Travel between Georgian cities is by way of marshrutkas – minivans driven by madmen. In Kutaisi, they leave from the bus station car park and stop whenever they are flagged down. It costs 10 GEL to go nearly 180 km so they’re an inexpensive way to travel. But the ride – oh the ride. On the way to Batumi, I slept. On the way back, I watched with a fascination that bordered on pure, unadulterated terror as our driver made a third lane in the middle of a two-lane road, playing chicken with oncoming traffic. Although we managed to keep all wheels on the ground, at times it seemed as if we’d topple over or take off. I made my peace with the world, said my last act of contrition, and figured that if it was to be my last Monday in Marydom, so be it. It was one helluva ride.
We’d seen posters for Batumi in the airport when we landed. High-rise, modern hotel buildings overlooking a 6km promenade that separates the city from the stoney beach [pack those water shoes]. But even so, I wasn’t prepared for it at all.
It’s being billed as the next Dubai but it reminded me more of Baku, Azerbaijan. All the major hotel groups have a presence. Bling is on the verge of making a major debut. And the young and the beautiful are flocking to it in droves. [And yes, that is an 8-cabin ‘big eye’ built into that tower – amazing.]
The space on the city side of the promenade is sculpted to within an inch of its life. There’s even a bamboo forest. Landscaped gardens. Manicured lawns. Carefully tended trees, plants, shrubs and flowers, provide a backdrop to some interesting statuary. The most famous one (although I’d never heard of it, let alone heard of the city) is a mechanical one – The Lovers. Based on the story of Ali and Nino (whom I met in Baku) it’s apparently something to behold. I only saw it action later, on YouTube. Worth a watch. Another series shows cutouts of boy/girl/love while a third focuses on shoes… massive empty shoes just waiting to be stood in. Add those to the oriental musicians, the dolphins, the angels and the famous people and the place is like a massive open air gallery. Even the graffiti is amusing.
Step off the lawns and the paved promenade though and you might well be in a different world. We didn’t have time to explore as much as I’d like to have done so it’s on the list for a return trip. I suspect though that there’s far more to the city than glitz and glamour. It will be interesting to see how it copes with the wealth that’s pouring into it. As Baku shows all too well, not everyone benefits equally from new-found prosperity. Those who keep the city turning over, those who dot the i’s and cross the t’s and make sure the lights stay on, might wake up one day and wonder what happened. Those who keep the city turning over, those who dot the i’s and cross the t’s and make sure the lights stay on, might wake up one day and wonder what they missed.
It has an interesting history. It’s been occupied by the Ottomans, the British, and the Russians. It was here in 1902 that Stalin called strike and got the boys a 30% pay increase just a month or so later. This might well have been where he got his start. The price of real estate has trebled since 2001 with Kazakh investors pouring €100 million into the region.
There’s a market for what Batumi is growing into, though. The water sports. The fishing. The boat trips. The beaches. The night clubs. The designer shops. The fancy restaurants. It has it all.