The barman lined up five shotglasses in front of me, pouring a different brand into each one. He set a plate of five cucumber slices in front of them, apparently to help make them go down. Then he wished me luck and enjoyment, and left me to be judged by the other bar patrons, who stared at me, apparently wondering at my level of self-destruction. In Batumi, Georgia, one can easily confront a number of vices.
Georgia, the country, is not a free-wheeling society. It’s still rather religiously-based conservative, although the wine does flow freely there. Back in 2003, newly-elected President Mikheil Saakashvili was just starting his near-ten-year tenure and he looked towards Georgia’s Black Sea coast, picking out the city of Batumi to be changed into the new hot spot. His vision was triumphant, and he promptly kicked out the near-mafia-style strongman in the region and started to change everything there.
Gambling was legal and some other vices overlooked. Booze was easy. Monster hotels were invited in and casinos opened. Development projects such as a European square and an Italian piazza were pursued. Batumi was chosen probably (I didn’t get a chance to ask Saakashvili himself) because it was quite the place 100 years ago. Also, it’s on the coast, and people love the seashore. Enabled by the Nobel brothers (them of the dynamite and the Nobel Prize fame), oil flowed westward from Baku on the Caspian Sea across to Batumi and beyond; the city become yet another described as the bridge between East and West.
The city was quite cosmopolitan back then. Two world wars and decades of Soviet rule dampened the soirée, but Batumi is back. The grand plan is yes to have the city be the vacation/party/getaway capital of the region. Visions like this have a straddle a tough line, letting people sin disgracefully while protecting the family who vacation here and the residents. It’s not doing half-bad.
Batumi sits slam next to Turkey, Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and not far from Iran, all places where gambling and many other vices are banned. Three of those are high-population areas with at least a decent number of upper class vacation-enabled citizens, and the Middle East isn’t so far away either, so why not be the vacation get-away hub for the region? Let’s see how the formula works.
First, enable gambling. I live in the USA, and here we constantly see more areas approve gambling through some strange government zoning regulations. Georgia smartly realized that people travel for such a vice (that’s why Vegas and Macau are thriving, though Macau is better). With that, a place must possess some upscale, if not luxury, hotels. At least something decent. Along with the gambling, a city must have out-of-bounds construction projects, buildings that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else, and an area that looks like a party town.
Europe Square, complete with the Ferris wheel in the side of the background tower
Batumi is easy to reach, with regular flights from all those countries above that I listed. Its airport is one of the smallest and most basic I’ve seen, essentially one square room, but at least you won’t get lost. Take a taxi in to town for about 25 lari ($11 USD) and from there, you can walk everywhere.
The bar I described above is called Chacha Time, named after one of Georgia’s most potent drink. Georgia isn’t just like Vegas or Macau where the drinks flow like water; it has its own heritage of booze, one that runs deep. Georgia is likely where human beings first invented wine, over 8,000 years ago. Its relation with the grape runs deep. Besides the wine, of which you should try much, it has a byproduct called chacha.
Chacha is usually described as a brandy, but it’s made from grape pomace and is a distillate. It’s about 40% alcohol, or more, and tastes like paint thinner to me. Chacha Time is a bar specializing, of course, in chacha and cocktails made from it. I did what travelers sometimes do and planted myself on a stool and confessed ignorance about the local hooch. “Can you teach me something about chacha?” I entailed the bartender.
I asked for chacha. This is what I got.
I do stupid things sometimes. He suggested, as some prankster bartenders will do, a tasting, and thus lined up the five types of chacha before me, surely snickering in the corner with his friends afterwards. I stared at the shotglasses as if they were barrels in a Russian roulette game, each one loaded. Frak me, what have I wrought?
I learned quickly that I hate chacha. I hated it then, I hated it throughout all my travels in Georgia. Wine tastings throughout the country often included a chacha, and never did I find one I liked, nor one I could even tolerate. There are certain spirits in the world (Chinese baijiu is another example) where I try, try, try to like it, where people extol its virtues, but frak me it’s awful. There in that bar, facing five deadly types of chacha, I mostly finished the first two, mouth recoiling. For the next three I sipped a tiny bit of each then discretely poured the rest on the floor. Whoever swept up that evening must have wondered.
What to do in Batumi
I’m somewhat fascinated by what destinations expect you to do, the image they project. In Batumi, you’re supposed to gamble, hang out on the seaside, and party the nights away. That’s the hope of the developers. The first two are easy.
If you’re into gambling and that’s your plan, you’ll have choices. Batumi would love the comparison to Vegas or Macau. They would probably prefer Monte Carlo, but to many people they more resemble Blackpool, England. The biggest player in town as I write this is the Radisson Blu, with their attached Casino Iveria, mostly full of Turks. Numbers-wise, there are probably twenty+ casinos in town, but only a handful of big ones. For now, the visitors to Batumi are sharply divided into the gambling-and-other-vice visitors (the vast majority from Turkey, only a twenty-minute drive away) and the Black Sea Coast tourists.
As for the vice tourists, there are other pleasures besides gambling. I’ve heard certain nightclubs are full of ladies waiting to be picked up, but I personally didn’t see such things. (I guess I didn’t google hard enough.) What I did see is the shocking number of Thai or Chinese massage places around the city. I spotted at least twenty, no exaggeration. They either import females from those counties to work on short-term contracts, or they recruit Central Asian girls from the -stan countries that look like East Asians. I popped into a few for inquiries and each one was upfront about the extra services they could offer me.
To me, that was the most damming part of the visit. You can’t fucking have a city full of extracurricular massage places and claim you’re a conservative country. I’m ridiculously libertarian, but I’m also no idiot.
Many people say that Georgia has not had the sexual liberation that the rest of Europe enjoys. From what I’ve seen and read, women there still have serious social norms to overcome, and homosexuals even more. In countries like this, outsiders are often considered permissive. In Georgia, the Slavic women who visit, especially the Russians, are viewed this way. I wouldn’t assume that if I were you.
Here’s the beach.
Let’s back up a bit and look at what the city has to offer. The sights they have and the ones promised to be. The first one is the six-kilometer Batumi promenade, because one of the best things about a coast is walking along it. It’s a paved path dotted with attractions, particularly on its eastern side. Various wheeled vehicles can be rented to ride along it, such as the shared-bike system called Batumvelo.
The beach itself is pebbles, not sand, meaning you probably need a chair, not just a towel. As with Europe, there are plenty to grab or rent. The highest concentration is near a pier sitting mid-way on the promenade, but there’s no good or bad beach here, and there’s plenty of room.
The eastern half of the promenade features a Ferris wheel and the Alphabet Tower, a tall, open structure looking like a double helix celebrating the Georgian writing system. It’s a gimmick of a building but it adds to the skyline. Next to these two is the most famous statue, Ali and Nino, the story (based on the Kurban Said novel) of two lovers doomed never to be together. The statues move around, and being constructed of parallel rings, they can move through each other when they try to come together.
Ali and Nino
Next to all that is the Chacha Tower, a 25-meter clock tower with a fountain that is supposed to squirt pure chacha, every once in a while. No one knows the schedule, and it doesn’t keep one anyway. You might see some locals hanging around it, looking hopeful.
You can walk through Europe Square and the Piazza admiring the strange Belle Époque architecture and searching for cafés. The Argo cable car goes 2.5k to a ridge over the city where the view is probably nice, if you’re the type that does that. A bit out of town to the north (10k or so) is the Batumi Botanical Gardens, more than 100 years old and quite large. To the south (15k) is the Gonio fortress, built by the Romans in the second century CE.
As with Vegas and Macau, there aren’t many sights in Batumi. The city itself is the curiosity, and I happily spent my time just wandering around.
Eating, drinking, and being merry
Georgian food is fabulous, one of the reasons to go. Stay in the country long enough (a week will do it) and you’ll realize most restaurant menus are the same, all the way through the country, but that’s fine. The food is halfway between Mediterranean and Central Asian, and everything tastes rustic and fresh. The bread, just the bread, is some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and the flat, stuffed breads are even better.
Vegetarians will do fine here, and dedicated carnivores should try the veggie dishes, such as the veggie patés called pkhali, the bean stew called lobio, the veggie stew called ajapsandali, and the eggplant slices rolled around walnut paste called badrijani nigvzit.
Sinori, at BatuMarani restaurant, a brilliant, brilliant, dish
My favorite restaurant there is called BatuMarani, where you should order the sinori, a regional dish of cooked thin flatbreads mixed with a soft cheese, amazing. Two Georgian men there, seeing me eating alone, pulled me over to their table, plied me with food and drink, and wouldn’t let me pay for a thing.
You can try that deadly chacha if you like, but I’m sticking to wine, plentiful and cheap here. My first glass was in the tiny Wine Room where my server told me about his dream to move to Brooklyn and make film shorts. Another was in Winedom, where they poured me a glass of the traditional orange wine, made in clay jugs called qvevri (the spelling varies). Still another was in the Winery Khareba, where you go downstairs to their extensive cellar and they serve you inexpensive glasses out of their massive tanks.
My favorite was the BQ wine bar, where the barkeep set up a tasting of seven wines along with a plate of cheese for a little over ten US dollars. He was drinking more than I was, and the two Russian women behind me were giving me serious looks.
This wine-tasting is capital. You must do it.
I read much about Batumi as a party destination. I’m not a good judge, but I doubt it. Of four huge, well-known, open-air clubs that are located right on the beach, a nighttime stroll by them didn’t give me suspicions of debauchery. One outright refused me entry, telling me they’re closed (sure you are). Another, called Sector 26, welcomed me and I sat around their pool, as one does here, and drank expensive ($3 USD!) beer. People hang out in swimsuits, vamping it up, some looking awfully good, some looking almost comically like canonical mafia gangsters.
The most happening nightspot I found is Viva Latino, an outdoor spot (so much in Batumi is outdoors, and it’s hot as hell in the summer) where my new Siberian friends informed me that the music is mostly Russian. The wine was dirt cheap.
I was Batumi at the end of June. Hotel space was easy to find and quite cheap. Georgia in general is an inexpensive destination, a place where just about any establishment is within financial reach. The city isn’t crowded, and there was never a question of finding an available restaurant table or an empty barstool.
Batumi was supposed to be grander. I hate to mention his name, but a certain American named Trump was supposed to open one of his towers here. Being President interfered with that project, but the developers may go ahead anyway, without the brand name. An amazing tower was built to be a scientific institute, a tower that had a bloody Ferris wheel embedded in the side of it, but that didn’t work out so the structure was sold to be a Meridian Hotel. The city is full of structures that started as something, but ended as something else, such as the Crowne Plaza that started as the Holiday Inn. The city has beachfront nightclubs that are dead. Statues and sculptures depicting love and romance on the beach. A double-helix design tower celebrating the alphabetic writing system of Georgian. Dancing fountains. Massive outdoor chess boards in the parks, the random parks all over, some with peacocks. You’ll see a Greek-like statue in one square and a pirate ship in another. All unironic. The city makes no sense, but in a fun way.
Its economy depends on the Turks crossing the border, the Russians coming to vacation, and the Slav/Middle Eastern mix of investors into the hotels and apartments. Me, I wouldn’t invest in anything here that wasn’t already built.
Georgia appeals to me. We’re both a bit of a mess. It’s a country that sent two of its leaders to a UN Climate Summit in 2016 simply because it couldn’t figure out who its Head of State was then. Bartenders confide to me that everyone here is working illegally. It has the tinge, the permissiveness of a developing country, and the low prices to match. In a gambling or a resort town, we feel the rules are relaxed anyway, and Georgia adds to that.
The mismatched architecture and the randomness can be part of the fun, and throw in the excellent food and drink and you indeed do have a recipe for a get-away destination. Just watch out for the chacha.