Batumi: Georgia on the Black Sea

The White Restaurant in Batumi, Georgia, built to resemble the U.S. White House, but turned upside down. Continuing the pull-your-leg theme, the interior dining space also has an upside down look.

The White Restaurant in Batumi, Georgia, built to resemble the U.S. White House, but turned upside down. Continuing the pull-your-leg theme, the interior dining space also has an upside down look.

BATUMI, Georgia — I was amused, during a trip to Georgia in the fall of 2012, to learn I would be staying in a Soviet-era hotel, the Intourist Palace, in Batumi on the Black Sea.

The hotel retained its old name although Georgia, a former Soviet republic, has been independent for more than 20 years and the current owner is not Russian. A local guide suggested the old name may have been kept because the Intourist Palace had been a popular hotel with a well-known brand.

The hotel certainly suggested the Soviet Union to me, especially when I walked into the breakfast room, which was built to the proportions of a ballroom — very high ceilings with a balcony — and had the decor of a party space. Tables were placed along the walls and not much of anywhere else, so the room was about half empty.
Batumi is a resort town of around a quarter of a million people, with striking promenades paralleling the sea.

The Intourist Palace was the best accommodation in town in Soviet times. It hasn’t gone to pot since then, but

The Batumi Theater in the city’s historic district.

The Batumi Theater in the city’s historic district.

nowadays there are fancier options, including a Radisson Blu and a Sheraton nearby, with a Kempinski slated for 2013 and a Hilton and Holiday Inn in 2014.

All are or will be a short stroll from the beach. Some are quite close to the historic town center, too — and that is where my group of travel journalists and travel agents began a day’s sightseeing.

The recently created Piazza, a new gathering spot for visitors to Batumi’s historic district. The Italian-style square was built around some existing buildings, but the clock tower is new.

Much of the oldest part of town dates from the 19th century, but our starting point was the Piazza, which is, literally, a new Old Town square.

A charming imitation of historic European town squares, it was created in the last few years by combining some existing buildings with a group of new structures that harmonize with the old, such as a clock tower and an arcade. The space hadn’t even been a square previously.

This was part of a raft of city-improvement projects undertaken in the last few years.

Our sightseeing included Medea Square, named thus for its statue of Medea

A beautifully restored building on Medea Square in the heart of Batumi’s historic district.

A beautifully restored building on Medea Square in the heart of Batumi’s historic district.

holding the fabled golden fleece. It featured a mix of the old with thoughtful new additions.

There was a surprise for us there. We posed for photos with a group of cordial Iranian women who spoke English. They were in Batumi as tourists although not likely to hit the beach in bikinis. They wore coats and scarves.

We broke the sightseeing routine with a so-called “light lunch” at a boat-shaped restaurant called Dzveli Gemi that overlooks the sea.

A version of cheese bread, called khachapuri, served in the Batumi area.

A version of cheese bread, called khachapuri, served in the Batumi area.

Meals in Georgia were typically very abundant and included a lot of tasty breads (not what I needed, of course).

In any case, this lunch included the local version of khachapuri, a traditional Georgian cheese bread. The bread was shaped like a boat, with cheese in the boat but a whole egg on top. I think the egg was cooked by being dropped into the hot bread and cheese. To eat, one mixes the egg and cheese, then dips pieces of the crust from the edges into the mix.

I devoted my afternoon to walking the avenues parallel to the Black Sea.

There is so much that looks new in Batumi that it is hard to tell which things really are new as of, say, within the last decade. On the other hand, short 19th century buildings were (mostly) obvious and Soviet apartment blocks were always obvious and hideous.

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