Ferris wheel sculpture installed on one of them).

A beach promenade extended for four kilometres along the coastline with a brick-red cycle path for the non-existent biker. A viewing tower, called Alphabet Tower, looking like an elongated igloo in steel and glass, tried to oversell itself as Batumi’s Eiffel Tower. The construction boom was spearheaded by the exiled former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, and earned him the moniker “Misha the Builder”. In contrast is a marvellous engineering feat: stainless steel sculptures of two lovers, from a tragic Georgian love story, that revolve and meld into each other before parting, symbolising their unfulfilled love.

To me, part of Batumi’s charm lies in the fact that it doesn’t seem like it’s even trying to shake off its port-town image and that unpretentiousness is refreshing. All it wants to do is cash in on the tourism boom. So there are flashy casinos, Thai massage parlours, Ukrainian restaurants where the tables are waited by gruffly babushkas alongside modern Georgian cafes, chic chacha (Georgian grappa) bars and waffle cafés. But summer lasts only a few months and the rest of the year, the city seems to curl up into its comfortable shell, battered by the cold winds from the Black Sea.

True, it’s possible to envision Batumi as a charming seaside town by strolling down the cobblestoned streets in the old quarters as they reverberate with the footsteps of tourists. But that’s only the partial truth. You haven’t seen a city if you haven’t seen its ugly bits. We saw plenty of it and not necessarily by choice. We took a state-run bus tour (to the beautiful botanical garden perched on top of a cluster of hills) conducted by a perm-haired Georgian grandmother who eyeballed us with amusement. On the trip, we experienced the unruliest traffic jam of our entire trip. We stayed at a Khrushchev-era building whose dimly-lit, claustrophobia-inducing, coin-operated lift, sans door sensors, threatened to close in on us before we boarded it. We tagged along on an early-morning bird census expedition with a bunch of sweet Georgians, driving along mud roads that were once littered with land mines.

Enamoured by the country’s fresh produce and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, we thought we couldn’t have a single bad meal in Georgia but Batumi broke that promise. The culprit: the open-faced cheese boat, called Ajarian Kachapuri, that could be less pretentious (What’re the fresh egg yolks doing there anyway?) and more flavourful.

All that aside, Batumi has more than a few redeeming factors — its oil refineries are long gone; it’s at the footstep of the Lesser Caucasus mountains and it’s already a flourishing beach resort town. In the end, we didn’t feel short changed. I thought long and hard as to why that was. Then it came to me. The city seemed too comfortable in its chaotic existence and if there’s one notion I can get behind as an Indian traveller, it is that feeling of conducting life in perpetual bedlam.

The Stuttgart-based writer is as happy on the road as he is tending to his houseplants, which often breed fruit flies.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 12:45:48 AM |

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