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!

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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