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…..

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

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