Across Continents

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A taste of Batumi

April 22nd, 2010

The Black Sea resort of Batumi had been a favourite of the Russian Politburo, and Stalin, himself a son of Georgia. Probably explained the apparent lack of hideous concrete monstrosities often associated with the former Soviet Union. But this is a city undergoing a lot of change, seeking to transform itself into a modern holiday destination. The Sheraton Hotel opens shortly, with other international names to follow. Modern casinos have appeared, drawing in gamblers largely from Turkey. Las Vegas of the Caucasus? No, the city has substance, a pleasing architecture, the new largely blending with the old.

But I was much more interested in getting a sense of what it was to be Georgian. Dinner the previous evening provided a little insight, host Kurt acting as the Tamadan – toastmaster – a role he seemed very accomplished in. There are at least seven toasts, and can be as many as twenty, so it’d seemed wise to opt for Georgian wine rather than vodka. My recollections are a little blurred, but peace, friendship, family are very important. And the welcome I’d had, from the moment I crossed the border, seemed to confirm this.

Khachapuri

They’d been a good deal of Georgian dishes to sample over dinner, but Merab, my host once more the following day, was insistent we try the local form of khachaprui, a bread shaped like a boat and filled with eggs, cheese and butter. The trick is to mix the contents thoroughly so they ressemble scrambled eggs, then tear off pieces of bread and eat the whole lot with your hands. Some scope for improvement on my part. Calorific content? Thousands apparently.

I’d enjoyed Batumi, there’d been a fantastic, almost humbling, welcome. But I needed to head north-east into the Guria region, making my way towards the route through the mountains that divide east and west Georgia.

[The author is indebted to the warmth and generosity of those who have made him so welcome at the border, and in Batumi, especially Merab from Batumi Business School, Shota Rustaveli State University, Kurt, and Vadja from the city’s tourism organisation]

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“Be strong”

April 22nd, 2010

The short ride north of the border crossing, towards the Black Sea resort of Batumi, provided a sharp introduction to cycling in Georgia – a few Turkish lorries to contend with still, but the real challenge lay in avoiding the cattle that wandered, quite oblivious to traffic, across the road. That and the double overtaking, which left you wondering which side of the road vehicles were meant to drive on. And if you needed another reason not to ride in the dark, that’d be the craters – potholes big enough to wreak havoc to cars.

Catching up with hosts Merab and Kurt on the outskirts of the city, the plan was then to follow their 4×4 to a small hotel they’d generously arranged for me. There were a few roundabouts to contend with, and many of the roads had been dug up whilst an entirely new mains water system was installed. I’d no real idea about the Georgian highway code, but, it seemed, neither did anyone else. I just stuck as close to Merab and Kurt’s vehicle as I could. Explaining my bemusement to Kurt, a German spending a couple of years in Batumi working with local organisations to help develop tourism, he offered some simple advice for cycling in the country. “Be strong“. And he meant it.

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