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Batumi: Marseilles of the Caucasus

Batumi: Marseilles of the Caucasus

Hardly anyone ‘goes to Batumi’. It appears in travel accounts as the gateway to the Caucasus, the last place where you can have the advantages of a port city before you hit the mountains, the last place where you can think twice before you set off for winding roads and precipices. I would have followed the tradition and launched my Caucasian expedition from Batumi too, only, I was invited for a two day academic programme and couldn’t extend my visit because term was starting Monday.

I did, however, manage to arrive two days early to take a look at the town and surrounds. This was my second time in Batumi. First had been in 2009 when I was a PhD student, which may or may not account for the fact that our short Georgia trip with friends remains a blur. One day in Tbilisi, and then back to Istanbul via Trabzon after a half day in Batumi. I remembered the old town. I remembered a trip up a hill to see a botanical garden. I remembered the Ali and Nino sculpture by the sea: perforated metal figures of a man and woman that move towards one another, merge, and then separate again.

This time though, I was arriving at the Batumi airport proper. At the check-in desk in Istanbul, the officer got confused because I was trying to travel with my passport. Turks can travel to Georgia with their IDs: it’s Turkey’s only land border to provide such an opportunity. An opportunity, one can guess, that has been exploited thoroughly by my countrymen, the results of which soon caught up with me when I landed at the Alexander Kartveli airport. Naively hoping to breeze through customs, I was stopped by a very polite female officer who rummaged through my bags to find one sheet of flu medicine that contained 6 pills. She put the name of the medicine into her computer, got several print outs and asked me to sign where my name was: an A4 full of Georgian script that looked like elvish to me. I was reminded of the fun fact that Turkey was the only country using Latin script among its land neighbours. Apparently the document said that they had taken my pills with my consent.

Where I would be making use of or possibly selling these ‘drugs’ became apparent as we drove into town. I had a vague memory of seeing skyscrapers beyond the Ali and Nino sculpture some 9 years ago, but now we were surrounded by them, as one of my hosts drove me up the coastline. There was now a fully fledged corniche strip that reminded one of Doha, or indeed any of the Gulf cities that have made this sort of development their brand. My 2010 Brandt Guide to Georgia said ‘there are even plans for the American mogul Donald Trump to co-finance with the Silk Road Group, the building of a Georgian Trump Tower here (or in Tbilisi, or in both cities)’. Innocent days.

As he drove, my host confirmed that there were many Arabs and Iranians who came and spent their summers in Batumi. But there was no mistaking whom this blooming tourist industry primarily served. Right as you entered the town there was a huge poster of a beautiful Turkish singer whose face I’d never seen before, advertising a luxury holiday. As we went deeper into skyscraper territory, there were even bigger posters of Serdar Ortaç, a name that even I recognized. It’s not that Turkey doesn’t have beaches of course. For the Turks, the main pull of Batumi is the casinos. And proper tea glasses at the breakfast table – never have I encountered these in hotels abroad in all my travels.

I settled into my room wondering about the den of inequity I would have to spend my next four days in, and went out on a recce in the dusk. My hotel seemed to be the last in the ‘Gulf Strip’ bit of town. One block down was one of the infamous casinos: but it seemed to make only a half-hearted attempt to advertise itself with red lights. There were no flashy cars parked outside, no women in stilettos traipsing about. Evidence of this ‘vice tourism’ I had come to expect after the incident at the airport happily seemed very thin on the ground. I passed the rather dimly lit Intourist Hotel and Casino which also looked pretty tame.

‘Batumi is a unique, clean, pretty and attractive town. Russian culture has given its characteristic to the city. The impact of the likes of Gogol, Lermontov, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski can be seen in Batumi too. Even the Muslims who have let themselves be taken over by Russian culture have achieved a certain degree of refinement’ says, Ahmet Refik the Ottoman Military Officer, on his expedition to Batumi in 1918, after the Brest-Litovsk Agreement which left the town in Ottoman hands (then it was handed to the Brits, then reclaimed by Georgians, then the Turks and then the Soviets). He seems a reluctant occupier, rather in awe of the Russified town, in typical modernizing Ottoman fashion.

I myself am not insensitive to Russian charm. Across from the Intourist there is a yellow Baltic style building the likes of which I have admired in Kars. On it is a marble plaque telling the passers by its importance- in Georgian and Russian scripts. My very very rusty Russian comes to my aid and I make out ‘something something 1921 something Batumski Revolutso something Komitet’. On this instance, the city proves unreadable. However, after Georgian and Russian, Turkish seems to be the third language. It is one of the few places on earth where addressing strangers on the street in Turkish will get me further than trying to address them in English.

I walk down wide side streets generally heading in the direction of a puppet theatre that my guidebook has told me exists in the town. There are Baltic and Soviet style buildings on either side, and a few of those tiny shops that will see to the basic needs of the citizen. Not a harshly lit supermarket or a UK corner shop where everything is stacked to maximize space, but one of those more relaxed, leisurely spaces, where everything isn’t in vacuumed plastic sheets but breathe together producing a smell that contains a million memories, the sort of shop you can still find in parts of Istanbul. The main difference is while these are run mostly by men in Istanbul, they are almost exclusively female-run in Batumi.

Having had a non-conversation (no, Turkish did not work this time) with the men who seemed to be doing renovation work at the puppet theatre and understood it isn’t the puppetry season– I will be told later that such events happen only around national holiday periods- I go out to wander a bit more. At the end of the tree-lined street I see some kind of a fairytale castle looming behind a tall hotel advertising a casino in neon lights. I keep walking towards this Neuschwanstein-on-Black Sea and on the way pass an impossibly French looking building with white stone façade and grey roofs. After that, the road opens into a square, in the middle of which is who else but an austere Medea towering on a pillar in the middle of it, holding the Golden Fleece. Medea is the figure I always fall back on when I want to prove my bad girl credentials. ‘You know, Medea, she’s basically from my home town’ is my party line.

Here then is a late disclaimer. My father is from Trabzon, so all this Black Sea malarkey, Amazon women and harsh temperament is familiar to me. In the one hour I’ve been wondering around town I’ve heard Turkish and Georgian in equal measure. And when I hear Georgian, I am reminded of how some of my relatives speak. In fact, by the end of the second day, I come to the conclusion that if my Black Sea relatives, indeed, all Black Sea people of Turkey spoke Georgian rather than a Turkish they bend out of shape to resemble Georgian, the whole country would be a chiller place. I round off the evening ruminating on these things in a flagrantly art nouveau café across the square, and have some kharcho that shall forever live in my memory.

Next day as a good Constantinopolitan I head out to the 6th century Byzantine Petra Castle located on the way to Kobuleti. I try to do what my guidebook says, and to take the minibus I make my way to the Catholic Church near the docks area, past the old town. On the way, I pass by the national theatre and lego-coloured old Soviet blocks. I make a pit stop at St. Nicholas where a service is taking place. I remember the old town from our previous trip, but wonder if there were quite so many art nouveau façades back then. At the end of one neatly lined Ottoman street I see one of the skyscrapers, with its very own Ferris wheel built into the structure. Further on to the docks I see the funicular (I make a mental note of going on it), the HQ of a bus company advertising rides to Tbilisi and a restaurant called Marseilles. If Tbilisi is the Paris of the Caucasus, Batumi then, naturally, is the Marseilles.

The rather austere looking Catholic Church of the Holy Ghost is a few minutes away. Built in the 90s, it is not to be confused with the Church of the Mother of God built in 1910 (converted to an Orthodox church since) – a church that gets quite an honorable mention in Ahmet Refik’s description of the town. I sit at a bus stop looking for a minibus that has the word Kobuleti on it, for I have now memorized what the words Kobuleti and Batumi look like. I seem to have no luck, but hail a couple of the buses anyway and plead ‘Kobuleti’. The drivers are having none of it. Then a young man appears and points to the other side of the road. I walk to the other bus stop and with the false familiarity of approaching another woman wearing the hijab I ask the girl sitting there in Turkish if I can take a bus to Kobuleti from there. Nothing going. Then I see the minibus drivers – for they are made of the same mold in these parts – milling about some distance away. I finally get a nod for my ‘Kobuleti’, and for three and a half lari we are off!

The route takes us by the coast, and soon Batumi is left behind, and we are into what seems to be ‘summer house’ territory, and then we make a stop at a village. My fellow travellers are very familiar- the same faces, women with the same fake blond hair, wearing the same sort of parkas that one would find on a minibus ride from Trabzon to Maçka. Then we ascend a hill and in about half an hour I am deposited at the foot of a castle. I walk up to the irongate which looks very closed, but then yields upon my push. The sun comes out that minute, and the stones look glorious. It is February, and Batumi’s famous micro-climate allows for wild cyclamen to grow. They seem so jolly and put me in mind of Mystras which I’ve visited a couple of months ago. The sign tells me there was a 10th century basilica, but there’s little to suggest it to the naked eye. There is, however, a rickety iron cross planted at the castle’s highest point, from where you can see the houses across the road, and beyond them rich vegetation and exotically shaped trees which make up an almost gothic silhouette. The best part of being up at Petra is, of course, the view of the Black Sea, and you can see the beach stretching all the way to Kobuleti. There is something very melancholy about the spot and I fantasize that this would be the perfect place to wait for someone (yes, too much Lermontov). I make my way down through the terraced side of the hill. Some of the terraces are completely overgrown with vegetation and impossible to navigate. I do however spot one lemon tree and make for it- extracting two lemons as reparation for the flu pills I lost at the border.

When I return to Batumi I eat a khatchapuri the size of my head and then there’s just about enough time to go to the museum. I am naturally interested in seeing some Colchian gold, if not the Golden Fleece itself. There are the usual beads and the coins and the amphora, and then there is a section where tiny kantharoi are displayed, on loan from the Ashmolean (this, dear reader, I deciphered from the Russian bit of the item description, the shorter English version didn’t include this info) The little Aladdin’s lamps were, apparently, unearthed in Sparta, and are thought to have been carried to Greece by Iphigenia and Orestes from the Black Sea – a tall tale attributed to Euripides that I very much approve of.

Next morning I wake up to a very gray morning. The park behind the hotel, with its big pond and pedal boats parked on the side looks very Soviet indeed. I am, however, determined to go to the market to get honey, and get on the funicular for whatever view it may offer in this weather. This time, the workshop organizers offer to drive me to the dock area, and Roland tells me about the challenges that Georgian Muslims face. It only fazes me a little that his name is Roland, as I know Caucasians love to name their children after literary characters (I know a couple of Armenian Ophelias). When I check just in case and ask ‘As in, Chanson de Roland?’ he says yes, and then tells me he’s studied English Literature, and that his favourite poet is Milton ‘Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven’ he declaims as we approach the funicular. As we go up the mountain, we see the sea and the hotel strip stretch before us. We float above some of the more run down areas of Batumi, then above a cemetery and then houses with beautiful orchards full of citrus trees. In any other port town, this would be prime property, I say to Roland. He laughs. To the north, from behind the now misted windows of the cable car, I see a castle shaped structure. Roland and I agree it looks too new, that it’s probably a new hotel catering for the Gothic minded. There is, however, he tells me, a real castle on the other side of town. So off we go there after our funicular adventure.

On the way to Gonio Castle, we pass the Çoruh, and go through truck stop land where all the restaurants are advertising their offers in Turkish. Just beyond the last döner joint is the castle, surprisingly, for me, at sea level. Some dogs are harassing some cows, but we slide past them into what essentially seems like a walled garden. In good order, the castle was patronized by the Romans, Byzantines, Genoese and than the Turks (and then the Russians, but one doesn’t talk about that). There’s yet again a gothic atmosphere to the place because of the mountains and the dramatically shaped trees beyond it.

After that I make my way to the city market, not far from where I took the minibus to Petra. Here again, it’s mostly women selling their wares, recommending them to me in Turkish. I buy some honey and coriander- a herb that should by rights be sold everywhere but actually is quite difficult to get in Turkey. I also get some red beans hoping I can recreate the kharcho I ate the night before.

The gray skies have delivered their promise and now it’s raining. The taxi driver back to the hotel makes conversation with me in Turkish, and asks about hazel nuts. Yes, I say, much hazel nut in Turkey. Then he says the magic word yevmiye, the daily rate for working in the hazel nut orchards- many Georgians come as seasonal workers for the harvest. Sadly, I do not have any contacts in the hazel nut industry, so I leave the taxi driver a bit crestfallen, and walk into the rain. I realize I haven’t set foot on the beach yet, and so make my way towards it. The scene corresponds exactly to Ahmet Refik’s description of a rainy day in Batumi ‘The boulevard is empty… I walk among the green spaces… The sea seems to be resting with its calm waves’ In Refik’s narrative this calmness is then broken by drama worthy of Lermontov unfurling in front of his eyes. A blond woman tries to hurl herself into the sea and is saved not by one but two lovers- a scene that is clearly pleasing for Refik who seems to be on the look out for the romantic Russian touch. I, on the other hand, turn back towards the hotel and have to make do with what seems to be an enigmatic commentary of our own times. There is, on a sidewall of the Russian looking university, the curious mural of a woman already in the sea, stretching her arm out of the water to take a selfie.

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