Tuesday, February 21, 2012

48 Hours in Batumi. Step One: Leave.


Much of the advertising I've seen for Batumi extolls the virtues of a "sub-tropical fin de siecle paradise", a city of faded grandeur and elegant boulevards, scented with jasmines and exotic flowers, overlooking azure waters - a playground for restless Romanovs. In other words Trieste-meets-Tbilisi; alternatively - Hav.

This city in no way resembles Batumi. Batumi, I regret to say, is a pile of rubble rebuilt by Donald Trump after experiencing hallucinations on the streets of Brighton Beach. As much as I love Tbilisi, the Adjaran Coast, and Georgia as a whole, Batumi itself is (alas) thoroughly uninteresting as a city. Whereas - as the cliche guidebooks inside - Tbilisi "blends old and new, East and West" (and any other dichotomous pairs you might care to name) in such a way as to preserve the best of each, Batumi manages to combine hypermodern gaudiness with post-Soviet seediness.

Hence, if you have a weekend in Batumi (ie, arriving and leaving on the night train to Tbilisi, an adventure in itself), the first thing you should do is get out of Batumi. The Adjaran coast is absolutely fantastic, and the small towns and hamlets near the Turkish border are well worth a visit. After a number of visits with the Very English Boyfriend, therefore, I have compiled for those poor unfortunate souls forced to stop in Batumi a guide to what to do - and not do - during a weekend in Batumi.

8:00 am: Arrive at the train station in  Makhinjauri. Argue with a taxi-driver who gets you quite lost near seedy casinos a good few miles from Batumi proper.
8:15 am: Check in at the surprisingly pleasant Dzveli Batumi Hotel on Kostava Street. The bathtub in the room will prove highly useful when you return to your room, shivering and soaked, when rain  decides to intrude upon your beach holiday (which it will). Unlike in other hotels I could mention, your boyfriend will not be taken for a would-be john and fondled by a strange woman in hotel reception when you leave for the loo. Sleep off the night-train blues.
11 am: Get the hell of out Batumi. The marshrutkas at the terrifyingly chaotic Tbilisi Square head both north (to the Botanical Gardens) and south (to Gonio and Sarpi). Any of these places is vastly preferable to Batumi proper. Sarpi, on the Turkish/Georgian border, has the dubious distinction of being the nicest military-checkpoint-cum-beach (just don't swim over the border!) I've ever been to. Gonio - apparently swarming with Vakebi in the summertime - was gorgeously deserted in September.
2 pm: Dine in Gonio. Eschew Batumi's "trendy" eateries and instead head to dilapidated Turkish restaurant right by the road to the beach near the Gonio marshrutka stop (by the fortress). After several failed attempts at communication in both Georgian and English - the proprietors will serve you "some food" (of the salad and mtsvade variety), you will pay "some money", and all will be gloriously well. Gonio is also home to an abandoned Roman fortress with a surprisingly well-signposted (in English) museum, as well as a number of cows.
6 pm: Return to Batumi. Unfortunately, you will no longer be able to dine at the fantastically tacky and otherwise atrocious San Remo restaurant, where waiters will refuse to bring you any dish that is not coffee, refuse to bring you milk with your coffee, and get quite annoyed that you have spent insufficient sums of money on items that are not coffee, as it is under new management and quite decent now. Instead, get blinis at the Russian seaside-kitsch Russian seaside-kitsch Privet iz Batuma near the main square and then head to the excellent chain  Cafe Literaturuli nearby, where you can get lobiani in a croissant crust (!) and delicious coffee.
10 pm: Return to hotel. Do not accidentally solicit a prostitute.
11 am: Brunch at Literaturuli
Noon: Get the hell out of Batumi, redux. This time, head north
Botanical Gardens
to the: the Batumi Botanical Gardens - wanderable miles of greenery and tropical plants overlooking the cape. My Georgian friend tells me a secret beach is accessible from the gardens, but we haven't verified it just yet. There are, however, palm trees, gazebos, bizarre hidden houses, refreshment stands, maps, and ever-increasing labyrinthine layers of beauty. These gardens are absolutely the most important thing to see in the Batumi area - VEB and I missed them the first time around, and regretted it for a year!
5 pm: Wander around the promenade area until you spy a charmingly miserable glass conservatory restaurant (on the "inside" part of the walkway). This is the most marvelously depressing restaurant in the world, and an excellent place to feast on Adjarian khachapuri while wishing that Georgia had viably charming "seaside fishing villages" (we get mountains, ski resorts, deserts, jungles, plains, and valleys - there's only so much one country can have!)
10 pm: Get the hell out of Batumi. Return to Tbilisi, which has wonderful restaurants and beautiful buildings and in which you will not be automatically assumed to be looking for a prostitute (usually).

Alas, Batumi - for all its seedy charm and marvelously depressing atmosphere - ain't got nothing on Tbilisi, Kakheti, or anywhere else in Georgia. If you're insistent on the seaside, Pegasus is now flying cheap(ish) flights from Tbilisi to the far-lovelier Mediterranean coast at Antalya in the summer (2 hour flight each way; 100-150 quid return), which allows for trips to Olympos, Kas, and Antalya and is otherwise vastly preferable.


Shawn Basey said...

Yeah, with their current strategics on Batumi, it's hard to see why the Georgian gov't thinks it would beat out any number of Turkish resort towns. Especially Antalya, in regards to the Russian speaking pops.

They need to focus on developing infrastructure for budget/middle class travelers, and building up from there. In fact, that needs to be the strategy FOR THE ENTIRE COUNTRY, rather than just assuming ultra rich people will go there and spend loads of money because there's a Marriott and a commercial featuring massages.

Shawn Basey said...

The marketing idea they need to follow should be: You can sell a craphole, just not for a million dollars. Not that Georgia is a craphole, just tourism-infrastructure-wise it is. Friggin' post-war Rwanda has a better tourism infrastructure in place than Georgia.

Fleur Flaneur said...

I really don't know what the Georgian tourism board is THINKING regarding Batumi! It's too expensive and overly (faux) swish for the sort of tourist that enjoys out-of-the-way destinations like Olympos, and it isn't nearly nice or swank enough for more established, older travelers. It's got this pervasive atmosphere of "wealthy businessman seeking prostitutes" salaciousness which is, I find, quite unpleasant, and there's very little to DO except go clubbing and wander aimlessly about the promenade. Why they didn't attempt to - as they did in Tbilisi - focus primarily on restoring the art nouveau look of the place and establishing "fin de siecle" type seaside cafes and an overall laid-back cafe culture (think Trieste rather than St Tropez) is beyond me; it would have fit more naturally with the architecture and urban feel of the place as well as the 19th-century history.

Deolindo Alves said...