Betting on Batumi

By | Category: Travel destinations

Orchestrated Water near the Wedding House

Batumi is almost as different from Tbiliisi as it is possible to get. It is in Adjara region with its own government, its own style and its own dialect. What is common with the rest of Georgia is that there is so much construction going on. There is a bustle in the streets that wasn’t seen in the capital. Batumi has been a holiday destination for people from Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the Baltic countries states for many years. Those from Iran and Azerbaijan come partly because of the casinos since gambling is forbidden in their homelands. Ferries come from Bulgaria, Russia and Ukraine. Cruise ships now dock there as well and the international airport brings the others. Batumi is a 24 hour, seven day a week city with casinos, restaurants, internationally known events and, of course, a beach along the Black Sea coast.
One such event is a respected five day Jazz festival each July which attracts as many foreigners as it does Georgians. Called the Black Sea Jazz Festival, it brings in headline acts from around the world such as Macy Grey, Stanley Jordan and the London Gospel Choir as well as Georgian ones. 150 musicians at 40 different events were at the 2012 Festival and there was even a free concert every evening for those that could turn up at 7pm for an hour. Held across three venues each night, the locations are like nearly everything else, brand new. Take the Batumi Plaza for example. At first site it looks as though it has been there for some time whereas it was completed only recently. As well as being a venue it has apartments and a swimming pool. That the fans were enthusiastic was shown one night when the heavens opened one night sending most people from their seats and into the corners of the Plaza where there was some protection.

The Plaza

A few stalwarts had remembered umbrellas or plastic coveralls. But when the rain abated, back to their wet seats they went, wiped the rain off with the same card fans they had fanned themselves with a few minutes earlier and sat down, beer in hand, to listen to the next part. On the very same night when we listening to Yellow Jackets came the news that Amy Winehouse had died. There were huddled conversations as the news went around. They knew who she was and they knew her music. Batumi, if not all of Georgia, was as cosmopolitan as you can get and yes, it even has an English bar despite the fact that it is advertised on a poster by a kilted Scotsman!
Like most of Georgia, development is fast and furious in Batumi. Along the beach, plush restaurants are opening as are cafes and gift stalls. Wooden decking is being laid so people can more easily walk to the beach. A boardwalk follows the beach from almost one end of Batumi to the other. By the time you read this it will probably go even further. New buildings are being outfitted so they become more cafes, restaurants and gift shops. But these aren’t tatty, quickly erected portacabin type structures. These are solidly constructed, functional and smart. And in the gift shops and stalls, the featured offer is something made of shells. Or there are bangles and bracelets.
Parallel to the beach is boulevard where some shops can be found along with hotels like the Inntourist Palace. In Soviet times, Inntourist hotels were rather dreary functional places for party members to stay and visitors to stay. Built in 1939 this hotel has been refurbished – and substantially altered since. One of the few remaining features left is the semi-circular entrance through which party members must have entered leading into an ornate lobby with an even more ornate dining room looking more like the palace that its name suggests. Today with indoor and outdoor pools it could be a hotel in any beach resort. But originally, this site was marked by a cathedral built during the nineteenth century. Torn down during the time of the Soviets as they “crusaded” against religion during the nineteen thirties, it has become a 145 roomed hotel that looks out over the main restaurant and cafe area of Botumi. You would never know today that a cathedral once stood here.
Today it faces lots of competition. A Radisson Bleu has just opened. A huge monolithic Sheraton is down the block and the chain hotels are eying up sites everywhere.

The Lovers Pledge?

At the end of the boulevard is a fountain and, set in the pond, is a wedding house. It seems that after marriage the bride and groom will walk down the path from the wedding house to the beach. Many then walk along the beach to a public sculpture of a red heart and cut out figures of a man and a woman. Here it seems the done thing to sit and have your photograph taken
But it at night that the walkway with its twelve figures guarding the pathway from the wedding house to the beach takes on a different role. Each of the figures is playing a different musical instrument. As darkness comes, the lights go on and trees are illuminated in green, the wedding room in mauve and some of the bamboo trees in mauve as well. Music comes from out of the air, with a combination of classics like Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals and modern pieces like Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz. To the accompaniment of the music the water jets and fountains are choreographed together making an absorbing end to an evening. By the way, Georgians eat late and party to even later hours. People will be around till two or three in the morning and only then think of home.
The frenzied energy to build, develop and create anew is everywhere so it is a treat to head to the calm and quiet of the Botanic Gardens, a 300 acre site about 6 miles from the city. This is one of the few places in the city that stretches back further than yesterday. A Frenchman began collecting plants and created a garden in the 1880’s but it wasn’t until 1912 that the gardens properly came into being. But why here? Because there are different soils and climate oddities in this small area so different plants and trees can survive. There are areas for New Zealand plants, Australian, South American, Mexican, East Asian, Mediterranean, North American, Caucasian and the Himalayan plants but no area for Georgian ones. In some ways this is because Georgia is at a crossroads. It’s not Europe and it’s not Asia. Some of its plants you could call Mediterranean, but most are Caucasian. Few are indigenous.
There are plenty of places to stop and sit as you wander through but head for the gazebos which can be found dotted around as they will give some shade in the open areas of the gardens. This is a botanic garden like few others. People have houses within the park. And they aren’t just for the 60 employees. Other people who have jobs outside live here but volunteer some of their services to its upkeep. Open every day, even into the night it can be hired for parties.

House within Batumi Botanical Gardens


As I said, Botumi seems more cosmopolitan than Tbilisi which perhaps is because it sits on the edge of the Black Sea. Traders have come from Turkey, Greece, Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia so it is no surprise that there are so many influences. All meld together as the city grows to become a vital focal point for Georgian tourism. But it wants to attract people from outside its traditional appeal. And if there were direct flights from the Uk and Ireland, it would take only a little longer than flying to those Turkish resorts that we find so popular. Like Turkey its appeal is that it is outside the eurozone and food is inexpensive. Its future success depends on which tour operators bite the bullet and offer us the Batumi mixture of Asia and Europe.

With thanks to Mako, Sophie, Lado, Tamara, Aliona, Kristina, Irakli and Sopho for all their help

I flew to Georgia with British Midland International. bmi flies between London Heathrow and Tbilisi three times per week, with fares starting from £526 return. For more information and to book, visitflybmi.com.

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