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Georgia On My Mind: Batumi, Eurasia's Pearl of the Black Sea

Sometime during the past few years, Batumi - a beautiful coastal town in Georgia, where the beaches are lined with pebbles and the air is filled with the salty scent of the Black Sea - has transformed from a less-well known alternative to the country's capital, Tblisi (at least in my circles) into an award-winning, bustling tourist location and one of Europe's leading holiday resorts. When I visited years before, it was already a coveted holiday spot for locals and visitors from neighbouring countries.

In 2022, Batumi (which is the capital of Ajara, also spelled as Adjara) - the autonomous republic in the southwestern corner of the country of Georgia - was investing heavily in its tourism efforts, with it also being a prime business location. A photographer friend of mine visited that year through a sponsored trip for content creators, where she wasn't in charge of the itinerary. It was around five or six years after I'd gone there, and when she came back, she said, "I loved Tblisi and the incredible nature in other parts of Georgia. But Batumi? I didn't see the amazing nature and art I'd been hoping for - it was all casinos and splashy resort stuff for me, ugh."

Indeed, there has been quite a lot of investment that supports her comment: in addition to those casinos, luxury hotels and curated beaches have been springing up, and investments were made in a spangly new stadium, artificial peninsulas and islands, ultra-modern resorts, and recreational destinations, along with a decent amount of wellness and adventure tourism options. Yet much like the way people can come to Dubai and write it off as place that's all flash and luxury, without ever scratching past the surface to discover the actually wonderful cultural heart of the city, I wonder it my friend's experience might have been a bit of the same issue. I wouldn't be opposed to another trip to find out.

But my experience there, before this boom started taking hold, was quite different - my memories of that trip are of a place filled with nature, art, and a delightful chance for introspection while I took a breath from the fast pace of modern life. And that feeling was something I took away with me, through reminders that I could continue applying in the years to come. Here are three things I learned from Georgian people and culture during my trip to Batumi back in 2016 to 2017 - a time that saw the country's tourism grow by 27.9%, counting it among the top 10 fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world at the time.

Prospect Park, Batumi, Georgia
Prospect Park, Batumi, Georgia / Photo by Yi-Hwa Hanna

1) They really know how to enjoy life. Here, life is meant to be a pleasure: Drink the wine. Stop and smell the roses. Bask in the sunshine. Smile at a stranger. Make the city - and your life - beautiful. Fall in love. Woo your loved one. Breathe. Eat the bread and the cheese. Even their parks have public pool tables for people to enjoy. The piazzas regularly host a variety of bands so you can enjoy live jazz while you savor your dinner, there are plenty of places for lovers to stroll through idly hand-in-hand before pausing for a quiet moment on a bench, and there’s never a bad time to drink wine – it’s more of a question of choosing the right wine for the occasion.

2.) Further to that point about the bread and the cheese: If you were Georgian, or just living in or visiting Georgia, it would be tragic to be gluten, lactose, or dairy intolerant. Why? One word: Khachapuri. It's a traditional Georgian dish made of leavened and risen bread typically shaped into a teardrop shape, filled or baked with cheese (that forms a sinfully delicious melty pool in the middle, where you can tear bits off the side of the bread to dip into that), sometimes with an egg cracked into the centre and baked into it - especially if it's Adjaruli Khachapuri, a specific type of Khachapuri that hails from the Adjarian region of Georgia. I dare you to try it and not succumb to the gooey, warm, comforting goodness. Khachapuri aside, Georgian food seems to be quite dairy-heavy in general, from an endless array of cheeses to kaimagi (a rich dip well-paired with cornbread), khinkali (a dumpling stuffed with meat, spices and a soupy broth, that is boiled or steamed – kind of like a Georgian version of my beloved Taiwanese xiao long bao), Sulguni (a dense, semi-firm, and somewhat elastic local cheese that’s briny, sour, and tastiest when mopped up with puri, which is yet more bread), Mchadi (a type of cornbread that is eaten with, you guessed it, cheese – there is also a version of this called chvishtari, which is the same thing but melded with cheese right from the baking process), Kubdari (a flatbread that’s kind of like a thicker pita pocket, stuffed with spiced lamb and onion blend – think of it as the lovechild of khachapuri and the Lebanese arayes)… I could go on. You get the idea. To me, it was glorious - and a reminder that after years of battling with my desire to eat nice things without internally labelling them as "naughty food" and "cheat meals", sometimes life is too short to not just enjoy it - it's all about finding a healthy balance. And I did, as I ate the khachapuri, and then walked it off with stunning backdrops like the Batumi Botanical Garden.

Khachapuri / Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels

3) They have a lot of attention to detail. Beauty is an integral part of life there, but in the most un-shallow way, especially when it comes to art. I guess that’s a natural (pun intended) side-effect when your country boasts some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, with everything from snow-capped mountains, lush forests, jaw-dropping canyons, and sparkling rivers to sun-drenched beaches, stunning sea coastlines, and more. Georgian art seems to retain influences all the way from antiquity to Mesopotamian, Anatolian, Green, Persian, Roman, and Byzantine, even Ottoman times. In Batumi in particular, their modern take on this with cutting-edge, truly avant-garde architecture is just another form of expressing their commitment to making things beautiful. I mean, even their McDonalds is gorgeous, and among the most impressive in the world when it comes to design and architecture. Seriously, if you don’t believe me, check it out here. Add to that their easy welcome of vast forms of expression like street art, mosaics, and just the fact that everything from their park benches to their walkways have a certain little extra je ne sais quoi, be it the polished natural wood flooring of an exhibition room at the Gonio Fortress to the giant chess board, aviary garden, or sculptures dotted along the entire waterfront at Miracle Park. Batumi also celebrates its street art scene, and as someone who absolutely loves street art, I'd love to visit during the festival they hold for it.

Ali & Nino Statue, Batumi, Georgia
Ali & Nino Statue, Batumi, Georgia / Photo by Yi-Hwa Hanna

Thanks to its location as a sort of crossroads between Europe and Asia, Georgia is a country that’s been ideally placed for influence from a variety of cultures. Unfortunately, when I told people that I went on a trip to Georgia and highly recommend it, I usually had to follow that up with some clarification on the fact that I mean the country, not the US state. I'm sure that as the country's popularity as an international tourist destination grows, that will change - but for now, here’s a few tidbits about Georgia: It is, in fact, a country, one that is bordered by Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. It emerged from the former Soviet Union as a independent state in 1991, and was once the subject of conflict (and rivalry) between Persia, Turkey and Russia. Its capital is Tblisi, and Batumi is its second-largest city. Batumi’s climate is what’s described as subtropical, which means that it’s warm, hot and sunny during the summertime, but gets pretty darn cold (yes, even with snow) in the winter. Before I visited, I admittedly also didn't know much about Georgia. I'd had a long weekend coming up, and had been looking for a new place to explore that would be easy to get to from Dubai. When friends asked "Why Georgia?", my response was simply, "Why not?" The flights were extremely affordable, with FlyDubai offering options between AED900-1000 for a round-trip ticket at the time. The flight duration was really short (3 hours and 45 minutes on the way there, and 3 and a half hours on the way back), and the decent route times allowed me to leave late on a Thursday afternoon (arriving in Batumi on a Thursday evening), and arrive back in Dubai during the wee hours of a Sunday morning (leaving Georgia on the Saturday evening), making it ideal for a long weekend trip (our weekends here are Friday and Saturday). It served up an ideal blend of nature and culture, with the feel of Europe peppered with the flavour of Asia, and it’s pretty affordable once there too. It has waterfalls, incredible art, forests, and beaches. I knew even back then that it was also said to be rife with casinos, but that's not really my jam, so I left that off my list - and the rest was still more than enough. Oh yeah, and Georgia is said to be the birthplace of wine. I was so sold that I booked my ticket an hour after a quick Google search on it. I stayed at the Piazza Boutique Hotel, a charming boutique hotel (in case that wasn’t obvious from the name) that’s actually situated inside an old clock tower. Don’t worry, you don’t hear the chiming noises in the rooms while the clock is going off, so you won’t be woken by that at every hour of the night if that’s a concern. Every room here is unique, and the staff, like most of the other people I met in Georgia, were helpful and friendly.

Piazza Square, Batumi, Georgia
Piazza Square, Batumi, Georgia / Photo by Yi-Hwa Hanna

Unfortunately, I don’t speak Georgian, but I wish I could understand it, since I think the written language is beautiful. Nor do I speak Russian, which also would have helped immensely, since not everyone spoke English there when I visited. In fact, I’d say a majority of people I met there didn’t. Still, despite the language barrier, they were incredibly friendly, and even the driver I hired for a day to take me up into the mountains to see the Makhuntseti Waterfall was a kind, warm, and inviting human who I managed to share a delightful meal with and learn from throughout the day, even though we communicated only through broken language, hand gestures, smiles, and our eyes. Laughter is a wonderfully unifying thing, even when you don’t speak the same language.

Batumi stole my heart from my very first evening there. I sat on my balcony breathing in the fresh air - still carrying the salty scent of the sea - while sipping on ludicrously easy-to-drink semi-sweet wine, as a live band played out in the piazza down below, where some older couples slow-danced to the music atop the mosaic tiles. It made me wistful for the people I myself would have liked to wrap my arms around, and lay my head on their shoulder as we danced the night away. I travelled there solo – alas, none of my friends could make it - and when I left, I couldn’t get Georgia off my mind. This port city strikes a lovely balance between the classic and contemporary, marrying well-preserved traditions with perfectly executed modernity, and is a jewel of the Republic of Adjara. And although I was there alone, I never once felt lonely. With its rolling green hills, gleaming waters, and beautiful botanical gardens, to the chance to horse ride through its national parks and the Caucasus Mountains, hike past waterfalls, and take a refreshing dip in the Black Sea, if you haven’t already considered it, Georgia – and Batumi – are well worth a spot on your travel bucket list.


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