Banging on about Batumi (and Adjara)

Posted on October 28, 2012 by

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Everyday I think myself lucky that I am in Batumi.

Before flying out to co-teach in Georgia, I had packed my suitcase trying to second-guess where I would be stationed and I fully expected the worst placement possible.

In my mind that equated to being holed up on the side of a mountain with only three cows and a goat for company. Not only that but I’d have to contend with freezing weather from October until the following April. I foresaw no outside contact, no social life and only two marshrutka rides a day to the nearest village.

To my delight I was told that my destination would be Batumi, the summer holiday capital of Georgia. Such was my disbelief that I had to double check to make sure my eyes had not deceived me when I was given the slip of paper confirming my destination on the final day of TLG training.

Having done a little research before I set off to co-teach in Georgia, I concluded that Batumi was one of the places I most wanted to be for the duration of my contract. It offers a harbour and a beach for starters – something important for a person who’s never lived near the sea – and even now in the heart of October the sun burns as brightly as if it was August.

The more that I’ve explored the city, the closer it has drawn me towards it. Batumi gives the impression of simply biding its time until it becomes the next ‘must visit’ destination promoted by broadsheet newspapers and television travel series’ in the UK and USA. Only then will the world recognise the appeal of this confident city making great strides on the Black Sea coastline.

I suspect even if the world did come to visit Batumi, the city’s attitude would not change, teenagers would still be socialising on the promenade and old men would continue to play chess or nardi in the parks. The Adjaran capital city appears to have almost everything; multi-million (possibly billion) dollar investment, a natural harbour and as much beach/coastline as the eye can see. If and when the much heralded Trump Tower comes to fruition, Batumi can confidently point to another architectural landmark – similar to the many which already grace the city – and use it as a barometer of how far the small fishing village has developed. If the city elders could pull their act together and finally deliver on a promise to build the new Dinamo Batumi stadium by the airport then it would be perfection complete.

Pinned between the warm Black Sea waters and the tropical vegetation hills, you are spoilt for choice relating to outdoor activities in the sphere around Batumi. If you are not a sea person then explore the countryside terrain which not only protects the city but offers superb views of Batumi, the Black Sea, Kobuleti and Poti on a clear day. One 20 minute marshrutka ride can whisk you from the hustle of the city’s sprawling and rustic marketplaces to the edge of nowhere; where solitude, spectacular mountain views and pristine streams lull you into believing you’ve discovered virgin territory.

It seems incredible that until the late 19th century Batumi was a small hamlet. In the space of 130 years it has transformed into possibly Georgia’s second most important city (apologies to Kutaisi). It is a city of contrasts. It is the third city of Georgia but could be mistaken for a Caribbean holiday retreat. It is the beating heart of the Adjaran region but still retains the traditional soul of the proud autonomous republic despite its cityscape changing beyond recognition. For every new development, there are still remnants of its Soviet past fading or crumbling in full view. For every gleaming new hotel or conference centre built there are still hundreds of small outlets specialising in different modes (anyone who has seen Shoe Alley by the soon-to-be completed Olympic swimming pool complex will know what I mean) and for all the pretensions of order and ‘westernisation’, it’s enjoyable watching traffic on the outskirts brought to a standstill through sheep, goats and cows crossing the road. Meanwhile in those traffic jams street vendors sell everything from fruit to flip-flops, dependent on the time and season.

The jewel of Adjara seems to adopt a carefree and open attitude synonymous with coastal cities and this particularly manifests itself in the people residing here. It is said that people make the city (or I may have just paraphrased this from elsewhere) and in Batumi it is no different. If the weather is warm, the locals need no second offer to relax on the pebble beaches and swim in the Black Sea – no matter that jellyfish often drift as close as 10 metres to the shoreline. The chaotic free-for-all at the marshrutka-yard roundabout is not quite in the Arc de Triumph category but would still give English-speaking drivers palpitations at the very thought of driving around it after one day’s hassle, while for every non-descript casino there are scores of bars with their unique charm and warmth. All the while people watch, debate or simply drink their home made chacha, offering their opinions on anything and everything in this, one of the most exciting cities in the Caucasian region.

For some volunteers, being stationed in villages where a traditional way of life is still prevalent is the best thing which ever happened to them, whilst Batumi may be their least desirable choice. I hope that those volunteers who want to be placed in the magnificent countryside surrounded by medieval monuments have their wishes fulfilled. It would be a tragedy though if they failed to spend at least one weekend exploring Batumi. It’s the least this vibrant city deserves.