Under greying skies, the bus skirted the coast, through numerous mountain tunnels and after a short while deposited us at the Turkish-Georgian border of Serp, complete with the biggest flag I have ever seen (even for Turkish standards). I am accustomed to the brash nationalism here, and I suppose I can understand the desire for chauvinistic nations to throw their weight around when enemies are near. But Georgia? Do they really need to be put in their place?
After border stamps, the bus was nowhere to be seen, leaving the last passengers – us and two Georgian men – wandering around in circles and kicking puddles. Suddenly it swept past, just quick enough for the driver to shout some Turkish words that none of the present company could understand, before driving off into the distance. Some grunting semaphore got us on to a local bus, paid for by an old Georgian lumberjack with white chest hair and piercing blue eyes who looked as if maybe parting with a few silver coins was not an easy task. At least being a smoker enables you to thank people with cigarettes.
Looking out of the local bus toward Batumi (for scenery, but also to escape the unnerving gaze of a fat young child)… The last time I was surrounded by similar landscape was in Albania. Stray dogs, horse and carts carrying teetering towers of hay, clattering rusty cars of a distant Soviet model no longer produced and street children kicking around a deflated football.
Petre Melikishvilli was a noted botanist of the early 19th Century and his former home on his eponymous street is submerged behind a wall of palm trees, pampass grass and fragrant lavenders, a lot more of which can be found in the nearby Botanical Gardens . The rest of his street is probably not what he would have envisaged. Despite looking like the site of heavy meteor fall, the area is home to a charming guesthouse run by the aimiable Michel and his family. Even though we thought it was actually a hotel before we arrived, after a few days of morning spent on the outside deck surrounded by a tangle of lemon trees and grapevines with cups of amphetamine-strength Georgian coffee and ‘made by mama’ sugary cakes, it became home for a few days.
Strolling around the old town with an umbrella, the silence would have been unnerving if it wasn’t punctuated with the clattering cacophony of hammering, cement mixing and reversing trucks. The city is in a state of near total redevelopment. And hidden amongst this, old Eurasian Batumi stands firm. Old Imperial Russian churches peek out, their golden cupolas gleaming along with a mix of Soviet right angles, trad Turkish and Georgian Liberty style housing.
Quite a number of colossal hotels and offices have been erected, or are in the process of being, and the 2km promenade is replete with bars, restaurants, volleyball courts, fairgrounds, marching bands and a peculiar phenomenon called the ‘Dancing Fountain’. Every night at 20.00, crowds of hundreds congregate on tiered seating both sides of a small lake, hawkers sell popcorn and t-shirts, thundering classical music is turned on (think Holst’s ‘Mars – the Bringer of War’) and thousands of jets shoot water high into the night sky. Having been implored by many Georgians to witness the ‘dancing fountain’, I felt I should attend. Having spent some time in Central and Eastern Europe, I was expecting a dismal, heartbreaking, crumbling, post-Soviet trickle of dirty water, followed by a gloomy, disappointing walk back into town. What I saw was actually very impressive indeed. Once you get past the array of cheesy music (I heard so many old football songs, bad pop and the Indiana Jones theme tune), you realise that the water jets and the floodlights are all synchronised to the music, somewhat like a digital volume readout on a hifi. Even to the most sceptical, it is a feat of engineering and, I am sure, the location of many a first date, marriage proposal and drunken nightswim for so many Batumians.
Georgia has a much more agreeable rate of exchange than Turkey, which allows one to repair to a restaurant by the port, feast on dumplings, charcoal grilled lamb, blocks of cheese, wine and vodka all for under five pounds. The small bottle of vodka I ordered turned out to be not very small at all and, as the heavens opened and the rain started to wash away the contents of our table, we made a dash for shelter and passed around the bottle with some twinkly eyed, grizzled fishermen and laughed the laughter of the damned.
In high spirits, we marched into a nameless wood panelled bar run by a chatty Tbilisi boy called Georgi. Despite its hallowed previous incarnations as a church, then a pharmacy, then a derelict building, Georgi was able to purchase the site for 10 euros and a wink and a nudge. Surrounded by ancient paintings and dusty arcade machines, we perched among the melee of the lean, pirouetting crowd, drinking wine from a teapot as Georgi’s mustachioed, oil-painted grandfather surveyed the scene despairingly from his prominent place above the bar. Talk of Russia, talk of Saakashvilli. “What does the town of Gori mean to you?” “War!” the bellowed reply, as stories begin of Russian tanks encircling Stalin’s birthplace during the 2008 conflict. The moon is out and the drinking vessels have now become smaller, thimble sized, but the alcohol content has doubled and Georgi’s pupils have morphed from saucers into dustbin lids. Rising and falling, expanding and contracting like the small boats tossed in a gale or maybe a drunken sherpa atop the Caucasus Mountains? A zigzagged trip back to the guesthouse, an eternity with the keys, awakening the family dog, tripping over mother’s slippers and impacting the bed with the force of a felled tree.
The next day, with a woodpecker in my head and a sewer in my mouth, I cursed the gods, carefully checked I had not destroyed any priceless family memorabilia of my host family the night before and left to the Serp beachfront. Unlike the promenade, this side of town is a rubbish strewn, windswept stretch of sand and multicoloured stones, upon which old ladies wander, selling crisps and Cyrillic playing cards, their black dresses flapping in the wind, their gold teeth glinting in the sun. I played several rounds of Scala Quaranta, perfected a Braeburn apple-red tan and threw myself into the rolling waves and fizzy froth of the Black Sea for what felt like hours.