For Georgians, the Black Sea region of Adjara has come to mean summer fun, with sweltering days and sultry nights lasting for half the year. But with breathtaking mountains, historical treasures and boisterous festivals, there is much more to her than that. With a lively food and drink scene, and more than its fair share of Georgia’s legendary hospitality, there are hundreds of reasons to fall in love with the country’s most colourful region.
BEAUTY BY THE BLACK SEA
While very much a part of Georgia, Adjara has the status of an autonomous republic. This means that the region, in the south-west of the country bordering Turkey and Armenia, has its own Supreme Council and flag. Georgia’s fight for independence has been hard-fought after centuries of foreign rule, and is evident in Adjara. Scattered around its rolling hills are ruins from the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Soviet eras.
As ancient as Adjara is, its biggest town, the international port of Batumi, is strikingly modern. Batumi is built around a wide coastal boulevard, packed with beach bars, fountains, cafes and children’s attractions, which stretches for seven kilometres along the shores of the Black Sea. The promenade has been dramatically redesigned in the last few years: the new concept was brought to life a decade ago by the Spanish architect Alberto Domingo Cabo. Batumi Boulevard is becoming more chic and exclusive each year, thanks to heavy investments, often by Turkish companies, into new hotels, casinos and restaurants.
Even before this new wave of foreign influences, Batumi had long been Georgia’s most cosmopolitan town. Its palm trees and tropical flower gardens were brought here in the 1880s by the French gardener Michael d’Alfons, who wanted to give this part of Adjara an even more decadent feel. That today’s Batumi feels so exotic owes much to the man still known in the town as “the kind genius of the Batumi coast”.
At one end of the boulevard stands another of Batumi’s European features – a set of Italian-styled colonnades (ornate white stone columns), which rise from within one of the tree plantations left by the kind gardener, d’Alfons. The colonnades were created for Batumi in 1930 by the local architects Pavle Nadareishvili and Bogdan Kirakosyan, but the inspiration for them came about when a doctor from Adjara, Ivane Mchedlidze, became smitten by the colonnades in Sorrento during a work trip to Italy, and brought the idea back to Batumi.
Art out of the blue
True to a town with creativity and artistry running through its veins, there are unusual and eye-catching sculptures placed all around Batumi. On Gorgasali street in the old part of town, resting outside a centuries-old house, there is an endearing statue of a young boy playing a flute. This boy has become one of the symbols of Batumi; there are now other sculptures of him and his flute nearby, including one by the entrance to Batumi Boulevard.
A more modern icon of Batumi is the technicolour ceramic installation ‘Rvapekha’ (‘Octopus’), which was designed by the Georgian artist Zurab Kapanadze in the 1980s. The creation forms the outside of the seaside cafe Pantazia (‘Fantasy’), and shows not only a life-sized octopus, but dolphins, fish and other sea creatures found in the sea in Adjara as well. The cafe shut down in 2000, but Kapanadze’s design was restored in 2019, its colours repainted, to become once again one of the town’s most vivid sights. The most internationally famous artwork in Batumi is a moving metal installation, originally titled simply ‘Man and Woman’. It was created by the Georgian artist Tamara Kvesitadze as part of the boulevard’s renaissance in 2010. The languid male and female figures perform a slow dance for ten minutes, before merging into one another. The sculpture is said to symbolise the beauty of motion, eternal love, and the connection of cultures; because of this, the people of Batumi have abandoned its original name and now call it ‘Ali & Nino’, after the classic Caucasian novel in which a Christian Georgian princess, Nino, falls in love with a Muslim Azerbaijani boy. The beauty in bringing cultures together, and in particular Christianity and Islam, resonates strongly in Adjara, where, according to a 2014 national census, 60% of its population are Orthodox Christian and 39% Muslim.
Accompaniments to red and white wine
Autumn in Adjara is festival season, with most parts of the region hosting their own annual events. At the beginning of September, the two-day festival Batumoba is a celebration of the town of Batumi. It’s the best time of year to meet people and catch the spirit of the town: local creative groups traditionally put on exhibitions of photography and art at indoor and outdoor galleries, while people take to the streets for musical performances of all kinds, by everyone from Georgia’s biggest pop stars to Batumi’s brass orchestra. A month or so later, in October, comes Gandagana – a celebration of Adjara’s rural culture, and a showcase for all sorts of village crafts. Gandagana mostly takes place on Batumi’s pretty Europe Square, with more musical concerts and exhibitions. What really gets people talking, though, is the food festival, where people from villages all over Adjara set up stalls to offer their fruits, home-made sweets, cooked delicacies and wine.
Not that Adjarians need to wait for a festival to celebrate their region – or show off its sumptuous traditional food and drink. Adjarian favourites are both sweet (life on the border with Turkey has given people a taste for the syrupy pastry called baklava, which is usually nibbled with a Turkish-style coffee), and savoury (malakhto is a dish of boiled beans with nuts and spices; borano is made with corn flour, eggs and cheese).
Georgia’s Black Sea is home to many special foods, but one meal eclipses them all. This part of the country is the spiritual home of khachapuri, Georgia’s beloved cheese-filled soft bread. Every part of Georgia has its own style of khachapuri, but it is the Adjarian take on it – an oval-shaped, plate-sized lump of warm dough, with a hole in the middle filled with a puddle of salty sulguni cheese and butter, and a runny egg on top for good measure – that has become one of the first things that people all over the world think of when they think of Georgia. It is said that this type of khachapuri was invented by the Laz people, who have lived for centuries along the coast of Adjara. Legend has it that their bread is shaped like the hull of a ship to symbolise their fishing boats, and that they added the egg to represent the sun as it rises over the Black Sea.
There is usually no khachapuri without wine. Winemaking is a special part of Georgian identity, and this goes for Adjara too. Wine has been made here for thousands of years. Many of the region’s best wines come from the district of Keda, which is a picturesque collection of villages about 40km inland from Batumi. The vineyards of Keda produce wines from the white Tsolikouri and red Chkhaveri grapes that are only found in Adjara. Keda is also a secret spot for both hiking and camping trips, with an abundance of stunning green valleys, medieval stone-arched bridges, ancient fortresses, and the Makhuntseti and Goderdzi waterfalls.
Escaping to the Green Cape
Adjara’s hot and humid climate makes its seaside villages idyllic places for beach breaks. People from all over the Caucasus rush to the beaches along the southern part of the coastline for their summer holidays, but there is no need to get caught up in the August crowds: the water temperature is 25°C all the way from May to September, and restaurants and bars are open throughout the long summer season. Though Adjara’s beaches are mostly stony, this means that the water is a mesmerising clear blue.
On the border post with Turkey, about 20km south of Batumi, the resort of Sarpi is the picture of unpretentious Black Sea shabby-chic – but in the last few years many of the village’s apartments have been converted into holiday rentals, for a new wave of visitors venturing further down the coast. Sarpi is still about more than sunbathing: the people who live in this corner of Adjara are almost all members of the Laz group of peoples, and there is a museum dedicated to their history in the centre of the village. There is also a historical church of St. Andrew, built in the classic Georgian style.
If Batumi and Sarpi attract the younger crowd, then the district of Kvariati, half way between them, is made for family trips. Its beach is calmer and more beautiful; it is one of the cleanest in the whole of Georgia (all the better for divers to explore some of the shipwrecks that can be found in this part of the Black Sea). People who make it to this part of Adjara can also explore the Gonio Apsaros Fortress, a Roman settlement with 18 towers and high stone walls, only a couple of kilometres inland from Kvariati. Further up the coast, just to the north of Batumi, is the Green Cape. Apart from having another of Adjara’s most beautiful beaches, the Green Cape is where you will find Batumi’s botanical gardens. The gardens are home to over a thousand species of flowers, in collections that stretch over a square kilometre of land that begins next to the sea, and rises up the hillside. It takes about two hours to walk the main path. The garden is a miracle made possible by Adjara’s perfect climate, with palms from the Canary Islands, Japanese Sakuras, and tropical trees from Mexico to the Himalayas growing side by side.
IN SEARCH OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE
The backdrop to all of Adjara’s beach resorts are the dramatic Lesser Caucasus Mountains. Within hiking distance of the seaside bars are peaks that reach 2000m and more, which can be climbed for a completely different view of the region.
These mountain wildernesses have been part of Adjara’s mystery for thousands of years. In Greek legend, Jason and the Argonauts travelled here, when this area of western Georgia was part of the wealthy kingdom of Colchis (Kolkheti in Georgian). The story goes that somewhere near Gonio, the Argonauts took the fabled Golden Fleece from the king of Colchis, Aeëtes – and that Jason also took the king’s daughter, Medea. Nowadays, the hills of Adjara are the setting for adventures of a different kind. In the heart of Adjara, a few hours’ drive inland, there is a ski resort at Goderdzi.
Georgia’s warmest, most energetic and creative region, Adjara, is small enough to let you explore all of it in a few days. But as you settle in for one more swim in the turquoise sea, one more golden baklava, one more stroll under a pink sunset sky, you might never want to leave.