It is a summer mid-afternoon in London's Gatwick airport: queues are long, tempers short. At the EasyJet counter, my destination – 'Batumi' – elicits a blank stare.
"Batumi, autonomous Republic of Adjara". The bewildered check-in girl grabs my passport and disappears.
So began what would turn out to be one of the most intriguing short breaks of my travelling life, an immersion into heart-stopping mountain and seascapes, exotic foods and wines, a warm, sociable people – and urban architecture so eccentric that I'm already planning a return trip for more.
Like the check-in girl, I'd not heard of Batumi either: Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, yes. But not Batumi, the ancient port city nestled on the Black Sea and what I now know to be its second biggest metropolis.
A former Soviet republic that sits at the crossroads between Asia, Europe, Russia and the Middle East, Georgia has been fought over for millennia, coveted for its strategic position as well as its remarkable natural beauty, fertile valleys and near Mediterranean climate.
We arrived in Batumi, via Turkish Airlines from Istanbul, on the day Georgia still celebrates its first Act of Independence, signed 101 years ago amidst the chaos of the Russian Revolution – and lost just four years later when the country was invaded by the Red Army.
Emerging from the airport however, the first thing we noticed amidst the bunting were huge, stray dogs sleeping in the sunshine. Walking the streets later, our splendidly named guide, Salome, explained that city authorities neuter and vaccinate them: "Don't worry" she said, "they're well fed and very friendly." And sure enough, over the next couple of days, we explored this eccentric metropolis side-by-side with several, companionable, sweet and inquisitive canines.
It turned out that the way Batumi treats its dogs says a lot about the palpable civility of the place itself: it is pristine in a way few European cities even aspire to be any more. Wi-FI is available all along the seven-kilometre seaside promenade. Litterers are not tolerated, the vast, flat pebbled beaches are free and open to the public (unlike the Mediterranean where you pay through the nose) and its parks are as beautiful and graceful as any in Paris or London.
A sunset walk on Batumi Boulevard and the adjacent parklands is a joy: designed and founded in 1881 by a Frenchman, Michel D'Alfons, it hugs the waterfront and its elegant formal plantings, cascades of flowers and shaded greens are dotted with cafes, table tennis, restaurants and rides for children. Sit down with an aperitif (or an ice-cold Georgian beer) to watch the flaming ball sun disappear behind the Black Sea.
This part of Batumi contains a wacky mix of structures, from a vast and flamboyant Italianate colonnade built in the 1930s by a local merchant to the large, white, dolphin-shaped hall known as the Wedding House and favoured for local nuptials to the enormous, wooden Summer Theatre which can hold 1200 spectators. Batumi flourished as a free port in the late 19th century bringing many European architects to work there while two famous families – the Nobels and the Rothschilds – battled to use it to send Azerbaijani petrol into Europe.
The 1893 lighthouse is postcard pretty while the modern, 'Alphabet Tower' which soars 135 meters and sports all 33 letters of the unique, Georgian alphabet smacks of modern excess.Do not miss 'Man and Woman', sculpted by Georgian artist, Tamara Kvesitadze, which is fashioned out of metallic discs: the eight-metre-high figures represent a Muslim boy, Ali, and Christian Georgian princess, Nino, characters from a famed Azerbaijani novel. Built on a revolving platform, they kiss, merge into one and then eventually face opposite directions – representing their forced separation by the Soviet invasion.
We took a couple of days to explore the seafront, taking the Argo cable car up the mountain for a panorama up the coastline, visited the old town to take in the complexity of cultures from a synagogue to an Armenian Apostolic church, a Catholic Church, the Ortajame mosque and also the Holy Trinity nunnery, high up on the mountain above the city.
It would be remiss not to add here that Batumi, which enjoys a semi-tropical climate but is just an hour's drive away from snow covered mountains, has also positioned itself as the gambling capital of the region and casinos help underpin the economy. Georgia shares borders with Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Israel is a short flight away and all ban gambling.And so it is that towering above the traditional, grapevine-clad, low-rise housing of the past loom an array of horrors, from a tower featuring a golden, revolving fairground wheel at its tip to an upside down miniature White House restaurant (yes, upside down as in roof on ground) to the world's strangest McDonalds (imagine an angular spaceship jutting out of the pavement).
These manage to make the grim Soviet era apartment blocks look elegant but make exploring (and Instagram) such fun. When I observed how graceful and beautiful were the few remaining houses with their courtyards and human scale, Salome observed that in Georgian, the word for wonderful or fantastic is "sautskhoo" or foreign/new. Indeed, the copy of Giambologna's golden Neptune in front of the city's Drama Theatre or the colonnades and bell tower of the Venetian-style Piazza Square are a unique and truly zany mash-up of Las Vegas-meets-the-Italian Renaissance-meets the Soviet Union.
Briefly sated with the urban, we scheduled two day-trips to savour both Georgia's famed natural parks and its local foods and wineries. Georgia boasts the oldest wine production in the world after an unglazed clay amphora known as kveveri was found and wine inside it dated to the 4th Century BC. Georgian wineries still ferment grapes this way.For us though, the first, unforgettable surprise was the 100-hectare botanic gardens, just 9km from the city. Designed in the 1880s by the Russian botanist, Andrey Nikolayevich Krasnov, they are home to 5000 species of plants. The emerald terraces tumble down the headland and every view is framed by giant sequoias or Mediterranean pines and the cerulean Black Sea backdrop.
Reluctantly, we left to continue up the mountain, through some hair-raising hairpin bends towards Mtirala National Park and Georgia's wettest region. Here, relic forest of the southern Colchis is home to hundreds of rare flowers and trees as well as a plethora of animals including wild boar and martens, wolf, lynx and otter. The walk to the 16-metre-high Tsalbnari waterfall is pleasant and the little mechanical cable car you navigate yourself to cross the river, a slightly scary, if fun experience.
Bees are abundant and locals keep apiaries which buzz and hum with life. The honey we tasted was fragrant with acacia, citrus and wildflowers. At lunch, we stopped at a family run guesthouse, 'Jeiran' and were offered a feast of shared plates: the aubergine topped with a walnut pureed sauce (a local delicacy) was incredible as was the local khachapuri, the Georgian traditional dish of leavened bread filled with melted cheese.
Enthused by day one, we headed off early the next day to stop first at the wonderfully eccentric Kemal Turmanidze Ethnographic Museum just outside Batumi. Turmanidze himself (both owner and operator) is a master wood carver but also an avid collector of traditional Georgian artefacts, from clothing and footwear to traditional tools, toys and a Georgian collapsible crib – inspired by the Mongols – who also often had to grab their sleeping babies before fighting of fleeing.
Onward to the magnificent fort of Gonio-Apsaros, around 12km from the city towards the Georgian Turkish border. Built by the Romans in the 1st Century, it was later both a Byzantine and Ottoman stronghold and is surrounded by mountains and verdant with flowering creepers. Climb the walls for splendid outward views and breathe in history before heading back into the mountains to see the Hobbit-esque Makhuntseti arched bridge, fashioned from lime and volcanic stone in the 12th century and still standing as well as the magnificent nearby waterfall of the same name. Wineries abound in the area: our choice was the Shervashidze family guesthouse where the vineyards are surrounded by tree-clad mountains, and the modern world seemed a universe away.
Here, if booked ahead, the family can organise Georgian polyphonic singers who will sing as you eat and drink. The foursome who joined us were prodigious drinkers as well and taught us the most important word of our trip, 'Gaumardjos!' – cheers/here's to victory! in Georgian.
Turkish Airlines flies direct to Batumi daily from Istanbul see turkishairlines.com
Rooms in the Radisson Blu Hotel, just three minutes walk from the seafront average around €100 per night. See radissonhotels.com
Adjara offers something for everyone, from bike-riding routes to bird watching, wine tasting, or ski adventure cultural tours. For a selection and to plan, see gobatumi.com and for national park visits and tours, see nationalparks.ge
For traditional Georgian cuisine in funky surrounds, try Bern Restaurant at 17 Rustaveli Avenue, Batumi.The Old Boulevarde restaurant is one of the few to serve traditional Georgian coffee brewed on hot sand, it has pretty outdoor seating and a great array of regional dishes, 23a Ninoshvili Street.
Paola Totaro was a guest of the Adjara Tourism and Resorts Department