Everyone knows the Russians will drink anything, Amran, my travel guide in Georgia, who is also a trained ballet dancer, cites a common refrain. It is said that when Russians wanted to drink some more wine, all they did was absorb some more territory from Georgia. Rumour has it and now Georgia has me, too. Like literally.
This beautiful country in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains is located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Bounded in the west by the Black Sea, in the north by Russia, in the south by Turkey and Armenia, and in the southeast by Azerbaijan, Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world. The fertile valleys and protective slopes were home to grapevine cultivation and neolithic wine production for at least 8000 years. UNESCO also has acknowledged and added the ancient traditional Georgian winemaking method using the Kvevri clay jars to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.
As I set to explore this stunning post-Soviet country, I realised beyond the Georgian grapes, there are stories weaved in its ramshackle red roofs, fairytale castles and Disneyland-esque architecture.
My first pit stop here is Batumi, which is also known as the Pearl of the Black Sea. Laid out like the silkiest blue blanket, I get the first glimpse of the shimmering waters of the Black Sea here.
The biggest port and resort city and the capital of Georgia’s autonomous Adjara region, this town is almost a mini Vegas. Full of casinos and quirky buildings and ghosts of buildings awaiting their fate, Batumi is known for its off-beat architecture. Many of the structures are relics of Batumi’s past, when the city was a prosperous harbour along the Caspian oil route.
My favourite is the modern Statue of Ali and Nino in the Boulevard of Batumi Bay which symbolises eternal love. Made by Georgian artist Tamara Kvesitadze, the figures move towards each other, merge into one piece and then move away from each other every 10 minutes. Just like love and loss co-exist, so do Ali and Nino’s folklore in the form of this statue.
The Alphabetic Tower expresses the uniqueness of the Georgian alphabet and people. Situated near the Ali and Nino statue, the tower is another main landmark of the city. The 130-metre (426.5 feet) building combines the design of a DNA strand holding 33 letters of the Georgian alphabet, with each aluminium letter being four metres (13.1 feet) tall. You can also take the elevator to the top of the structure, for panoramic views.
The Argo Cable Car is another favourite. It takes you on a 2.5-kilometre ride. At the end of the journey, there’s a viewing platform for sweeping views over the city. You can also walk up to the nearby church for some peaceful moments.
Founded by a Russian botanist and opened in 1912, the Batumi Botanical Garden, lies in Mtsvane Kontskhi, a small town 10 kilometres away from the city. One of the largest botanical gardens in the former Soviet Union, the garden offers some great views over the coastline along with beautiful fauna. My favourite and nostalgic zone here was the one with the rows of marigold, reminding me that home was just one thought away.
Batumi has some gorgeous facades, too. The Belle Époque-style architecture on Europe Square is a highlight and a welcome antidote to the modern buildings along the waterfront.
On the road
Do use the marshrutkas for some adventure. These minibuses dash from one destination to the next and cost next to nothing. You can flag them down almost anywhere, and a sign on the dashboard indicates their destination. You are always sorted.
Georgia on my plate
Georgians love to eat and drink. And hence, the search for good food is not that tough here. The cuisine of the country is generous. The national favourite and my favourite hands down is Khachapuri, which is flat bread filled with cheese, and usually eaten piping hot from the oven.
Do not miss trying the Khinkali, a sort of dumpling usually with a spiced meat filling. There are several sorts of soup, particularly Chikhirtma, a chicken broth with egg yolks and sautéed onion.
And these people love to raise toasts. And why not! Georgian wine is irresistible. So, we raised toasts to pretty much everything — humanity, world peace, friendship, family and pretty women.
History lovers, there is plenty to make you stop and stare as Batumi has a way of leading you back into a world brimming with magic. So all my fellow travellers with big appetite and big hearts, let’s raise a toast to Georgia!