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Batumi on the Black Sea

Most of my time in Georgia has been spent in the capital Tbilisi which isn’t surprising as I feel I have barely scraped the surface of this fascinating and intriguing city.

Bit by bit I am taking in other regions and towns. On our most recent trip we struck out to the west of the country to the Black Sea city of Batumi.

We took the train, a five-hour trip across the country. The trains are modern and comfortable with three departures daily and three classes of ticket. These range from $20 for second class, $44 for first and on some trains, there is a small business class at $75.

Regardless of class you share the same toilet! The only food on board is from a vending machine so it’s worth getting supplies before boarding.

It’s a pleasant but slow ramble through mountains and plains until you strike the coast along which are dotted garish holiday apartment buildings aimed at vacationing locals and your everyday Russian holidaymaker. The beaches are stony and not particularly inviting.

As we approach Batumi, we start to see why it is dubbed the Las Vegas of the East. There’s a host of gleaming skyscrapers along the wide seafront boulevard, many home to casinos enticing Russian, Turkish and Middle Eastern visitors.

We were met at the station by a rabble of taxi drivers trying to hunt out foreigners among the mostly local passengers. We settled on a guy who promised a Mercedes for an overinflated fare for the short ride to our hotel. You couldn’t deny it was a Merc but not from this century and air-conditioning came via the windows which no longer closed.

To be honest, I hadn’t done much research about Batumi and it came as a surprise how different it feels to the rest of Georgia. As soon as we had checked into our hotel we took a walk through the old town, looped around the seafront passing statues and a Ferris wheel, and returned via the Turkish quarter.

The people seemed somehow different, the architecture isn’t the same as the rest of the country and disappointingly, unlike Tbilisi, there wasn’t a wine bar on every street corner.

I was aware that the Turkish border is only 12 kilometres away, but I didn’t know that, off and on over the centuries, Batumi and surrounds had been part of Turkey and also the Ottoman Empire.

We only had a couple of days in Batumi but managed to pack in a visit to the wet market and fish market and a good number of restaurants.

We had to go to Fishlandia twice it was so good, once for lunch and again for dinner. Along with several other restaurants it is on the waterfront next to the fish market. You buy your choice of incredibly fresh Black Sea fish directly from the market which they scale and gut then select a restaurant to prepare it. They do this for a pittance but supposedly make on the deal from their menu of fries, salads, sauces and drinks.

At lunch, along with our fish we chose fries, a couple of sauces and a chopped green salad. We requested a glass of wine each, it was only lunch after all.

No, today they didn’t have wine by the glass, only bottle. Really? Yes, really. We took the bottle when we realised it was just $12. Though later when we saw a couple with a child getting glasses of wine, we knew they had sized us up correctly.

Batumi is in the region of Adjara famed for their Adjarian Khachapuri, the boat shaped bread filled with gooey cheeses and topped with a raw egg yolk. It is kind of like an all-in-one fondue. You pick off the edges of the bread and scoop out all the rich cheesy, eggy goodness.

Of course we had to try it at Retro, which rates as the best in town. It was too. Though our waiter was dismissive of us ordering just a small one to share. As someone later told us, it is impossible not to eat dairy in Adjara.

Our third unexpectedly enjoyable dining experience was at a very traditional, almost canteen-like restaurant tucked away in the old town. Shemoikhede Genatsvale is brightly lit with solid wooden furniture and a TV blasting soccer on the wall. We ordered tiny Khinkali in broth, a tomato and cucumber salad, Khachapuri on a stick, and lamb dolma. It was all very good except we waited so long for the dolma we were about to leave. But then it came out, 5 freshly rolled dolma cooked in a ketsi pan around a whole, plump tomato. It was transformational, a delectable dish and reason on its own to visit Batumi.

From Batumi we hired a car and driver through to take us into the hills of Adjara to the wine producing area of Keda. We stayed a night at Chateau Iveri which produces its own Tsolikauri and Chkhaveri wines. Their menu features dishes from the region using local wild greens and cheeses such as borano which is mixed with mashed potato and burnt butter into a ridiculously unctuous dish.

The rooms aren’t huge at the hotel but very comfortable and the hotel staff incredibly welcoming. They can arrange a tasting of their wines on the terrace overlooking the valley below. A mammoth breakfast is included in the price.

Back for just a night in Batumi before returning to Tbilisi, we opted, for a bit of a laugh, to stay a night in one of the tacky casino hotels. The 5 star JRW Welmond was built in 2015, the furnishings are a cross of Louis XV meets modern chic, appealing presumably to the guest’s image of Casino Royale glamour. Epic fail. But as we were upgraded to a suite larger than our own home, we did not complain.

Our trip to Batumi was like a mini break to another country and I see I now need to go back to the western side of Georgia to explore other regions.



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