More Batumi: A night of chacha and khinkali

This post is a continuation of my first one on Georgia, Exploring Batumi.

Rested up with a little bit of Georgian wine in our tummies, we headed out for dinner at the House of Batumi, a little restaurant that had excellent online reviews. Everyone had written that you MUST get the eggplant appetizer, so we did, and it was absolutely delicious.

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The famous eggplant appetizer at House of Batumi

This followed by the most delicious soup I have ever had. I think it was a version of kharcho which I’d like to try my own hand at. After the kharcho, we had several fragrant stews with chicken, walnuts, and fragrant herbs, all extremely delicious. (Go here if you visit Batumi, just ignore the kitschy decor!).

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A flavorful stew at House of Batumi

Afterwards, we headed out to check out the Batumi nightlife which centered around shiny-looking casinos, seedy so-called Turkish bars, and everything else. We enjoyed the everything else part which included strange statues, a fountain show set to classic rock, and a little boutique chacha bar.

Here is one of the delightfully strange statues of Batumi we found that night. From afar, it could be mistaken for a typical classical-inspired statue, but look closer.

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The water comes out of the strangest places:

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Amidst the glowing casinos, I believe I saw another strange figure, a pig head.
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The fountain show was pretty fantastic, but it seemed to be a big production for the handful of people who were out that evening. Nearby, a group of Turks had brought a stereo and were dancing the halay, that is, until they were asked to leave by the police. I guess exuberant dancing in public places is really only acceptable in Turkey. Besides the halay, the Batumi night was very quiet, almost eerily so.

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A fountain show set to classic rock

 

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A very extravagant show

After stepping into a souvenir shop for khinkali and khachapuri-shaped magnets (essentials, right?), we found ourselves back at Chacha Time. We had seen the bar earlier in the day, and we had pegged it as a fun place to pass the evening. I thought  maybe the owners liked to do the cha cha or something, and that’s where it got its name, but the truth was much, much better. Chacha is a type of Georgian grape brandy or vodka, and at Chacha  Time all the drinks were mixed with this lovely Georgian specialty. 

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Welcome to Chacha Time

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That’s us! Enjoying a tarragon chacha drink

The four of us started out with the lighter cucumber chacha drink which was recommended by Konstantine, our amazing bartender, who thought we should take it easy since we were not seasoned chacha drinkers. From there, I tried the chacha with tarragon, a type of herb often used to flavor soda in Georgia. It was too green for me and a bit strange, but altogether, a new taste, and therefore, a good experience. The guys, opted for the chachita, and when we asked Konstantine what was in it, he slyly said it was made with the ‘soul of the bartender.’ That thing definitely packed a punch, and I guess that’s what the real chacha drinkers enjoy.

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Our traveling buddies, Mehmet and Rachel

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Interior of Chacha Time

We sat at the bar that evening and asked Konstantine and server Pavlos who was Greek but had come to Georgia for work all sorts of questions. They were extremely engaging, willing to share about their experiences living in Georgia, and I think we all left with a bit more insight. Konstantine also sent us on our way to Shemoikhede, his favorite dumpling place in Batumi.

And that is how we found ourselves in a very local eating establishment having our second helping of khinkali that day. When the servers saw us walk in, they sent over a Russian speaker to help us, but that did us little good, and we struggled a bit to place our order for khinkali and another plate of khachapuri for good measure. More cheese, dough, and butter!

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Trying a different style of khachapuri

This time we knew how to eat these little balls of magic. Eat the dumpling with your fingers, letting the juice run into your mouth, and leave the topknot.

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Three kinds of khinkali – potato, mushroom & minced meat

Waking up on our last day of Batumi was bittersweet. I wanted to stay much longer, traveling throughout the countryside, and heading to Tbilisi for endlessly delicious food, wine and culture. We were, however, weighed down with our wine purchase, and our obligation to make our Sunday evening flight out of Trabzon. So, we decided it was time to give Rolanda a call to ferry us back to the border crossing.

Rolanda showed up in his boxy black taxi. We loaded in and carried on in Turkish about our weekend. Just before reaching the border, he swerved into oncoming traffic and pulled over to the other site, which voila, was where his house was located. He invited us in, and we couldn’t decline. Inside his wife had already set the table with persimmons, apples, biscuits and small candies. She served coffee in demitasse cups, which he followed by bringing in a pitcher of homemade wine, pouring one very large glass for each of us. We declined a second glass, and then he brought out some homemade vodka, insisting that we try that, too. Georgian hospitality, like Turkish hospitality, knows no bounds.

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Rachel, Mehmet and myself with Rolanda, our taxi driver, and his wife at their home in Batumi

With some persuasion, Rolanda allowed us to be on our way. Back at the border, we made a smooth border crossing except for a moment’s hesitation when my passport failed to scan, and throngs of black-clad Georgian women behind me started to get impatient. The guard finally got it to work, and we found ourselves back in the land of the Turks.

For Georgian recipes, read Darra Goldsten’s The Georgian Feast.

 

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Exploring Batumi

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.

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Border crossing on the Georgian side. Hey, the Georgians carry their bags the same as the Turks!

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The first sign after crossing the border. Check out that gorgeous 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.

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khinkali, stuffed dumplings with minced meat and mushrooms

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This khatchapuri reminded me of Black Sea pide. The cheese, however, had a very different consistency

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.

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Fishing in the center of the city

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Sunbathing in October

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So much space

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.

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Ali & Nino

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The alphabetic tower

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.

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Passing the time Georgian-style

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The wine vats. Gurkan snagged a taste from one of them.

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More wine tasting (check out the Turkish wine glasses on the right!)

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.

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So much wine, everywhere!

An overnight in a Hopa mountain home

Before heading to Georgia early one Saturday morning, we spent Friday night in Hopa on the Turkish side of the border. We flew from Istanbul to Trabzon, driving from Trabzon to Hopa, and arriving in Hopa well after midnight. We had booked an  Airbnb ahead of time for the four of us (we were traveling with another couple), and when we arrived, our hosts met us at the entrance to their village, leading the way up to their home by car. As the roads got worse, we jumped out of our rental car and into their pick-up truck to make the last leg of the trip up to their mountain home.

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Luscious blooms in Hopa

Our hosts, Ceren and her husband, had been living in Beşiktaş (our neighborhood in Istanbul) up until a few months ago when they decided to move to Ceren’s family’s mountain home in Hopa. Their village home was the oldest one I had ever seen, and it had several rooms, many of which appeared to have been added to the main structure at later stages. With a cozy village home set against the lush green of the mountains, it wasn’t hard to understand why they had made the move from bustling Beşiktaş to Hopa.

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A back view of the village home where we stayed

In the morning, we were awakened with the smell of crisp, fresh air (not something that we experience often enough in Istanbul), and I rolled over to find that Gürkan was already gone, exploring the outdoors.  In the small wood-stove heated kitchen and sitting room, Ceren offered us coffee and we had a chance to get to know more about their life in Hopa. She shared a story about how their two dogs who typically stay outside had opened the back door while they were away and then proceeded to track mud throughout the entire house. It had happened only a couple days before our visit so in typical village fashion, relatives and neighbors had come over to pitch in with the cleaning. Ceren and her husband also shared some helpful info about Batumi, including the phone number for their Georgian taxi driver whom we would later get to know, even becoming guests of him and his wife in their home in Batumi.

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The mischievous pair

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Puppy dog eyes and muddy paws

After coffee, we ventured outside to meet the mischievous dogs, and took a walk through the couple’s gardens, admiring the kiwi and persimmon trees, and the rolling hills of tea bushes (this is the region where all of Turkey’s tea is grown). We were on a tight time schedule – we wanted to reach the Sarp border crossing before it got too crowded – so we couldn’t spend as much time as we wanted to before heading out. Ceren’s husband picked some apples for us to take on the road, and then we climbed into his truck so he could take us back down to our car.

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A view of the gardens with tea plants in the foreground

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Kiwi, a hugely popular crop in the Black Sea region

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A freshly picked persimmon for the road

At the car, we met some of the villagers who invited us all over for tea. We politely declined, bidding our hosts and the villagers farewell, and heading off the last 20 kilometers to the Sarp border crossing.

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Peace and quiet in the moutains