Batumi on the Black Sea

 Batumi/Gonio Fortress/Batumi Botanical Gardens

It’s a quick run down to the Georgian/Turkish border.

And…is it a bad omen that the road sign says “Good Luck” (in English no less!) as you are leaving the country?  It does give pause for thought.

The drive through the Batumi neighborhoods on the way down was a bit unsettling as it is very depressing to see the

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grim and gray concrete tenement style housing.  The crazy thing is watching brand new obviously more upscale condos, hotels and apartment housing going in right next to the soviet housing.  It begs the question..”who will buy in that neighborhood?”  And do the city fathers plan on leaving the concrete tenements there after completing the new skyscrapers??? One has to wonder…..

 

The short ride to the Turkish border is another bit of a time-warp.  Many transport trucks are stationed all along the highway, parked in vacant lots, stacked up at the border.  It is obviously a very busy entry and exit portal.  And apparently many Turks travel across the border into Batumi for the casinos.

After a few quick photos we backtrack to the ancient “Gonio Fortress” DSCN5702 which was built by the Romans in 90 BC and is Georgia’s oldest fortress.  The fortress was, for a while, being actively excavated but funds ran out and excavations were halted.  However there is a small museum at the site and a short walk-through produced some interesting facts.  One very significant belief is that the apostle Matthew is buried at the fortress.   However, to date, no additional excavations have been allowed to possibly verify this thought.

We return to Batumi for lunch overlooking the Black Sea and then a short visit to the Botanical Gardens is in order.  These gardens are unique throughout the former Soviet Union as they were designed and created by botanist Andrey Krasnov(1862-1914) who traveled the world studying  multitude of flora.  He decided after careful consideration that this part of the Black Sea coast would be an ideal place for a botanical garden.

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Thus he began the collection of trees and plants from all over the world. It consumes 111 hectares(275 acres) and supports nine specific floral growth regions – Caucasian humid subtropics, East Asia, New Zealand, South America, the Himalayas, Mexico, Australia, and the Mediterranean. You can travel the hillsides of the gardens and follow the various zones from subtropical to alpine flora.    It is springtime and there are multitudes of blooming plants and trees all around seeming to be flourish quite well here on this “Green Cape”.

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Unfortunately it is time to go…we have another long drive today back to Tbilisi and we will be on the road well into the late evening.

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From Mountains Sublime to the Ridiculous (well, sort of)

DSCN5231 Mestia / Batumi  

We arrived into Mestia before dark and were treated to blue skies and a rising “almost” full moon.  Such a nice change of atmosphere as opposed to “wearing” the rain.  The air is crisp and fresh and clear. Night is coming on and the temperature is dropping.  It’s a most spectacular setting with this ancient village nestled deep in a valley below the towering Caucasus Mountains.

This sight would rival any mountain village in Europe or the States.  Take a look at the header on my blog page and you will see a panorama of these mountains. Keep in mind that Russia (Chechnya and  Dagestan) are just over the mountains.  Might want to Google Earth to get your bearings.  This part of our glorious planet is still fairly untouched by the civilized hand, rugged and wild.

DSCN5205It’s an early morning(amidst errant snowflakes) and we’re headed into the village to check out one of the unique defensive towers…called “Svan Towers”.  Meeting up with one of the locals whose family has lived in these towers for generations, the lady is happy to give us a tour of the old(primitive) living quarters and a chance to climb up into the tower.

These towers are synonymous with this region of the country known as “Svanetia”. During the Middle Ages these towers were used for protection as well as communication.  They could signal their neighbors in the valley with fires lit atop the towers. As soon as the next one saw the signal then they would light their fires and the signal would be passed from tower to tower thereby warning/alerting the entire community of impending danger.  Each of these towers is exactly the same style and construction, same dimensions and height.  They each had 4-5 “floors” made of wood and windows at the top for viewing the surrounding valley.

The living quarters could hold upwards of 25 family members in a split-level accommodation of

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cows on the bottom, people on top.

Now I know the Swiss built their houses with a “barn” underneath and somehow that seemed to make sense…but this arrangement seems a bit too personal..no such thing as “personal space” back then.  Those were rough times and any bit of warmth surely helped.

Survival was far more important than having a

DSCN2120stylish interior.  When you consider the hardships these people endured it certainly explains how simple their existence was.

So now for a climb up into the tower.  We are lucky as most towers are not “climbable” since the wooden floors have long since rotted away, but our host has maintained the floors in her tower so we venture forth.

Access is by a very steep set of stairs to a small platform at the door…mind your head OUCH! or you are likely to come away with a nasty knot on top!

Once thru the opening it’s another steep ladder/staircase up to the next level.  There’s not much space in here and you immediately are faced with yet another ladder…too much for me.  I’m DSCN2141sharp…I get the idea with just two levels.

Once I’m down and out…. we’re off for a long day’s ride to the Black Sea resort town of Batumi.  It’s about 267km(166 miles) and about 5.5 hrs away.  The roads are definitely not super highways so 166 miles is a little “longer” than what we are used to back  home.

The trade-off is a lot of interesting sights and scenery along the way including dodging those cows and pigs again.  Along the way a quick stop for lunch at a tiny roadside “cafe”… with tables all set and ready for us….the staples DSCN2185
appear…tomatoes and cucumbers, khachapuri cheese pie and local beer. The cafe overlooked the northern end of the Enguri Reservoir. Everything is delicious and what’s better it was a “small” meal and quick to help us on our way.  I must confess….all this going and going and going had my batteries on low and a recharge was needed…so, I slept for a few miles. Hey, sometimes you just “gotta” do that.

As we made our way down to the coast the topography of the land started to morph into the typical coastal lowlands…more waterways and streams heading to the sea.  Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate therefore you’ll find no luminous reports of sunny shores and waves crashing on the shoreline.

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It was a grey afternoon and that translated to a fairly monotone landscape.  So, when we saw the skyline of Batumi looming on the horizon it was a bit surreal.

Government entities  and private investors are hard at work trying to transform a glum “soviet-style” cement city into possibly….

“Las Vegas Casinos? or maybe

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Disney World?     Or…?  Well, I’m not quite sure…suffice to say its an amalgamation of many imaginations.

Georgian Saints and Royalty

 Sighnagi and the Alazany Valley

our view from the chateau in the wine country Chateau MerePossibly the most exciting thing this morning was to look out the window to see the  clouds and rain had lifted out and there were the snow capped Caucasus Mountains towering over the valley.

It was a glorious sight. I had imagined that the mountains would be stunning…but the for real sight was simply spectacular  There were still plenty of clouds and fog swirling around….but at least for a short time we had quite a view.

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Breakfast at the chateau was a family affair and having been fortified with coffee and various breads and cheeses…we were loaded up and on our way to the Tisinaldi Museum which as it turned out was a palace for the royalty of Georgia.

DSCN1642The Prince Alexander Chavchavadze was the son of Georgia’s first ambassador to Russia and godson of Catherine the Great. The life of the estate is colorful with stories of ransomed women and children, lost fortunes and finally Russian nobility enjoying the home and beautiful park-like surroundings.  The Romanoffs would spend summers here away from St. Petersburg and Moscow. The home is now a delightful museum, art gallery and wine tasting in the Tsinandali winery. The rain has been hounding us since our departure from the chateau and with the stunning plastic raincoats we appear to be invaders from a foreign planet…nonetheless we managed to stay relatively dry in our dash between house and van.

DSCN1670DSCN1659Our next visit is to the delightful town of SIGHNAGHI which has recently undergone a government sponsored reconstruction and is quite charming. One of the most noted and revered sights in Georgia is the Bodbe Monastery, a place of pilgrimage because of its association with St. Nino, the 4th c. apostle of Georgia. We found ourselves in the midst of our first true crowd…all on a pilgrimage to the small chapel containing the tomb of the saint.

What is amazing about this city is the defensive wall that is quite extensive and we were able to view it and the stunning Alazani Valley from a Vantage point overlooking the hillside town.

DSCN1648After visiting the Monastery and the defensive wall we headed into the charming town for a wine tasting at the “Pheasant Tears” winery…this small restaurant/winery is quite attractive and could easily pass as a boutique winery in Sonoma…or other hip wine area. DSCN1711As we wandered in we noticed a handsome young man with those dark Georgian eyes wearing a Yankees sweatshirt. Low and behold here is a native American who came over to Georgia to explore the  country, fell in love with the area, started learning about the wine industry and now plans to start up his own winery and make wines according to the ancient ways of the Georgians.  BTW he does has Georgian blood and is connected with the Romanoffs.  It appears he has found his “roots” and is enjoying his new life! In his early twenties with quite an adventure ahead of him.  He conducted our wine tasting and it was great fun to share his new life and passion. The wine was great and we had quite an afternoon of wine, foods and chacha!  Chacha is the local schnapps! It was really hard to leave such a great place with such ambiance…

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A short stroll through the streets was in order to let our legs under us before the drive back to Tbilisi.  We paid our personal respects to the statue of Don Quixote..a small herd of chickens…their chicks and a very mellow kitty…

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unique encounters for a somewhat mellow group of tourists!


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What day is it really….

There is no substitute for a few hours of horizontal snoozing. Although I must admit the delayed reaction factor is quite pronounced. I’m trying to rev up the body and it is slow to respond. The hotel provides an outstanding selection of local dishes as well as a mixture of Euro/Western favorites.  From the looks of this buffet we will not go hungry.

It’s still a bit drippy and downright chilly so already the cold weather clothes are feeling pretty good.
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We’re off to drive around the new town to get our bearings and then we’ll stop for a walk-through the Open Air Museum of Ethnography where about 70 different buildings and homes from around Georgia have been reconstructed.  Some of the houses have been reconstructed to present a living example of the local culture of each region. The local guide gave us a complete description and demonstration of how life would have been in the house. The young woman had a beautiful smile and a great command of the english language.  It was most entertaining and enlightening.

The Georgian people are very proud of their heritage and many skills…but my astute senses have picked upon the fact that one of their premier accomplishments is the production of wine.   Even the outdoor museum displays the tools of ancient wine making.  Not just at the wine makers house…but at several other houses displayed on the hillside.   Hummmm…this bears further investigation.

The concept of time is lost on my body and mind at the moment…but the guide has kindly suggested that we should stop for some lunch.  Ok, here’s where confusion steps in…if we left for the tour around 2pm…and you figure we have been exploring the city for a couple of hours…what time is it really?  I have never been one to turn down an invitation to dine so we head to the restaurant for lunch.

Georgian Touchdown

Why do these flights arrive at 3:00 AM??  This is the middle of the night for heaven’s sake! We departed at 9:30pm from Munich for a 3.5 hrs flight to Tbilisi. It’s pitch black out there except for a glorious display of stars! 3:15am touchdown and its raining. The Lufthansa flight was jam packed and an unusual observation… there were maybe a dozen women who all seemed to be traveling together…loaded down with plastic shopping bags from the H&M department store. I am thinking these gals are coming from a shopping foray bringing home goodies most likely to be sold to friends and family. Hummm capitalism in its infantsy.

Tbilisi’s airport is small and clean. All the customs agents(women) were available, friendly and very efficient. The arrivals moved through quickly and then headed down to the baggage claim area. I noticed there were two other flight on the monitors – one from Istanbul and one from Minsk.

Now the telling tale…will my luggage arrive at the same destination as its owner? It was not long before I saw it spinning around on the belt. Sweet! To me this is one of the most vital components for a positive and pleasurable trip. Since I have not mastered the art of traveling out of my carryon….my checked bag is my second most important possession.

My hosts(more on them later) for this adventure were ready and waiting right outside the arrival hall. Within a few short minutes we were on the road to town…about a 20 minute ride. All along the route there were relics of a once vibrant community. A culture squashed by the heavy soviet hand. The varied architectural styles were most interesting with a mix of asian, european and arabic influences.

On arrival and checkin the instructions were to get some rest and meet around 2pm for an afternoon orientational tour. Tell me…how many folks do you know that having arrived at 03:00am at a completely new and foreign destination can even consider going to bed?  You are running on adrenaline and your body clock is so messed up that backwards is beginning to feel like forward!  Nonetheless the bed does look pretty inviting so it’s “lights out” an more to follow.