After spending the night in Hopa on the Turkish side of the border, the four us headed to the Sarp border crossing early on Saturday morning. We dropped the rental car off in a parking lot (you can’t take rentals across the border), and got in the passport control line on the Turkish side of the border. Luckily, we had beat the busloads of Turks entering Georgia for the weekend, and the border crossing itself was pretty uneventful.
I showed my passport and Gurkan presented his identity card (Turks only need their IDs to pass) to the Turkish border guard, and then we walked across no man’s land to the Georgian side. At Georgian border control, the border guards were young, beautiful females (one police officer even had a mini skirt on), a striking contrast to the middle-aged male guards on the Turkish side. The guard helping us mumbled something I couldn’t quite understand, and I asked her to repeat herself thinking she was inquiring about my intentions for visiting Georgia. Instead, she told me that she had applied for a Green Card and wanted to go the U.S. (a border guard wishing to leave her country!?) I smiled, wished her good luck, and she waved us through. After our friends Mehmet and Rachel passed through as well, we grabbed a map at the small tourist counter, and stepped foot into Georgia, the land of the most beautiful script.
Once we got our bearings, we called Rolanda, the taxi driver recommended to us by our hosts in Hopa, and he arrived promptly in an aging boxy black taxi. Gurkan spoke to him in Turkish – many Georgians living near the border speak fairly well, and in fact, Rolanda’s Turkish put my own to shame. He was a jolly driver, taking us to the exchange office to get Georgian lari, asking why our friends (the Airbnb hosts) hadn’t come as well, and even extending an invitation to his house for wine which we politely declined, all before dropping us off near the piazza where our hotel was located. Finding ourselves a bit disoriented once Rolanda left, we stopped a young woman on the street to ask for help, and although she didn’t know our hotel by name, she made sure we found it. While we were walking with her, we realized that she was also an AIESECer (that’s how Gurkan and I met), and the world seemed just a bit smaller.
We dropped our bags off at our hotel which was above The Quiet Woman Pub (!!) and it was then that it was time for the real Batumi adventure to begin. In preparation for the trip, I had read Darra Goldstein’s The Georgian Feast and had asked several friends and bloggers for their recommendations. Armed with more than enough advice for the short time we had, we started with a visit to Kiziki for khinkali, traditional Georgian dumplings, khachapuri, a delectable Georgian cheese bread served with butter and egg, and a fragrant bean stew spiced with – you guessed it – cilantro.
Luckily, Gurkan and I both knew to expect the strong taste of cilantro, a staple in Georgian cooking. Gurkan’s neighbors while growing up in Ordu were Georgian, and I had tasted a few of his mom’s replications of the neighbors’ dishes. Cilantro always factored in heavily, and Gurkan’s mom still uses the name kinzi (not kişniş) for cilantro which may be a Georgian word or a regional term (does anyone know?). Our friend Mehmet wasn’t familiar with the taste, however, and the cilantro definitely took him by surprise. Cilantro is virtually non-existent in Turkish cuisine and it’s even tough to find in Istanbul unless you have a good neighborhood bazaar.
After lunch, we strolled through the town’s center, admiring the peaceful parks, a stark contrast to Istanbul’s public spaces where even parks are crowded and noisy. On the seaside, I was surprised to see that people were still laying out even though it was already October. The beach itself was rather rocky but also extremely expansive, stretching as far as the eye could see and framed by mountains in the distance. And there was so much space, space on the beach, space in the parks, space everywhere. Space and lots of quiet. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Continuing along the seaside walkway, we saw some of Batumi’s most iconic landmarks, the alphabetic tower and the Ali & Nino statue depicting the characters from Kurban Said’s book. It had been a few years since I had read the love story about a Georgian Christian girl and an Azeri Muslim boy, but I found the statue rather underwhelming and hardly romantic (although apparently it rotates so that the lovers do face each other). The peculiar shaped alphabetic tower remains a mystery to me, and it appears to be an enigma for others as well, serving no real apparent purpose other than to commemorate the Georgian alphabet, which I must admit, is pretty awesome.
Heading back to the city center, we took a coffee and cake break at the Literature Cafe, and I got the feeling that it might be the city’s expat hangout, that is, if there is one. The prices seemed steep by Georgian standards (far more expensive than lunch) and I saw one other foreigner there working away on his computer, the only other youngish looking foreigner we would see all weekend.
Next door to the cafe was Khareba winery which was recommended to me by the amazing Robyn of @EatingAsia. After getting acquainted with the wine selection upstairs in the showroom, we ventured downstairs to the cavernous wine cellar. We tasted a few wines, both from the tanks and the tasting counter. Two older men had already claimed the only table in the cellar, chatting and enjoying their wine together, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was Georgia’s version of Turkey’s kiraathane culture, just wine instead of tea.
Based on Robyn’s advice, I knew to be on the lookout for quevri wines. Quevri wine is an ancient method of wine-making in which the wine is aged in earthenware vessels buried in the ground (quevri is the name of the clay vessels). At the time of our visit to Batumi, I didn’t know what quevri meant, but I knew it was something special so I purchased a quevri wine recommended by the winery. More recently, I’ve watched a number of YouTube videos about the quevri wine process, and it’s incredibly fascinating. This one for example.
With our wine packed up in a box, we headed back to the hotel for a short nap (this time we knew to be on the lookout for The Quiet Woman, ha!), only to reconvene shortly after, pop open a red, and get ready for the next round of delicious Georgian food.