Batumi Skyline

Batumi Skyline

I’ve been to Batumi before. Twice, in fact. “Well, why didn’t you write about it, then?,” you might ask. Well…because both of my previous trips to Batumi were for less than 24 hours. Given the amount of time it takes to get to Batumi, the number of things to do there, and it’s popularity as a destination, I didn’t think it was worth writing about until I had a little more to go on.

For the weekend of Orthodox Easter (which happened to coincide with the April 9 commemoration) we had a 5-day weekend. I had thought about going abroad, or possibly even back to the US, but I decided that it would be far less stressful and far cheaper to take a mini-break in Georgia.

Due to the holidays and the off-season, though, I expected many of the attractions to be closed for at least 4 of the 5 days. It was also early spring, so I expected there would be a certain amount of cold and damp. That combination made me willing to shell out a bit more than usual to have a comfy place to hang out and read, rather than staying in a hostel or homestay like I usually do. I booked a room in the Plaza Hotel, because it was a great bargain for a place with a swimming pool and fitness center. They also provided free (pretty good) breakfast and parking which made it a good deal at the off-season prices. It’s located on the upper stories of a shopping mall, which is a bit odd, but doesn’t really make a difference in the long run. It does mean, though, that the sign outside does not say hotel anywhere (and if you go there, FYI: it’s on the opposite side of the street of where Google says). The swimming pool and fitness facilities were absolutely top-notch. They’re not actually part of the hotel, though, but a separate company in the same building who they have a relationship with. That usually wouldn’t matter, but it did mean that they were closed for two days of my stay. Sadness. There are also a few strange-to-an-American rules for using the fitness facility: you have to be checked by their doctor before you can use the facilities, and there are totally separate men’s and women’s gyms. Unfortunately the  “hotel-wide” WiFi didn’t reach the room very well, so I didn’t get caught up on my writing like I’d planned… Nonetheless, it was a comfortable and relaxing place to crash for the weekend.

View from the hotel balcony

View from the hotel balcony

All of my trips to Batumi have been by private car, which is by far the way to get there that requires the least planning. There are newly-opened stretches of highway bypassing the centers of Kutaisi and Kobuleti, which sped up the trip, and will be a great advantage for summer travel. The train, particularly overnight, is the most popular way of getting from Tbilisi to Batumi. For holiday weekends and in summer it is often sold out a few days in advance, so it’s not a good last-minute option. There are, of course, frequent marshrutkas (including overnight). There is also a new bus company with 6 departures a day in each direction. This option still seems little-known, but I hope they’re successful. My friend took this route, and said it was very comfortable and convenient. Their normal prices are competitive with the bus and marshrutka, but I saw that their office in Batumi was offering some introductory deals, which would make it a real bargain. (I don’t know how long those prices will be in effect, though.)

My first morning in Batumi I went and walked along the Boulevard, despite the blustery weather. Growing up, going to the beach was on the (Northern part of the) East Coast of the US, so I’m accustomed to cold, wind, and rain as par for the course. Many people don’t like the Batumi beach because it’s rocky, but again: that’s what I’m used to. There were very few people on the beach, which I prefer. I walked along, watching the waves, and looking at the sculptures. As I’ve said before, I really enjoy public art, so the Batumi Boulevard is a cool place to stroll.

The Black Sea (not a black and white photo, just highly gray weather)

The Black Sea (not a black and white photo, just highly gray weather)

Saturday, the only non-holiday, was the only day that I was sure attractions would be operating so we went to the Batumi Botanical Gardens just outside the city. They are a real treasure! (I’d also like to see the museums and dolphinarium sometime, but with limited time, I think I made the right choice). The territory was much, much bigger than I expected and the timing was lucky because most of the trees and bushes were in bloom (flowers will be a bit later in spring, I think). Though it was gray and dreary, the rain itself held off and the walk through the park was lovely. It’s along the coast, so in addition to the flowers and plants, there are lovely views of the sea and up and down the coast, both into farms and villages and across the bay to the sparkling skyscrapers of the city.

Rhododendron in the Batumi Botanical Garden

Rhododendron in the Batumi Botanical Garden

The city from the botanical garden

The city from the botanical garden

On Easter itself, most places were closed up tight, but I was surprised that the dancing fountains of Batumi Boulevard were still going strong in the evening, despite the holiday, the off-season and the poor weather. Though it’s maybe a bit hokey, it’s really fun to watch them. I got quite entranced by the lights and water. One upside to it is that it wasn’t nearly as crowded as in summer, so you could really see the show.

One of the main attractions of Batumi is eating Adjaruli khachapuri at Retro–widely considered the best. On this short trip, I went there twice, stopping in for some breakfast khachapuri the last day before departure. It was quite indulgent, but it was vacation! It makes a pretty good breakfast–bread, cheese,egg…it works. Since the whole idea of Batumi is that it’s at the seaside, I really wanted some fish. We found Black Sea Restaurant quite close to the fish market, and went in–the location is amazing, with picture windows looking out across the sea. They didn’t have very many options because the storms making the weather dreary were also affecting the catch, but what we got was delicious. I have no idea what it was, though. They were all small fish that were gutted and fried, and you were supposed to eat the whole thing, bones and all. That was actually OK, albeit crunchy, but it started to freak me out a little when I thought about it, so I pulled out the spines. The fish itself was really delicious and fresh, and the salad came with lovely fresh lettuce. It wasn’t a cheap place, but the food was all high quality. I had read great reviews of Ristorante Venezia inside the Intourist Palace, and Italian food sounded like a great change of pace, so I was looking forward to eating there. Unfortunately, it was the first time the Lonely Planet’s Georgia recommendations have every led me astray. The eggplant parmesan and salad were really good, but the spaghetti bolognese was so bland, and the bread was just sliced regular sandwich bread that costs 50 tetri, and the waitress brought the wrong beer. None of those things are particularly egregious, except for the fact that it was RIDICULOUSLY expensive (more than the same meal would have been in Tbilisi, and lower quality). It was 73 lari for 2 people! This was without appetizers or wine…they must have charged an arm and a leg for the bread and water, because the prices for entrees on the menu seemed normal. To top it off, they didn’t accept credit cards, which wouldn’t be unusual in a Georgian village, but in a major tourist area in a nice hotel with high prices, it’s unbelievable. It was mere luck that I had enough cash on me to cover the bill; I usually don’t carry large amounts.

The drive back was far more eventful than I had hoped. It wasn’t a surprise that there was a lot of traffic, since most of the population of Georgia had gone to their ancestral villages to celebrate Easter with their extended families and roll eggs over their ancestors’ graves. What was surprising, though, was the bumper-to-bumper traffic from Surami nearly to Gori. The two-lane two-way road had 5 lanes of cars going one way, including on both shoulders. I pity the people trying to go in the other direction! What is usually a one-hour drive took more than four! What’s worse is that it wasn’t a traffic jam with a cause; there were no accidents or working construction sites. It was caused purely by bad, selfish drivers. I’d never seen anything like it. We returned to Tbilisi at 11 PM having left Batumi at noon (we did make a stop for lunch). Usually that’s about 5 hours. It was insane.

Update: August 17, 2015. For a visit to the area during high season, including the boardwalk in full swing and a trip on MetroBus, check out my Postcard from Gonio