25 June, 2010

Batumi

A fleet of ragged cumulus sail north-eastward on the Black Sea. Center horizon: one towering raincloud, blotting out the foreground sky and loosing veils over the brine. The sun caught just behind it, now and then peering golden through a keyhole and throwing every ragged wisp of the fleet's sails into gilded relief. The clouds are slate-grey, the sky behind the cream and palest blue, and where the sun catches an edge, peach. They shift, sailing northwest, and soon the sky - platinum, steel, slate, and apricot - matches every swatch of smooth stone on the beach.

~

Welcome to the Black Sea Riviera. That's how it feels, anyway. French architects. Soviet bloc. A little Havana in the Caucasus. Hard to put a finger on it. Economically, Batumi has much in common with the cities i saw in Iraq: for much of the twentieth century under Soviet control, then until six years ago the province of a separatist leader, the autonomous region of Adjara - now united with Georgia - has only recently begun to see glimmers of prosperity. A Sheraton towers over the Black Sea Boulevard and two other international chain hotels, Hyatt and Radisson, are under construction at the moment.

The old quarter of Batumi has gotten a grand facelift, and that is spreading slowly outward like a shockwave, shattering old concrete and crumbling sidewalks in its path. Billboards tout "Batumi Miracle 2011", as construction crews work day in and day out. The Batumi Gate - a tall, modernist arch - rises  above an expansive new promenade still under construction but already impressively lit by a sea of vertical fluorescent shafts, while the road passing between gate and promenade has been stripped to dusty gravel. Old and new meet like two plates colliding, one being subsumed under the other in a chaos of paving-stones, gravel, and the sound of stone saws. Open heart surgery. A few streets in the city center are impassable tangles of rock and replacement pipe. Around this the city conducts its everyday life, which includes a lot of gambling. Small parlors offering slots and betting on sports, especially soccer, are scattered throughout the city. A few larger casinos line the beachfront area - Casino Peace, Intourist, Adjarabet.


The first image that greets a Batumi visitor, though, is neither the chaos of construction nor the restored old quarter (above) nor the neon of casinos. It is the subtropical vegetation, marching down from cloud-washed hills. Magnolias, pines, and palms mingle with massive Ficus trees. One street is lined with bay laurel - snag a leaf and sniff as you walk by. As the minibus rolled in from the Turkish border, the outskirts of the city welcomed me with tall tenements and sprawling gardens. This place is an unbegotten poster child for the urban agriculture movement. In a humid subtropical climate, the horticultural possibilities are endless. Past the patches of corn and vegetables filling the outskirts, vegetation in the city center is tucked into courtyards and trailing from ledges. I see a grape vine sharing a concrete planter with a palm, and reaching up to a fourth-floor balcony.

~

With the one CS host in Batumi gone to Tbilisi for the weekend, i thought i'd follow suit and catch the night train at Makhindjauri station (cheaper than most places you can stay, a berth in second class is just 23 lari, $13 US). First, though, a walk along the Boulevard - or more precisely, the alley between Boulevard and beach.

Georgia is well-known in the traditional folk music community for unaccompanied polyphonic song. I'd been thinking to ask where i could hear some - but i didn't have to ask. Near the Boulevard a group of children - from ten to seventeen - are sitting on a park bench, singing. A small group of watchers snaps pictures and videos.  As they launch into a simple clapping song, two young boys begin a traditional caucasian dance. Led by a clear-voiced boy of perhaps fifteen, the singers are more in tune than out, and it is really encouraging to hear kids spontaneously singing traditional music like this.
I wander onward, up the alley to the French fountains. Ringed with speakers playing a variety of music, the fountains arc and pulse in a grand display. Then the rain begins.

When it was part of the U.S.S.R., Batumi had a reputation for being the rainiest city in Russia. (Indeed, it reminds me a bit of Seward, Alaska, where it rains 300 days a year - but the resemblance ends there.) Rainy Batumi. Streets here have a high crown, sloping away to either side like an arch. The curbstones are high, and arced metal bridges span the inevitable puddles and rivers that collect between sidewalk and street.

I've missed the train - or so i think, caught talking to some boys who want me to buy them beer. Along with gambling, alcohol is ubiquitous here. Kiosks sell it on the beach; drinking in public is not frowned upon (neither is smoking, but more on that later). Despite the availability of drink, i see only two people acting intoxicated. That's when i am cowering under an overhang, waiting out a downpour on my midnight search for a hotel. Across the street several young men are loitering. The rain switches directions, and their overhang is clearly drier than mine. I make the dash.

Soon i'm surrounded by fellows, a couple of whom speak broken English, and one of whom is comically, animatedly drunk. Turns out they have a friend whose family rents rooms, and in a few minutes - after changing money in one of the casinos - i have the key to a bare-bones room off a small courtyard. Goodnight Batumi.