--- By Craig Fedchock
My work has given me the opportunity to travel to a wide variety of places around the world. I’ve seen giant fruit bats in Australia and the Philippines, the harvest of longan fruit in Vietnam, and citrus in South Africa. While I’ve seen so many things, I nevertheless didn’t know what to expect when I first came to the country of Georgia, nestled as it is along the Black Sea and reaching into the Caucasus Mountains.
While the capital Tbilisi is at least somewhat well-known if for nothing more than being the capital of the country that tried to take on Vladimir Putin’s Russia two years ago, and limited amounts of Georgian wine and food are starting to make their way to our shores, not much else is widely known about the country.
My experience began in the capital, a robust city which is benefitting from investments to its infrastructure from many countries, including most especially the United States. I suspect that most of you reading this piece would be fairly surprised to learn that the main road from the city’s airport into town is named “George W. Bush Avenue,” complete with the former President’s picture. As there are others much more experienced with Tbilisi and its environs, I shall be more than happy to defer to their perspectives and comments about that fine city.
My preference instead is to reflect on the far too short a time I spent in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, which, with its capital Batumi, is seemingly a miniature version of the country as a whole. There are daily flights to and from Tbilisi on the national airline Georgian Airlines, as well as Air Batumi, although their dependability is suspect as one of my colleagues found out to her good fortune to be explained later. There is train service as well to and from the capital, including an overnight train. My suggestion, however, would be to fly to Istanbul on any one of the major airlines and take the non-stop Turkish Airlines directly to Batumi. I myself was fortunate to arrive in traditional Georgian style in a “marshroutka”, sort of a large minivan with just enough shocks to keep you from tumbling like an astronaut in the space shuttle, but not enough to keep you from feeling like you just spent a few hours with one of those old fashioned weight loss machines in which you were strapped with a belt around your waist. The redeeming thing is that despite the best efforts of the somewhat macho Georgian drivers, I managed to arrive at my hotel safe and sound.
At the moment Batumi is in the midst of an enormous economic expansion. The city, a favorite summer vacation spot during the Soviet times for those coming from Moscow and the other large northern cities, is slowly but surely picking itself back up from the ashes from the former USSR as well as the significant internal strife which took place for some time after the fall of communism. Batumi has even been holding the Black Sea Jazz Festival for the past five years, bringing in some of the world’s best artists on a regular basis. One of the key landmarks in the city is the Sheraton Hotel, which opened only in June of this year. The Sheraton stands above most of the other buildings in the city, almost like the Alexandrian light house after which it claims its design. It will soon have company, however, as Radisson, Kempinski, Hilton and Novotel all are in the process of developing properties which are destined to make the Batumi skyline gain an appearance more akin to that of Miami than a Caucasian Black Sea resort when they are all completed sometime in the next two years.
Just a short walk from the Sheraton, and eventually all of the other hotels mentioned above, stands the “Boulevard”, a lengthy boardwalk the likes of which I have not seen elsewhere. Bordering the Black Sea “beach”, which is really stone rather than sand, the Boulevard stretches for roughly seven kilometers and just like everything else in Batumi, is on the upswing, with plans for expansion, some Batumians say, almost all the way to the Turkish border, about an additional 12 kilometers. The amazing thing about the Boulevard is that while it abounds with restaurants and discos, it does so in such a way that it still maintains a feeling of spaciousness that is not at all common with other boardwalks I’ve had the chance to visit. The Georgians have managed to keep their traditional menus alive in several of these shoreline restaurants, but I also saw a Chinese and even a Dutch (yes, a Dutch!) restaurant bordering the boulevard. While nothing has been written about Georgian cuisine that can even come close to doing it justice, I don’t doubt for a minute that the restaurants featuring other cuisines will produce some good results if for no other reason than Georgians will be doing the cooking!
I will mention that there are some true jewels in the Georgian culinary cupboard. From simple fare like Khachapuri, which is really not much more than bread and cheese, (but oh what bread and what incredible cheese), and the basic “salsa” of Georgia, Tkemali, (made from tart plums, garlic, coriander (or dill) and salt and pepper and which Georgians are happy to put on just about anything), to more exquisite dishes, having a meal anywhere in Georgia is truly special. Georgians will use almost any excuse to feed strangers, and the people living in Batumi are no exception. The hospitality of Georgians is unmatched and simply needs to be experienced. Beyond that however, the use of spices in the Adjara region is a little more creative and the flavors little more complex, and this alone warrants giving the region more attention.
As I mentioned above, the city is truly undergoing a major renovation, and nowhere do the results promise to be more fantastic than in the area known as “Old Batumi.” While there is still more work to be completed (according to one wine shop owner, who just happens to be producing a sherry-like Church Wine” based on a recipe his grandfather developed in 1907, the streets are being rebuilt for the first time since the Tsars were running the place, and the results are already striking.
Nearing completion is Europe Square, surrounded by buildings no more than two stories tall which easily conjure up images in the mind of just about anywhere in the developed countries of Europe (although France comes first to my mind). An additional shopping plaza is under construction in Old Batumi as well, and once complete, Batumi will definitely be in the running for being considered as a true jewel of the Black Sea.
Beyond the city of Batumi, there are a couple of other places which must be mentioned. For a short taxi ride from the Sheraton costing roughly about $3-5, you can visit to Batumi Botanical Gardens. With thousands of species representing almost all the far corners of the earth, you can easily spend a minimum of two hours walking on the well-paved trails without seeing even a third of everything you could possibly see. That the garden also houses Stalin’s one time dacha made it particularly fun for me, having spent several of my formative years studying the Soviet Union. For roughly $3, you can make a day of it here, just make sure you bring along some Georgian wine, bread and any number of the fresh fruits and vegetables which are seemingly ubiquitous on the road side.
The best thing of all for me, however, was the chance I had to visit Georgia’s newest National Park, Mtirala. This came about at the invitation of the Adjara Autonomous Republic’s Minister of Agriculture, Emzar Dzirkvadze, and resulted in a day I will most likely never forget. The Minister exhibited a true love of his region, and respect for the land for which he cares in many ways, not least of which was his willingness to get behind the wheel of the four wheel drive which took us up the winding and unsurfaced road to the mountaintop where the park is located. As I mentioned above, one of my colleagues was able to join the trip because her flight on Air Batumi was delayed until much later in the day. On the way there we stopped by a small stand, artfully constructed with the help of the World Wildlife Fund, for a taste of the honey produced by bees kept by residents living in one of the small villages of indeterminate age (maybe hundreds of years old?) that can be found in one of the truly remotest regions of the country.
While on the road to our visit, the Minister spoke of his plans for the region, all reasonable and deserving to be realized, while pointing out with pride the many things that are represented in Georgian nature. It was obvious in his comments that not only the minister, but his fellow Adjarians are committed to ensuring that whatever happens, the need to maintain the quality of life and produce, with a strong emphasis on organic production, is paramount. That being said, after a fantastic drive which had us driving next to, around or even in a few cases through, spring-fed waterfalls around almost every corner, we arrived at the Visitor Center (again constructed with the aid of the World Wildlife Fund and even equipped with a wheelchair ramp) for the park. While there, we were given a presentation by a park representative in flawless English which included a tour of the guest quarters, four rooms which at 20 Lari (the Lari is currently running about $.50 US) a night, including breakfast, which can only be described as elegantly Spartan, one of the best examples of the finest in ecotourism I have seen.
We then visited the beekeepers, who make all of their beekeeping supplies out of local materials, and saw first-hand the love for the land which is in the Adjarian people, not to mention the ever-present Georgian hospitality. Within minutes of the completed presentation on beekeeping, a table magically appeared from out of nowhere under a pear tree and we were treated to the freshest honey and honey comb possible, along with the requisite shot of honey vodka. As we had some lunch waiting for us at the restaurant a short walk from the Visitor Center, we made our goodbyes far too quickly and moved a short bit it down the mountainside for our lunch. That the restaurant is situated next to a spring-fed mountain stream, and the water is absolutely drinkable only made the remainder of our time in the park that much more enjoyable. At the Minister’s suggestion, we gathered up our clay water vessel, walked about two minutes and filled our pitcher with water coming directly out of the mountain side. Everything in our meal, with the exception, once again of the requisite beer and vodka, was locally and organically produced (including some of the best fresh trout which kept getting bigger and bigger the longer we stayed at the table), and had we not needed to catch our flight home, all of us in our party would have had no trouble at all to committing to several additional days in the park.
The Adjara region is one of those places where you can lose yourself for a few days in the forested mountains, and come back to Batumi to enjoy nightlife and cuisine as sophisticated as anywhere. While the renovations are still underway it is not too early to pay a visit; you will leave wanting even more.
--- The author if Craig Fedchock, Director of International Capacity Development for the United States Department of Agriculture; Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service. He recently took this trip to the country of Georgia, and was so moved by the beauty of the culture and the people, he wanted to share the experience with others.