There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Istanbul (4): Taksim Square and the Galata Tower


Our short flight from Batumi arrived in Istanbul in the early evening. Once through formalities Lynne rummaged in her handbag to produce the plastic bag containing the left over Turkish lira from our 2012 visit. Discovering it contained 500,000 Vietnamese dong and 400 Thai baht, we realised that we had picked up the wrong bag and headed for the ATM.

Stepping out into the warmth of an Istanbul evening we made our way to the taxi rank. The driver groaned when we gave him an address in Sultanahmet, the peninsula between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. The densely packed and always busy grid of narrow cobbled streets is understandably popular with tourists and equally understandably unpopular with taxi drivers, but he forced a smile, heaved our cases into the boot and we set off.

Sultanahmet - not a great place to drive round (photograph May 2012)
After a fortnight in Azerbaijan and Georgia, whose combined population is less than this single city, Istanbul’s size and bustle required some mental adjustment.

We arrived, checked-in and went out for a stroll. Sultanahmet had changed since we were last here; hotels had been upgraded and everywhere new restaurants were spilling out into the narrow streets. August is high season, our 2012 visit had been in a surprisingly chilly May and that accounts for some of the change, but we were sure Sultanahmet looked not just busier, but more prosperous.

After a good lunch in Batumi and a meal of sorts on the plane eating did not appeal, so we repaired to the hotel's roof top bar to drink raki and nibble peanuts.


The Hotel Niles breakfast room - the roof bar in its morning clothes - overlooks the Sea of Marmara; we drank our juice surveying the ships riding at anchor, waiting to load or unload.

A slightly mist Sea of Marmara from the Hotel Niles breakfast room
After breakfast we walked to the nearest tram stop. We had explored Sultanahmet, the centre of the Byzantine and Ottoman city, last time and although we had returned there (to the Hotel Niles where the staff were so friendly and helpful) we intended this time to visit the city’s modern centre. The tramway does not take the shortest route, circumnavigating Sultanahmet before crossing the Golden Horn by the Galata Bridge and running north beside the Bosphorus.

The extensive waterfront development includes the Besiktas Football Stadium and the Dolmabache Palace (which we visited in 2012) but the Taksim area, the heart of contemporary Istanbul is on much higher ground. From the tram terminus, a funicular railway runs up through a tunnel to Taksim Square. Like the tram it is modern, cheap and efficient if rather crowded.

We emerged into the hot, bright sunlight of Taksim Square.

War Memorial, Taksim Square, Istanbul
Taksim Square, according to the Rough Guide is 'the central pivot of Istanbul ... a symbol of the secular Turkish Republic' but I am not the first to observe there is something wrong. The square is vast enough, and there is an appropriate war memorial at is centre, but somehow it is less a city square than a hot, dusty vacant lot. Recent plans to construct a mall here resulted in rioting, as did the 1997 suggestion of building a mosque, but the unrest was more about the politics of the developments than any feeling that a much-loved square should be left unmolested. The Rough Guide calls it a 'failure as an imitation of a grand western plaza.' A failure it may be,  but there is nothing particularly European about the concept of a city square. Tiananmen Square may be a brutalist expanse of concrete, but it is the beating heart of Beijing, Imam Square in Esfahan, surrounded by a palace and two grand mosques, is as fine a city square as any in the world. Taksim, however, is not.

Taksim Square - 'a hot, dusty, vacant lot'.
Our plan was to walk down Istiklal Cadessi towards the Galata Tower. Before our 2012 visit I wondered if Turks actually ate donner kebabs, or were they, like chop suey and balti, invented in the diaspora to feed ignorant foreigners. I had quickly found the truth, and as we stood on the corner of Istiklal Cadessi and Taksim Square that truth was hammered home. It would have been a better picture if I could have persuaded the chatting stallholders to get out of the way, but however long I was prepared to wait they were determined to talk for longer. It was too early to eat kebabs, they were just giving the spits an exploratory turn, but at any time I would have said no. It is a mystery why Turks are so keen on eating something fundamentally nasty (generally I try not to present personal opinion as fact, but sometimes….)

Kebabs, corner of Taksim Square and Istiklal Cadessi
Istiklal Cadessi is a pedestrian street, which is to say it has no cars, but you do have to watch the traffic as a venerable tram line runs down the middle.

Venerable Tram, Istiklal Cadessi, Istanbul
We passed Balik Pazari, the fish market, and took a brief look.

Balik Pazari, Istanbul
A little further along is the Church of St Antony of Padua, a redbrick neo-Gothic basilica. The original, built by the Franciscans in1725, was demolished in the early 20th century to make room for the tramway, and the current church dates from 1913.
Church of St Antony of Padua, Istanbul
It was open so we had a good look round....

Church of St Antony of Padua, Istanbul
... and Lynne felt the need to light a candle. The Church has strong connections with Pope John XXIII who frequently said mass here when he was the Apostolic Delegate to Turkey in the1930s.

Lynne lights a candle, Church of St Antony of Padua, Istanbul
Nearby St Mary Draperis, between, a little behind and well below the Dutch and Russian consulates (the whole area is studded with consulates), is the oldest Catholic church in Istanbul. The first building on this site dates from 1584, its Ottoman era origins accounting for its positioning - only the minarets of mosques were permitted to break the skyline.

Church of St Mary Draperis, Istanbul
That building burned down in 1660, its replacement suffered from further fire and earthquake damage and the current structure dates from 1769 (or 1903 according to one source). Inside is an icon of the Virgin Mary, sole survivor of the 1660 fire. Sadly the church was locked and we only saw the outside.

It was time for lunch and if I am no great fan of donner kebabs, Turkey does have some delights to offer for a light lunch - though in terms of calories light is the wrong word. Turkish Delight itself has whole shops dedicated to it - and wonderful it is too - but for lunch, baklava seemed more appropriate. We found a pastry shop where we could sit and eat baklava and drink apple tea - another of Turkey’s many delights.

Now this I like
A whole shop full of Turkish Delight, Istiklal Cadessi, Istanbul
After St May Draperis, Istiklal Cadessi comes to an end and we turned slightly left into the road leading down to the Galata Tower.

An unassuming doorway on our left took us into the Galata Mevlevihane, a former monastery and ceremonial hall of the Mevlevi sect also known as the Whirling Dervish.

Wudu, Galata Mevlevihane, Istanbul
Celaleddin Rumi, known as the Mevlana, was a thirteenth century Sufi mystic. His followers lived a semi-monastic life where contemplation and mysticism were important, but they were also able to continue with their ordinary jobs and to marry. He instructed his followers to 'pursue all manner of truth and beauty, avoid ostentation and practice love, tolerance and charity. He condemned slavery, advocated monogamy and encouraged women to take a higher profile in religious and public life.' (Rough Guide) He was, in other words, an all-round good egg. The museum was very informative with a display of items used in devotion set in waxwork tableaux. Paying for the audio guide, though, was an error - it told us nothing we could not read on the well captioned displays. It is sad that a branch of Islam that opposes religious bigotry and approaches God through dancing and music should never quite have gained acceptance from the Muslim mainstream. It is equally sad that Europeans dismiss them simply as Whirling Dervishes, there is so much more to the Mevlevi. Having said that, the dervishes still whirl if you turn up at the right time, approaching God through giddiness, spinning in circles on the spot (with a nail driven into the floor grasped between their toes to keep their rotations centred.)

All sorts of hats in this cemetary, Galata Mevlevihane, Istanbul
Perhaps the most interesting parts of the museum were the graveyards, one for senior Sufis, the tops of their gravestones modelled on the hats which signified their status, the second for the most senior - where there was only one style of hat.

Only one sort of hat for the truly important, Galata Mevlevihane, Istanbul
Further down the road, and further below the top of the hill is the Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1349 on the site of an earlier tower constructed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Over the centuries it has been a jail, a fire tower and the site of some of the earlier unsuccessful attempts at human flight. The 61m tower is now used only by those who want to see the view or use the restaurant.
The Galata Tower, Istanbul
The modern tram round Sultanahmet and the funicular are good value, the much shorter ride up the Galata Tower is expensive - and first you have to work your way through a lengthy queue and then, above the lift, there are still a couple of flights of stairs. The top of the tower was packed and we shuffled round in a clockwise manner – but it was all worth it, the view really is spectacular. The Galata Tower is not particularly tall as towers go, but it is built just below a high point and the combination of sea, city and sunshine is breath-taking. 
The Golden Horn and the Sulemaniye Mosque from the Galata Tower
To the north is the Bosphorus, with the Asian half of the city beyond, to the south the Golden Horn crossed by the Galata Bridge to the bump of the Sultanahmet Peninsula with the outlines of the Blue Mosque, Aghia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace in its green parkland. Beyond that is the Sea of Marmara; as a viewpoint, the Galata Tower is among the world’s finest – indeed everything that Taksim Square is not.

Panorama from the Galata Tower
From the tower we walked down the hill to the Golden Horn and picked up another crowded tram back round Sultanahmet to our hotel where we headed for the roof to drink tea overlooking the Sea of Marmara.

Lynne walks down to the tram from the Galata Tower
In the evening there were plenty of restaurants to choose from and maybe we went back to one we used in 2012, but if it was it had expanded considerably and spread out into the street. A simple steak and chips for me and chicken for Lynne with a bottle of beer, then it was back to the hotel roof for a glass of raki. And that was the end of this trip as all we had to do the next day was head for the airport and start the long trek home.

Other Istanbul posts from May 2012

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Batumi, Capital of Ajara: Part 15 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea


We awoke to find the streets were wet. With prevailing winds over the Black Sea and the Lesser (though still substantial) Caucasus behind, it is hardly surprising that Batumi is the wettest town not just in Georgia but in the whole Caucasus region. You would think this might hamper its development as a seaside resort, but apparently not.

A wet morning in Batumi
It was, however, dry and warm by the time we had finished breakfast and were heading south towards the Gonio-Apsarus fortress.

In the days of the Cold War the border between Georgia (and Armenia a little to the South) and Turkey was the only land border between the USSR and a NATO member, so it could be a tense place. We passed the former ‘12th Military Base’ which became a Russian base with the disintegration of the USSR. After the 2004 Rose Revolution Georgia negotiated a Russians departure and the base was handed over in November 2007. It now rots quietly in the sun.

USSR 12th Military Base, south of Batumi
Gonio-Apsarus, a much older and more picturesque military base, was a little further on, 15km from Batumi and 4km short of the border.  Built by the Romans in the first century AD, it was taken over by the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century and became an Ottoman fortress in the 16th. The sturdy stone walls were obviously built to last.

Sturdy stone walls, Gonio-Apsarus
Apart from the impressive fortifications there is also a pleasant garden within the site and much archaeological activity concentrating on the Roman layers.

Garden Gorio-Apsarus
Impressive for what it is, Gonio-Apsarus is even more renowned for its connections with myth and legend.

After the disgrace and suicide of Judas Iscariot, Matthias was chosen to replace him among the twelve apostles and, according to local legend, he is buried at Gonio-Apsarus. I had previously thought the graves of only three of the apostles were 'known' - St Peter in Rome (where he probably is not), St James in Santiago de Compostella (a huge cathedral built on a fanciful claim) and St Thomas just south of Chennai, formerly Madras, (an outside possibility) – but here is a fourth.

The grave of St Matthias, Gori-Apsarus
There are those who sincerely believe this is the grave of Matthias, but the connection of Gonio-Apsarus with Jason and the Argonauts is securely in the realm of legend. Jason and his crew, supposedly the heroes of the tale but little more than a band of brigands, stole the Golden Fleece from Aeëtes, King of Colchis, possibly in what is now Kutaisi. The goddess Hera had made Aeëtes’ daughter Medea fall in love with Jason and without her help the quest would have been an abject failure.

When King Aeëtes discovered Jason, his daughter and his fleece had gone he understandably gave chase. Medea killed and dismembered her brother Apsyrtus (what a charmer she was!) and strewed the pieces around the countryside knowing that her father would stop and gather them up to give his son a proper burial thus allowing time to escape. This, allegedly, happened at Gonio. I had not read the story for a long time, and was surprised at how badly almost everybody behaves; it is difficult to see any of these liars, cheats, thieves and murderers as heroes. Some years later Jason abandoned Medea - there's gratitude for you - and in revenge she killed their two children (which is, I think, poor parenting).

Where's Aeëtes, then?
We returned to Batumi, and Dinara started our walking tour by the harbourmaster’s office. Batumi is a busy ferry and container port, but this is the quiet end.

The Port, Batumi
From here it is a short walk to Miracle Park, which from some angles looks little more inviting than Military Base 12.

Miracle Park, Batumi - not looking its best
The area abounds with the sort of architecture that Batumi is trying to make is own. For many years it was a pleasant enough border city, but in the last five years money has been liberally sprayed around in an attempt to turn Batumi into a major international holiday resort.

The clock tower is known as the Chacha Tower as chacha - the fiery Georgian version of marc or grappa - is allegedly dispensed free for a few minutes at seven o'clock each evening. I do not know if this is true or merely wishful thinking. Behind the Chacha Tower is the tower of the local university which, for some inexplicable reason has a Ferris wheel two thirds of the way up. I am not convinced it ever turns – or how this is an improvement on an observation deck.

The Chacha Tower, The Radisson Hotel and the University Tower, Batumi
From a different angle the tower is in front of another folly, the Alphabet Tower. Built at great expense and opened in 2011, the outside is a double helix bearing the 33 letters of the Georgian alphabet - the DNA of the national language. A panoramic lift runs up the middle to a television studio and a revolving restaurant. Unfortunately none of these were operating and unless the building finds occupiers soon it will be merely a colossal waste of money.

Chacha Tower and the Alphabet Tower, Batumi
The architectural style continues in the nearby hotels. The odd wavy Radisson can be seen between the Chacha Tower and the university tower, the strangely curving Kempinski is best appreciated from Google's satellite picture while the Sheraton, allegedly based on the ancient Pharos of Alexandria, resembles the top of the Empire State building on a much shorter tower. There is quirky architecture elsewhere too, the Coliseum (sic) Hotel is a lot like, surprise, surprise, the Colosseum and there is also a facsimile of The White House, only built upside down.

All this smacks of trying too hard; Batumi may want to represent it itself as a fun loving upmarket holiday resort, but there are two good reasons why it will fail - the damp climate, and the beach. I know Brighton has prospered for a couple of centuries or more with a pebble beach, but Batumi's looks like a beach frequented by those (mainly Russians) who have no other beach go to.

The Beach, Batumi
The statue of the Lovers by Tamar Kvesitadze is more impressive, despite the tendency of some to use it as an ad hoc changing room. The figures are in motion and over a period of time they move toward each other, kiss and then coalesce. It is popularly known as Ali and Nino, after the classic Azeri novel by Kurban Said, in which Muslim, Azeri Ali and Christian, Georgian Nino fall in love.

Ali and Nino coalesce, Batumi
Turning back towards the town centre, we walked through some pleasant streets, passing the Apollo Cinema, which is innovative and original without trying too hard...

Apollo Cinema, Batumi
...and the theatre with a statue of Neptune in the park outside…

Theatre, Batumi
… and then Europe Square where Medea holds up the Golden Fleece. The cost made the statue controversial when it was erected in 2007, but I rather like it even if it is the largest statue of a murderous psychopath we have encountered since North Korea.

Medea, Europe Square, Batumi
I like the fountain in front even more; by judiciously selecting your route it is possible to walk through the heart of the fountain and remain almost completely dry.

Walking through the fountain, Europe Square, Batumi
We finished in the main piazza overlooked by the cathedral. It was full of restaurants and although it was getting on for two o'clock - I had indeed noticed it was past my lunchtime – none seemed very busy, nor did they offer what we wanted.

The Piazza, Batumi
The end of the tour was the end of Dinara's responsibilities for the day, but we offered to buy her lunch as it was our last full day. I mentioned khachapuris, Georgia’s traditional cheese pies, quite frequently in the first few posts but just because I have not mentioned them recently it does not mean we had stopped eating them - it is, after all, compulsory in Georgia. Each region had its own variation, mostly there are only slightly differences, but Ajaran khachapuri is distinctive indeed. The bready part is twisted into a boat shape with the melted cheese in the middle, and just before serving, an egg is cracked into it.

Ajaran Khachapuri
You break the yolk and it cooks in the hot cheese, turning into cheesy scrambled egg in a big slab of bread. It is hearty and filling - a strange choice of national dish for a region where the climate is warm and heavy.

Lynne tackles her Ajarian Khachapuri
From the city centre a long slow stroll back to our hotel via the sea front took up most of the afternoon. We saw little we had not observed in the morning, except this fairground version of a bungee jump rocketing youngsters into the sky. It looked like a medieval torture to me, but I am assured the victims were volunteers - indeed they paid for the privilege.

Medieval torture, Batumi

Our plane was not until the afternoon so in the morning we set off to find the Museum of Ajara.

Like any city of comparable international standing (London, Amsterdam and Beijing come immediately to mind) Batumi has a bicycle hire scheme.

Bikes for rent, Batumi
Wide red cycle paths are painted on the pavements. I took a picture of Lynne standing in one. It was not particularly dangerous as apart from along the sea front we had not seen anyone riding a bicycle.

Cycle Path, Batumi
We paused by Batumi's synagogue which was built in 1904, closed by the Soviet authorities in 1929 and returned to its original purpose in 1998. Ownership of the building is now being returned to Batumi's small Jewish community.

Synagogue, Batumi
The museum was a curate’s egg. The first room was full of badly stuffed, moth-eaten birds and animals, but the second was better with a large and very beautiful Greek vase, an ancient sarcophagus converted for Muslim ritual washing, textiles, clothes, assorted household implements and models of traditional local buildings.

Models, Adjara Museum, Batumi
Back at the hotel Alex gave us a lift into the town centre and we found a suitable pavement café for our last meal in Georgia. We both chose trout, and were unsurprised to find them as tiny as the trout in Zugdidi, but at least they left room for an ice-cream afterwards. We each had a glass of brown, brackish qvervi-fermented white wine, because it was the last chance we would have. We must have acculturated well because we ordered a second for old time’s sake.

Then it was off to Batumi's small airport where we said goodbye to Alex and Dinara. Alex was a very private man, he spoke no English but even when we attempted to converse through Dinara we obtained little information. He had, though, been thoroughly professional in his approach to his job. Dinara, had been an absolute gem, one of the best guides we have encountered even though it was only a gap year occupation. Her ready smile and easy charm hide a forceful personality and this, along with her keen intellect suggest a promising future.

Saying goodbye to Dinara (with Alex behind the camera), Batumi Airport
That was not quite the end of our holiday. For some reason Turkish Airlines do not see Batumi to Birmingham as being an important link, so rather than spend 14 hours in Atatürk Airport waiting for a connection, we intended to spend a couple of nights in Istanbul - so that will be the next post.

From the Caspian to the Black Sea

Sunday, 24 August 2014

South to Ajara: Part 14 of from the Caspian to the Black Sea

Alex had covered his car in dust and mud on the dirt road from Ushguli but in the morning, just as we expected, the black BMW was gleaming again.

One of the twin peaks of Mt Ushba
At 4,710m (15,450ft) it is by no means the highest mountain in Georgia, but mountaineers consider it the most challenging
We said ‘goodbye’ to Mestia and the Upper Svaneti, leaving by the same road as we had arrived - there is no other way. Descending the Inguri valley we made several stops to photograph mountains, the river and ourselves. By mid-morning we were back at Zugdidi and turned westward across the Kolkheti plain towards Poti, Georgia's main port on the Black Sea coast.

The River Inguri rushes south from the mountains
The River Rioni reaches the sea here and we crossed it on the outskirts of the town and headed south down the coast. If Jason and the Argonauts went to Kutaisi, the capital of Colchis, in their search for the Golden Fleece, then this was where they left the Black Sea and rowed up the river. There are, as we would soon discover, other sites connected with this story and other contenders for 'where it actually happened' if a myth can be said to have 'actually happened’ anywhere.
We head south in a more leisurely way
We soon entered the Autonomous Republic of Ajara (or, occasionally, Adjara). The province in the south western corner of Georgia, was taken from the Ottomans by the Russian Empire in 1878. In the aftermath of the First World War, with Russia in the grip of civil war, Ajara was jointly occupied by Turkish and British troops. In 1920 it was ceded to the briefly independent Georgia under a treaty guaranteeing special autonomy for Ajara as a largely Muslim province within Christian Georgia. Although the Soviet Union was equally hostile to Islam and Christianity, the Ajar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic maintained its semi independence when Georgia became part of the USSR in 1921.
Our journey between the seas

We passed through Kobuleti, an out and out seaside resort, with the only sandy beach south of Poti. This is a holiday coast, but most of the best resorts, Dinara told us sadly, were in Abkhazia which is de facto an independent state though to Georgian eyes (and in international law) it is a Russian occupied province of Georgia. We saw holidaymakers' cars registered in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and, most frequently, Russia. The Russians were particularly plentiful this year as they were forsaking their usual haunts in Crimea for the political stability of Georgia - ironic considering how hard Russia worked to destabilize both Crimea and Abkhazia.
Ajara is in Georgia's south west corner, Abkhazia in the north west
When Georgia regained independence in 1991 Aslan Abashidze, the authoritarian leader of Ajara, kept the region out of the ensuing chaos, ruling with little regard for the Tbilisi government. After the 2003 Rose Revolution central government tried to reassert its authority and for a time it looked like there might be an armed confrontation. Popular demonstrations in Ajara against Abashidze led to his resignation and to Ajara, unlike South Ossetia and Abkhazia, becoming fully and unequivocally part of Georgia. The region retained its special autonomous status, originally negotiated when it was the only Muslim majority region of Georgia, even though today 70% of Ajarians are Christians.

We stopped for lunch south of Kobuleti. Spicy sausages turned out to be less spicy than promised and consisted largely of tripe and fat. We did not feel the need try them again. A cold beer, though, was very welcome on a hot and increasingly sultry afternoon.

A little further south, within sight of Batumi, the Ajarian capital, we stopped at the Botanical Gardens.

The city of Batumi from the Botanical Gardens
Founded by a Russian in 1912, the gardens were expanded under the Soviet Union and became a centre of study of Caucasian maritime subtropical flora. The 108 hectare site is now home to plants from all over the world.

We arrived at the main gate amid what seemed to be a chaotic scrum of cars. The cause was apparently a wedding party and the parking attendant advised us to drive to the back entrance. By the time we had walked through the park, he said, the jam would have eased and Alex could pick us up at the front.

Getting to the back entrance was not as easy as it sounded. Directed to take the next right off the main road, Alex turned onto a track which petered out among dense vegetation. He was not amused, and he extricated himself with much muttering under the breath; the next right took us to the entrance.
Batumi Botanical Gardens

I am not, by and large, a great fan of botanical gardens (update: except the Peradeniya Gardens in Sri Lanka which are magnificent) and although I like colourful flowers, I cannot claim to be much interested in plants. Sadly, for me anyway, large parts of the Batumi gardens are in fact an arboretum. The trees were well labelled, but the Latin names meant little to me and although they said where they came from, it was not much help. In the absence of something distinctive, like banyans or the huge kapoks of the Cambodian forest, one area of woodland looks much like another.
Batumi Botanical Gardens

I was more interested in the snake working is way along the side of the road. I have tentatively identified it as a Dice Snake; they are apparently widespread across Europe and beyond, but were unfamiliar to me. I was standing close to it and wearing sandals, so I was retrospectively relieved to read that it is harmless.

Dice Snake, Batumi Botanical Gardens
 The Botanical gardens were not entirely without their flowers, though.

Batumi Botanical Gardens
The back entrance was near a cliff top and our walk was all downhill to the main entrance. We continued past the entrance to a small station on a single track railway line and then onto the shingle beach beyond. We had started at the Caspian Sea and had now reached the Black Sea, which may not be black, but is a lot blacker than the Red Sea is red.

Railway station, Batumi Botanical Garden
We had immersed our hands in the smelly, polluted Caspian at Baku, so this was clearly the moment to remove shoes and march into the Black Sea. It was warm and pleasant but despite the apparently calm there was a strong undertow.

Standing in the Black Sea, Batumi Botanical Gardens
Our day had started among high mountains and now, only a few hours later we were at sea level, my feet were even a short distance below. Georgia is a small country, but the variety of scenery that can be seen in a single day is truly remarkable.

Lynne completes her journey to the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea
I finished my paddle, we found Alex at the now quiet main entrance and he drove us into Batumi.

Batumi is a port, a seaside resort and the capital city of Ajara, its 150,000 residents representing almost half the population of the autonomous republic. It is a hot and humid place – Abkhazia has not just the best beaches, but the pleasantest climate, too.

Away from the front Batumi does not feel like a holiday town; it does not feel like a Georgian town either - Turkey is less than 10km to the south and there is some inevitable influence.

Driving to our hotel we passed many large umbrellas set up outside shops – that boded well for eating and drinking we thought. We checked-in, had a shower to wash off the hot and sweaty day and headed out towards the umbrellas expecting restaurants and café/bars but all we found were take-away joints flogging donner kebabs and barbecued sweet corn. After a longish walk towards the seafront we found a café with a line of tables stretched out beside the road. We sat down and a waitress appeared bearing an English language menu – how did she know, we wondered, and not for the first time.

The fare on offer was neither particularly Georgian, nor particularly interesting, but after so many Georgian feasts perhaps it was time for an omelette and chips. I thought I ordered a litre of the usual ‘homemade’ brown white wine, but what turned up was a  carafe of very clear, very bright very white ‘European style’ wine. Perhaps I pointed at the wrong line in the menu, perhaps something was lost in translation, perhaps they thought it best to give foreigners what they were used to or just possibly they took advantage of our assumed ability to afford a wine three times the price of the basic plonk. Whatever the reason, I have to admit it made a pleasant change.

From the Caspian to the Black Sea