Sept 21, 2012, Batumi , Georgia,
Batumi, Georgia is what Wildwood; New Jersey would be if Wildwood were built in the LED era rather than the neon era. At its most outlandish it is a combination of the fantasies of Georgian President Misha Saakashvili and Donald Trump.
At its best it is a fine old Black Sea town with wrought iron balconies reminiscent of New Orleans interspersed with Turkish shop houses and pencil thin minarets. Batumi is a border town between Georgia and Turkey. It’s been governed by both, as well as the Russians, Soviets, Byzantines, and a host of others.
Before Christ Batumi was a gold town. Placer miners staked out sheep fleeces in streams to catch gold dust running down from the mountains right behind the city. This is origin of the Golden Fleece and the town has a monument to Medea holding that fleece sought by Jason. Batumi’s mayor says Medea brought Batumi closer to Europe than anyone else in history.
In the 1880s it was an oil boom town, the terminus of the railway from Baku on the Caspian Sea. Tanker train cars unloaded their crude into ships for delivery to Europe. Twenty percent of the world’s crude oil passed through Batumi. It became a fashionable resort with 1880’s grand architecture and the boulevard running several kilometers along its gently sloping pebbly beach. The boulevard, the local equivalent of a boardwalk, has four tracks, Right along the sea, as you walk in the sun, the pavement is molded to look like boards. Next to that is a bike path. One hundred feet further inland a two track shaded walkway is lined with park benches. There’s another buffer of gardens before you find street traffic. Police patrol the Boulevard on Segues. The Boulevard hosts cafes, food stands, shops, playgrounds, public art, musical fountains and the beach. Batumi’s musical fountain has more catholic tastes in music than Tbilisi’s. When I arrived it was pumping volumes of water to the William Tell Overture. It segued into poly-rhythmic Georgian music with less volume and more precision. A spurt of water popped into the air, suspended for a second and on the way down collided with a spurt coming up. They hit just on the beat. The music shifted to disco, techno (which works will with a musical fountain.), hip hop, polyphonic singing and Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Periodically piers jut into the sea. For over a century it has been Batumi’s main attraction, although that may be changing with the arrival of modern architecture spangled with LEDs, casinos and Donald Trump.
Batumi is linguistically Georgian but religiously a mix of Orthodox, Catholic and Moslem. It’s the capital of the autonomous region of Adjara, which, like South Ossetia and Abkhazia attempted to break away from Georgia. Suzi and I tried to go here in 2004 but someone blew up the bridge leading to the town so we had to content ourselves to visiting the Black Sea Port of Poti to the north. Adjara stayed in Georgia. Its good fortune is that it borders Turkey and not Russia. As a reward for staying loyal it’s being showered with new construction and the attentions of The Donald.
There are stretches of the various old towns, Turkish, Georgian, Med, Oil boom, that are either untouched or under careful renovation. But there are patches of new stuff as well. The centers of modern encroachment into the old town are The Piazza and Europa Square.
The Piazza is a faux Italian plaza with all the pretentions and little of the grace of a real Italian Piazza. It looks like a giant Italian restaurant transplanted from Verona New Jersey designed to delight the characters in the Sopranos. It was built as an outdoor venue for listening classical music while drinking a cappuccino. The decoration has molded violins, lutes, flowers and cherubs. The tower in the square suggests St. Marks in Venice on cortisone. On the Saturday it was filled with wedding families, photographers and videographers taking wedding pictures of the bride and groom’s first dance or the last dance of bride and her dad. The music they were dancing to was that “old sweet song” sung by Ray Charles.
Europa Square, a few blocks to the North, suggests Prague, with a tower resembling the Tyn Church and an astronomical clock. Some of the paintings on the new buildings remind me of restored Czech villages. Original art nouveau facades from oil boom times are preserved along some of the square. The total impact is high camp. I like high camp. I am from Jersey.
The South end of the Boulevard, which has been extended into an area where a communist sports stadium and a Soviet hotel have been demolished, is full of modern architecture. And while two people I work with from Batumi decry the invasion of new architecture into the old town they like what has happened here. The Radisson is complete. The Kempinski and Trump Towers are under construction. New giant artwork is displayed in a new park, and the Polytechnic Institute is almost complete. A giant Ferris wheel sits near the point where the beach turns toward the port and provides a wonderful evening view of the whole city and the mountains beyond.
The Polytech may be the strangest building. It is a 36 story tower with what looks like the Starfleet insignia (from Star Trek) on top. Between the 26tth and 32nd floor, as I count them, a Ferris wheel with 8 gondolas hangs out from the tower. When I asked a local about the incorporation of an amusement ride into the design she just said “Engineers!” The Architect explained that it is place where students can sit and contemplate the problems they are working on away from normal distraction, a place of inspiration, presumably with wi-fi.
I stayed at the Radisson Blu Hotel. It was designed by, Michele De Lucchi, the same architect who designed the presidential palace and the peace bridge in Tbilisi. It is stunning. It staggers up 19 stories with glass fronts and clean lines that, at the same time, zig zag. Full floor to ceiling windows, at least in my rooms, reveal a panorama running from the black sea, down the entire length of the original boulevard, across the old town to the mountains behind. The building has surprising angles that remind me on the interiors of IM Pei. It was a delight to stay in a building that is a work of art and not a piece of modern hotel kitsch. I wandered the building taking pictures of angles from different perspectives. At night it bluish lighting, almost like lightning, emphasizes its zig-zag design.
The hotel is a work of art, and not the only one on this extension of the boulevard. The Alphabet Tower looks like something Nikola Tesla would have built, with a big shiny sphere on top and the Georgian alphabet winding up the tower. During the daytime I wasn’t impressed but at night the lights make the letters move like a strand of DNA. The symbolism, according to the artist, is that the Georgian language is integral to the DNA of the Georgian people and key to their survival as a nation under Greek, Turkish, Persian and Russian occupation.
But the most beautiful piece of art is at the very end of the extended boulevard, Nino and Ali. Nino and Ali is a popular novel, originally written in German, by Kurben Said, about a love affair between an Azeri Moslem man and a Georgian Orthodox Christian woman. It is set at the time of the Russian Revolution and subsequent Red Army occupation of Caucasus. The two statues are made of parallel sheets of metal cut and interleaved to look like a man and a woman. A motor drives each of them. They approach each other, touch, first looking like they are kissing, embracing and finally merging into each other so they become one. They pass through each other and come out of each other, back to back, moving apart. Then they turn, glide past each other, turn again and restart the cycle. The lighting changes to reflect the mood. I watched for more than 30 minutes, fascinated by the mechanics and touched by the emotion.
It was a fine weekend, both in weather and inspiration. It was mid September and my first time in the sea this season. It was a warm sea, retaining heat from the warm summer just passing. While I was swimming a car ferry from Odessa sailed past into the harbor. I loved the sea, the boulevard, the modern architecture, the old town and even the kitsch. I loved it that kids, lovers, families, the retired and me were all having fun.