Friday, August 3, 2012

Retraction: Batumi

A few months ago I posted in no uncertain terms that the Black Sea port city of Batumi was a seedy, filthy, gloriously miserable conglomerate of prostitute-hunters, truck-drivers, and oligarchettos looking to play "master of the universe" at seaside nightclubs only slightly marred by oil spills and washed-up jellyfish.

I was wrong. Gloriously wrong.

When I decided to stop in Batumi for the afternoon en route from Mestia (the new road gets from Svaneti to the seaside in five hours flat - vastly preferable to a day's layover in lush but utterly dull Zugdidi), I did so on the expectation that I'd be shutting my eyes, avoiding the probably-insalubrious Glamour Elit Exclusiv Premium tower-block hotels (general Georgia assumption: the more a hotel attempts to convince you that it caters to an exclusive set of well-heeled individuals, the more likely it is actually a roach-teeming brothel), and engaging in a series of quick Black Sea dunks while avoiding radioactive poisoning.

Instead, I found that in the past few months, the reconstruction of Batumi and the renovation of its historic districts has been so utterly tasteful, whimsical rather than tacky, that the city feels less like Trabzon and more like - well - Trieste. The old town now suggests faded grandeur rather than post-Soviet kitsch: the newer buildings serve to highlight the fin de siecle feel of the art nouveau townhouses rather than negate them (the most successful new architecture is that that's willing to wink and nod at its balmy playground past - displayed here). Cafes are no longer empty battlegrounds in which to stare down sullen waiters in a desperate attempt to get a glass of milk (an "Irish coffee," however, still consists of dumping cointreau into an Americano, much to the chagrin of the VEG) - seaside cafes like Nostalgia and Cinema sport artfully mismatched antique furniture and jazz-fusion soundtracks. The seaside boulevard is youthful and thoroughly Mediterranean: packs of Georgian teenagers linger under archways and against colonnades, engaging in a subtle yet intricate form of ritualized wandering I haven't seen since I was a teenager in Rome, trying desperately to understand why on earth my friends were aimlessly meandering around the Campo dei Fiori instead of actually sitting down somewhere.

Tbilisi is Central European, melancholy, filled with gargoyles and ghosts. But Batumi is Mediterranean, colorful, joyful and utterly alive. Its old town (a meandering collection of piazzas and outdoor cafes, vine-tangled windows revealing moldy chandeliers, pink and yellow houses with still-smiling cherubs carved into the doorframes) is a stately pleasure dome - recalling Rivieras and forbidden love affairs and everything that easily-shocked nineteenth-century novelists associate with summertime playground resorts. (Think Eliot's Baden-Baden and Proust's Balbec and something clever out of Tolstoy all in one).

Which is to say, the prostitutes are better-hidden now.

(The beach at Gonio is still lovely and largely empty on a late-July weekday, and the intense chromatic green of the Adjaran mountainside largely distracts from the few distressingly concrete hotel-block-towers.)

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