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Still bearing traces of 300 years of Ottoman rule, Artvin’s nextdoor neighbor Batum is a touristic city risen from the ashes of the old Soviet Union.
“It as easy as pie,” said a stylishly dressed Istanbul woman stepping across the customs barrier in Georgia. Just like us, she had arrived at the Sarp border crossing after a 15-minute journey from Artvin’s border township of Hopa, and was entering the country following a scant ten minutes of formalities at passport control and the purchase of a visa. Those who cross over to Batum from Artvin, the most remote and surprise-filled corner of the Eastern Black Sea, first encounter a large square that serves as an open-air airport terminal. The taxis and share-cabs departing from here make it to Batum in around half an hour. You can even arrange with the Turkish-speaking drivers for a comprehensive city tour. What’s more, you’ll have a free guide all the way. Batum, gateway to the Caucasus and colored by Ottoman culture for three hundred years, awaits you with its many surprises.
THE LEGACY OF SOVIET RUSSIA
The asphalt road to Batum runs between the splendid contours of the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea’s endless blue. It’s a pleasant journey. Gonio Beach, which stretches for several kilometers starting from the border crossing, is the Eastern Black Sea’s longest. An old stone bridge joins the farming villages of Ahalsopeli and Adlia, perched on the two slopes flanking the Çoruh River. Adlia is famous for its dog breeding farms. Herds of cows necessitate a mandatory rest stop along the way. Gonio is a small coastal town situated at the spot where the Çoruh empties into the Black Sea. Apsaros Castle on its shore was built in the Roman period. First under Byzantine and then Arab rule, the castle was conquered by the Ottomans in 1478. Its interior, which includes the monumental tomb of Saint Matthew, one of the twelve Apostles, and an Ottoman bath and graveyard, is also a hiking trail dotted with kiwi, mandarin orange and palm trees. A sign at the entrance says that a golden statue of a horse from the Hellenistic period found in the archaeological excavations here is on display in the Batum Museum. The road continues past Batum International Airport to the city center. Batum is a large city, too big to be toured in one day. And Old Batum, with its century-old two- and three-storey houses left from the Soviet period, is nostalgically reminiscent of Cuba.
The road, adorned with statues of lions, dragons and surrealistic mythological creatures, reflects the extraordinary architecture of the Caucasus. One of the region’s characteristic structures is the Old Post Office building, built in the early 20th century, which stands at the intersection of the city’s two main avenues, Baratashvili and Abashidze. White is the dominant color of the homes along the coast, which is lined with modern buildings. Batum State Park, also on the coast, is like an emerald isle smack dab in the center of a city that resembles a field of buildings.
Adorned with statues of poet Ilia Chavchavadze, the city’s ‘uncrowned king’, and other Georgian writers and statesmen, the park is a giant tour zone with hiking trails, beaches and waterside cafes. Batum University at one end of the park is a legacy of Tsarist Russia.
THE ANTALYA OF THE BLACK SEA
Batum, which sits on a broad and fertile alluvial plain deposited over the centuries by the Çoruh River, is an old port city. At the same time, it is the capital of Ajara, one of the three autonomous regions of Georgia, a cultural mosaic with a population of 4.5 million including Georgians, Armenians, Russians, Azeris, Ajars, Ossetians, Abhazians and other ethnic groups. Christians and Muslims live side by side in this city of 150,000.
The history of the city, a Russian resort like Turkey’s Antalya during the Soviet period, goes back three thousand years. Local sources claim that tribes migrating from these lands 1.8 million years ago were the forerunners of the modern Europeans. The Georgian language meanwhile is one of the oldest in the world with its 200-year-old alphabet. Batum, where the cultures of the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Russian, Turkish, Armenian, Azeri and Caucasian peoples have intermingled over the centuries, produced some prominent political and literary figures during the Soviet period. Following a long hiatus, the new-found tranquility of this city at the boundary of Georgia, which declared its independence from Russia in 1990, has stimulated a socio-economic revival and the opening up of the region to tourism. The good relations being developed with Turkey have also facilitated border crossings. And the development initiative that took off with the revival of the port trade has continued with the restoration of buildings left from the Soviet era.
The highrises in the city center today are generally public buildings and hotels. The foundation was recently laid too for an International Airport at Batum, which is expected to serve 565,000 passengers a year. That a Turkish firm has undertaken the construction is just another sign of the close ties of friendship between the two countries.
COFFEE, MAGNOLIAS AND ACCORDIONS...
The best way to get to know Batum, which has the natural appeal of cities situated between the mountains and the sea, is to take long walks along its wide avenues and boulevards. The Batum Dolphin Show Center, whose fame spread worldwide in the Soviet period, the Botanical Park, the Aquarium, the Church of the Virgin Mary and the Museums of Art and Ethnography are just a few of the places worth seeing. The magnolia blossoms that turn Batum’s hills, parks and surrounding countryside into a garden of paradise are the symbol of the city. Besides its magnolias, which find a variety of uses from perfumes to medicaments and cleaning agents, Batum is also famous for its coffee. It’s not difficult to find a cafe, or shop selling coffee and its accoutrements, on almost every corner. For the people of Batum prolonged kaffee-klatsches to the soughing of the Black Sea breeze are part and parcel of life—whether at doorfronts, on the streets or in the cafes—for three seasons of the year with the exception of winter. There is a pervasive belief that Batum’s coffees, from the aromatic ones to ‘hot black’, which are divided into dozens of varieties depending on flavor, aroma and degree of strength, impart a magical vitality. As the city’s touristic hub, Batum Harbor is lively all year round with its coffee drinkers, street musicians, poets and fishermen. And the strains of an accordion, which could reach your ears on any street or corner in the city, will strike you like an old Caucasian tale. And at that moment you’ll realize that you’ll fallen in love with Batum, just like us...