May 30 – June 28, 2018 (Summer)
Greeting: გამარჯობა (Gamarjoba)
Gratitude: მადლობა (Madloba)
Currency: Lari (₾)
Visa: 1 year
Cost of living: Low
Georgia’s party capital is nestled between the Black Sea and the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, providing a convenient holiday escape for Georgians, Turks, and especially Russians. Our stay coincided with the start of the summer season. The waterfront came alive as number of visitors swelled from a trickle to a flood. Despite the crowds, tourism-friendliness seemed like an afterthought. This was our last stop in the region, and the city seemed to sense we were losing our patience and punished us accordingly. The food selection was abysmal. English was surprisingly unhelpful. If we weren’t interested in gambling (we weren’t), Batumi wasn’t interested in us.
Constant construction noise made it difficult to concentrate on work. Hot and humid weather put a damper on our plans to explore nearby national parks, or just about anything else we wanted to do in the midday sun. Thankfully, long twilights made it possible to get out of the house and enjoy the city at a more palatable temperature. As the sun set and the lights came on, we found our peace in this crowded and chaotic retreat.
Where we stayed
After our homey and relaxing Airbnb↗ in Borjomi, our rental in Batumi fell short. The space itself was nice, if a bit cramped. Big windows, a large wrap-around porch, and brand-new appliances added a touch of luxury. Potable water even poured straight from the tap! No oven though, which is always a bummer. For once we found ourselves leaning on the air conditioning to keep comfortable, as 80° F felt closer to 100° in the high humidity. Thanks to fairly stagnant air, opening the windows provided no relief at all. On the upside there were mercifully few mosquitoes. The scattered ones we encountered were slower and more inept than their South American counterparts.
Our neighborhood was several blocks back from the water, sandwiched between the touristy, casino-laden shore and the more local housing inland. Nearby streets had lots of little markets and small shops specializing in secondhand clothes. Big grocery stores were within a 10 minute walk. We had a favorite neighborhood produce stand, chicken restaurant, and muffin shop. Several nearby parks made it easy to get away from the concrete jungle without having to walk all the way to the waterfront. We even lucked out with a pretty nice view of the mountains that framed the town, though it was often restricted by a steady stream of clouds and rain.
But our biggest frustration was our old friend construction noise. Before booking, we were worried by photos of the apartment that showed the building next door under construction. We asked our host directly about the possibility of noise. She assured us there wouldn’t be any. But of course, we arrived to three straight days of concrete drills running right outside our windows, and intermittent work the rest of our stay. If it wasn’t that unit though, it was the one across the street, or a block away, or two. Batumi in general is busy being built. If we’d known we probably would have skipped the city entirely and picked a more productivity-friendly setting.
What we did
Batumi Boulevard, the waterfront promenade, is the city’s centerpiece. It spans more than 7 kilometers from the seaport to the airport, and is lined with shops, restaurants, nightclubs, and rental scooters. The water is supposed to be the big attraction, but lumpy rocks are way less fun than silky-smooth sand↗. Instead, the walkway itself makes up for dashed expectations. Romantic sculptures like Ali and Nino offer up alternative photo opportunities.
Separate paths give walkers and bikes (and we use the term loosely, from normal bicycles to pedal-powered carts to novelty electric scooters) enough room to avoid running each other over. Weekdays earlier in our stay were the quietest, while on weekends and evenings it felt like the whole city came out to strut. It was also prime parasailing and ultralight-flying time. Party boats set sail from the recreational port, advertising music and drinks on the Black Sea, with some suspiciously suggestive dancing to boot.
A big concrete-and-glass stadium in the corner of 6 May Park houses an attraction that was entirely new to us, the Dolphinarium. We normally shy away from things like this due to animal welfare concerns, but we decided to take a chance on this one because of rave reviews and a remarkably reasonable price. The daily choreographed dolphin shows are the main event, but they also sell the opportunity to get in the water and swim with the stars in off-hours. We picked a standard afternoon show to attend.Nine dolphins, including two juveniles who were clearly still learning their routines, put on a playful and incredible performance. They raced, sang, jumped, danced, played ball with the audience, and even tossed a trainer into the air. It was totally worth seeing. Even when they soaked us all the way back in the fourth row. From our perspective the dolphins seemed well-cared-for and excited to do their routines. Hopefully we weren’t taken for a ride.
A small aquarium sits right next door to the stadium. It is practically free to visit, but you get what you pay for. The whole thing is just one large room with a wall of tanks and one large pool in the middle. Though it is in need of some renovation, there are some interesting creatures on display. Lots of local fish, some rays, and even a few seahorses.
Despite the nearby mountains, the actual core of Batumi sits squarely at sea level. But it’s also in the midst of a construction boom, and its rebirth as a city of high-rises affords guests with plenty of places to get above it all. The most amusing is the large Ferris wheel right on the boardwalk. A ride costs just a few lari and gives great views of the port and some people-watching. Another Ferris wheel is hung from the side of the prominent Batumi Tower (originally built to house a technical university but now in semi-occupied limbo). Unfortunately that one was non-operational during our stay. We skipped a ride on the new cable car, but did visit the Sheraton‘s Sky Bar after getting forced into the lobby by a sudden downpour. The views are great, especially at sunset, but the service and prices were not. Alphabet Tower takes the award for most distinct architecture in Batumi. A metal helix holds up a disco-ball-like top covered in lights that alternately displays images (like the Georgian flag) and spells out messages. On the other side of town, a futuristic McDonald’s serves the standard fare but is worth a visit for the sci-fi exterior and neat indoor garden. The nearby Marriott has curved outlines that feel almost organic. Plenty more tall buildings are on their way up or nearing completion.
Food & Drink
Borjomi had next to no selection in terms of groceries, but we accepted that as the price of living in a relatively small village. We hoped Batumi would give us back some of the options we had in Tbilisi↗ (already pretty underwhelming). Unfortunately not. Small, neighborhood stores sold a few good seasonal fruits and vegetables. Meat came in three varieties: chicken, pork, or bad beef. Supermarkets are considered a luxury and generally carry the same goods, but with higher prices. We tried Goodwill and Carrefour but neither had a meaningfully better selection. Carrefour at least carried some of the amazing instant ramen we fell in love with in Tbilisi. These Chinese-made products actually had some flavor and spice, which we augmented and localized with Megrelian Ajika we found at the Rural Wealth Cooperative for ₾1. Local quail eggs made a perfect finishing touch to the already-yummy soups.
A long walk past the port led to the Fish Market. The small stall in front housed a few vendors; each offered an assortment of fresh fishes, shrimp, and mussels. Prices barely beat the supermarket seafood department, but the quality and variety made up for it. For an extra surcharge, the restaurant next door would clean and cook your purchase on the spot. We opted to do that part ourselves.
Partly because we lacked an oven (and partly because the heat made us kind of kitchen-lazy), we ate out a bit more than usual this month. Even while sweating profusely, we couldn’t turn down one last chance to eat khachapuri. Khachapuri House served up the local Adjarian version cooked to perfection, with the requisite egg and a pile of butter cradled in the toasty cheese. Sushi from Tokyo House was a welcome surprise. We stopped in for a special meal on our anniversary. Our expectations were modest but we ended up blown away. Living in Seattle, we’ve had a lot of good sushi in our time. This was up there with some of the best. Their prices were (justifiably) more in line with big western cities than most places in Georgia, it was a worthwhile splurge that we even found ourselves going back to.
And on the complete other end of the spectrum, we couldn’t help but stop in to another Wendy’s. Georgia is the only place in/near Europe where the chain can be found. We stopped in a few times to get our burger and fries fix at this fast food anomaly.
Batumi, keeping with the theme of the Caucasus, was terrible at beer. At least in the coastal city’s unrelenting heat, the bland light lagers made some sense. Still, we found ourselves counting the days until we left for our next stop (and home of our favorite beer in the world) Lithuania↗. Georgia is more of a wine country, anyway. Though the Adjara region produces its own wines, we could only ever find products from Kakheti. Grocery stores carried the same big brands we saw everywhere else, and even the small corner shop that sold wine in hand-filled plastic jugs (at ₾4/liter) sourced from the other half of the country. The same place also sold bottles of imitation cognac for suspiciously cheap, just few dollars. It… wasn’t great. But if anyone is headed to Batumi to party or has an urgent need for paint thinner, we know just the spot.
We arrived from Borjomi↗ via marshrutka. It unceremoniously dumped us along the waterfront and into a lion’s den of cab drivers pushing overpriced services. Yandex happened to not work just around the drop-off zone (maybe blocked?), so we carried our stuff a street or two inland so we could call a fair cab without harassment.
Like other Georgian cities, Uber↗ isn’t available. Fortunately Yandex takes its place and provides a reliable way to call a taxi. Hailing a cab off the streets is liable to result in exploitative fares, or worse.
Stuff of interest
This month’s SIM cards↗ came from Magti. As holdovers from Tbilisi, they set a personal record for the longest we’ve kept the same number. We paid about $2 to recharge with another gig of data each at the start of the month. But even though we used our chips for months, we weren’t happy about it. Magti texted us a truly appalling number of spam messages. They came at all hours, practically every day. And they came from an array of numbers (sometimes withheld) so we couldn’t even block them.
Russian is the language of choice, sometimes even preferred over Georgian. The dolphin show, for example, was announced in Russian and English. We expected this in Armenia and got along fine, but it took us a bit by surprise here.
The waterfront gave us plenty of reasons to stay land-side besides the stoniness of the beach. The coastal shelf drops off quickly and was either too cold or too dangerous for most swimmers. Few swam out further than a couple meters. Pretty big population of jellyfish, too.
Casinos are clearly the biggest game in town. Every major hotel has one, and standard Eastern European-style betting parlors fill in the gaps. They’re not our thing, but the industry clearly brings in a lot of money for Batumi.
Medical care here was better than in Yerevan↗ (mostly thanks to one English-speaking clinic in town), but still fell far short of our standards. Pharmacies, at least, were happy to sell us just about any medication we needed without a prescription, making it easy to stock up.
In case we needed another excuse to stay inside with the air conditioning, the World Cup started during our stay. Normally we are not football fans, but with so many countries we’ve been to represented, we watched anyway. It turns out soccer at the highest levels can actually be entertaining, even if Iceland gets eliminated in the first round.
What we learned
Batumi was probably never going to be our favorite city, but it got a shorter end of the stick being our last stop in a long-term stay. We tried spending more than just a month or two in one country to save a bit on moving around. Good idea, but Georgia only sort of clicked and we barely got to appreciate our short detour in Armenia what with the medical issues. Both countries are attractive nomad destinations thanks to the low cost of living and generous visas, but we probably won’t be basing out of either long-term. And if we did, Armenia would get the edge. If only for the availability of American peanut butter.