Georgia On My Mind: Batumi, Eurasia's Pearl of the Black Sea

Here's three things I learned about Georgian people during my trip to Batumi, a beautiful coastal town in Georgia where the beaches are lined with pebbles and the air is filled with the salty scent of the Black Sea.

1) They really know how to enjoy life. Here, life is meant to be a pleasure: Drink the wine. Stop and smell the roses. Bask in the sunshine. Smile at a stranger. Make the city - and your life - beautiful. Fall in love. Woo your loved one. Breathe. Eat the bread and the cheese. Even their parks have public pool tables for people to enjoy, the piazzas regularly host a variety of bands so you can enjoy live jazz while you savor your dinner, there are plenty of places for lovers to stroll along idly hand-in-hand before pausing for a quiet moment on a bench, and there’s never a bad time to drink wine – it’s just more of a question of choosing the right wine for the occasion.

Musicians in Miracle Park, Batumi, Georgia. Photograph: Yi-Hwa Hanna.

2.) Further to that point about the bread and the cheese: If you were Georgian, or just living in or visiting Georgia, it would be tragic to be gluten, lactose, or dairy intolerant. Why? One word: Khachapuri. A traditional Georgian dish made of leavened and risen bread typically shaped into a teardrop shape, filled or baked with cheese (that forms a sinfully delicious melty pool in the middle, where you can tear bits off the side of the bread from to dip into that), and sometimes with an egg cracked into the centre and baked into it as well - especially if it's Adjaruli Khachapuri, a specific type of Khachapuri that hails from the Adjarian region of Georgia). I dare you to try it and not succumb to the gooey, warm, comforting goodness. Khachapuri aside, Georgian food seems to be quite dairy-heavy in general, from an endless array of cheeses to kaimagi (a rich dip well-paired with cornbread), khinkali (a dumpling stuffed with meat and spices, and a soupy broth, that is boiled or steamed – kind of like a Georgian version of my beloved Taiwanese xiao long bao), Sulguni (a dense, semi-firm and somewhat elastic local cheese that’s briny, sour, and tastiest when mopped up with puri, which is yet more bread), Mchadi (a type of cornbread that is eaten with, you guessed it, cheese – there is also a version of this called chvishtari, which is the same thing but melded with cheese right from the baking process), Kubdari (a flatbread that’s kind of like a thicker pita pocket, stuffed with spiced lamb and onion blend – think of it as the lovechild of khachapuri and the Lebanese arayes)… I could go on. You get the idea.

Adjari Khachapuri. Photograph: Galiyah Assan / Shutterstock.

3) They have a lot of attention to detail. Beauty is an integral part of life to them, but in the most un-shallow way, especially when it comes to art. I guess that’s a natural (pun intended) side-effect when your country boasts some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, with everything from snow-capped mountains, lush forests, jaw-dropping canyons, and sparkling rivers to sun-drenched beaches, stunning sea coastlines, and more, but Georgian art seems to retain influences all the way from antiquity to Mesopotamian, Anatolian, Green, Persian, Roman, and Byzantine, even Ottoman times. In Batumi in particular, their modern take on this with cutting-edge, truly avant-garde architecture is just another form of expressing their commitment to making things beautiful. I mean, even their McDonalds is gorgeous, and possibly the most impressive one in the world when it comes to design and architecture. Seriously, if you don’t believe me, check it out here. Add to that their easy welcome of vast forms of expression like street art, mosaics, and just the fact that everything from their park benches to their walkways have a certain little extra je ne sais quoi, be it the polished natural wood flooring of an exhibition room at the Gonio Fortress to the giant chess board, aviary garden or sculptures dotted along the entire waterfront at Miracle Park. Speaking of which – the art here is so epic that it deserves its own post.

"The Statue of Love", aka "Ali and Nino" by Tamara Kvesitadze. Photograph: Yi-Hwa Hanna.

The River Chorokhi, or the Çoruh River, which leads into the Black Sea. Photograph: Yi-Hwa Hanna

Thanks to its location as a sort of crossroads between Europe and Asia, Georgia is a country that’s been ideally placed for influence from a variety of cultures. Unfortunately, when I said that I went on a trip to Georgia and highly recommend it, I usually have to follow that up with some clarification on the fact that I mean the country, not the US state. So here’s a few tidbits about Georgia: It is, in fact, a country, one that is bordered by Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. It emerged from the former Soviet Union as a independent state in 1991, and was once the subject of conflict (and rivalry) between Persia, Turkey and Russia. Its capital is Tblisi, and Batumi is its second-largest city. Batumi’s climate is what’s described as subtropical, which means that it’s warm, hot and sunny during the summertime, but gets pretty darn cold (yes, even with snow) in the winter.

Still, when it came to a short holiday I was able to take for a long weekend from Dubai at the risk of sounding like a John Mayer song, you might wonder, why Georgia? Well, my general reaction to these things is “why not?”, but for the more rational (or less adventurous travel-inclined) among us, there’s some reasoning: The flights were extremely affordable, with FlyDubai offering options between AED900-1000 for a round-trip ticket. It’s got an extremely short flight duration from the Middle East (3 hours and 45 minutes on the way there, and 3 and a half hours on the way back), and decent route times that allow you to leave late on a Thursday afternoon (arriving in Batumi on a Thursday evening), and arrive back in Dubai during the wee hours of a Sunday morning (leaving Georgia on the Saturday evening), making it ideal for a long weekend trip (our weekends here are Friday and Saturday). It serves up an ideal blend of nature and culture, the feel of Europe peppered with the flavour of Asia, and it’s pretty affordable. It has waterfalls, incredible art, forests, and beaches. It's apparently also rife with casinos, but that's not really my jam, so I didn't investigate that part. Oh yeah, and Georgia is said to be the birthplace of wine. I was sold.

I stayed at the Piazza Boutique Hotel, a charming boutique hotel (in case that wasn’t obvious yet) that’s actually situated inside an old clock tower (don’t worry, you don’t hear the chiming noises in the rooms while the clock is going off so you won’t be woken by that at every hour of the night, if that’s a concern). Every room here is unique, and the staff, like most of the other people I met in Georgia, were wonderfully helpful and friendly. A full review on the place is coming soon.

Unfortunately, I don’t speak Georgian – even though I wish I did, if anything because I think the written language is just so beautiful – nor do I speak Russian, both of which would have helped immensely, since not everyone speaks English here. In fact, I’d say a majority of people I met here didn’t. Still, despite the language barrier, they’re incredibly friendly, and even the driver I hired for a day to take me up into the mountains to see the Makhuntseti Waterfall was a kind, warm, and inviting human who I managed to share a delightful meal with and learn from throughout the day, even though we communicated through broken language, hand gestures, smiles, and our eyes. Laughter is a wonderfully unifying thing, even when you don’t speak the same language. But again, that’s another post for another day. I don’t mean to sound like a tease, but there was so much to see and do in this rich city brimming with life that I feel each aspect deserves its own post, from my nature-filled and historical excursions to the artwork that stole my heart. But in the same way Batumi stole my heart from my very first evening there, where I sat on my balcony breathing in the fresh air still carrying the salty scent of the sea while sipping on ludicrously easy-to-drink semi-sweet wine, as a live band played out in the piazza down below – some older couples slow-dancing to the music atop the mosaic tiles, and making me wistful for the people I myself would have liked to wrap my arms around and lay my head on their shoulder as we danced the night away – I’m going to assume that a little taste of what it’s like in one initial story would be enough to pique your attention.

It certainly did mine – one simple Google image search and Wikipedia scroll was enough for me to make up my mind and book a ticket an hour later, anyway. I travelled there solo – alas, none of my friends could make it, and from the moment I laid eyes on what this city had to offer, I couldn’t get Georgia off my mind. This port city that strikes a perfect balance between the classic and contemporary, marrying well-preserved traditions with perfectly executed modernity, is a jewel of the Republic of Adjara, and though I was there alone, I never once felt lonely. It’s hard to, when you’re in a city that is positively inundated with soul spilling out from its every crevice. From its rolling green hills, gleaming waters, and beautiful botanical gardens, to the chance to horse ride through its national parks and the Caucasus Mountains, hike past waterfalls, and take a refreshing dip in the Black Sea, if you haven’t already, Georgia – and Batumi alone – is blessed with a cornucopia of sights that any traveler really should experience at least once (if not more – I know I’ll certainly be back) in a lifetime.

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