Nestled between the wild forests of the Lesser Caucasus and the Black Sea, Batumi has been described as a city built by foreigners for foreigners since the 19th century. Its mix of European, Georgian, and Soviet architecture has earned it a reputation as a vanity project that lacks direction, authenticity, and culture. It is often nicknamed the “Soviet Riviera” or a “post-Soviet Las Vegas” — labels which don’t grasp the true pulse of the city and the reality lived by locals.
But with Georgia’s borders largely closed throughout the summer months, Batumi gained a distinct local feel. Tbilisi’s crowds and club kids headed to the seashore to shake off the stress of a national lockdown, and organised their own stages and events on the beach. This boost in domestic tourism has resulted in a cultural renaissance for Batumi’s artists, writers and musicians.
“I do not know if it is right to celebrate, but this year our city was somewhat domestic and warm,” said Mao, the red-hair founder of Conte, a concept café in Batumi. I met her first in the tattoo studio of Kartuli Hotel, where she was getting her sleeve finished. With a gallery hidden behind the bar, Conte is the epicenter of the local creative community year-round, and the starting point of all nights out in Batumi. This summer, they opened their own small club, keeping the same unpretentious vibe; no entrance fees, no bouncers turning away those who appear not quite suitably glamorous, and a local line-up supporting newcomers and young talents.
Covid-19 regulations have put the Georgian club culture under stress, but the subtropical climate of Batumi and its clubs’ sea-front location has been able to provide a breath of fresh air. Batumi was one of the first cities in Europe to dance after lockdown. Partygoers took breaks in the salty sea, returning later to dancefloors until sunrise. In the morning, they went for another morning bath, washing the hangover away.
“Usually, the high season really begins in August; but this year it started in June and, compared to previous years, there were twice as many people. It was a refreshing and needed experience for local businesses,” adds Mao.
This year, new venues and festivals surpassed the EDM beach clubs and their swirling lights, which have long dominated Batumian nightlife. The soundtrack of the city became more refined and diverse, attracting Tbilisian clubs, producers, DJs and crowds all the way to the seaside as soon as domestic tourism reopened. Bassiani, Khidi, Small Moves, Café Gallery, Mtkavrze, Mzesumzira Records, Vodkast Records and other Tbilisi-based labels and clubs had their own resident-nights in Batumi for the first time, together with local DJs. Most of them spent time perfecting their sets during the low season in the new radio and music school SLR Studio, opened in 2019.
Aside from the tourism industry, local creatives are now also pushing to make their city an exciting and welcoming place year-round. Tbilisi remains the beating heart of Georgia’s art scene, but the peaceful seascapes, salty air and lush bamboo jungles surrounding Batumi are a refreshing place to search for artistic freedom. Russian writers Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorki escaped to Batumi back to the 19th century to finalise their works.
But at present, there were no art spaces or galleries to bring together local creatives, aside from Conte. This frustration was a motivation for the French-Georgian artist Guela Tsouladze to open his workshop Guelaxi Gang in June, after launching popular art classes during the pandemic. A former club kid and artist from 80s Paris and 90s New York, Tsouladzé brought back to Batumi his urge to create freely, outside of traditional art schools. His studio is located on the top of one of the latest skyscrapers, directly on the seafront. Seagulls are coming to the balcony to check on the students, who are painting directly on the floor under the orange light of the Batumian sunsets.
“The youth here in Batumi have no meeting place to get inspired, perfect their skills, explore their talents and create together,” Tsouladze said. “The workshop aims to support local talents and develop a more active creative community year-round.”
It is in his studio that the team behind the new fanzine Tchaobi has met, with the aim to “unveil the hidden stories of Batumi”. In August, the magazine appeared in a few spots around the city, together with the stickers: “We are no Las Vegas. We are no Riviera”. The pilot edition is a compilation of fictions, poems, articles, and illustrations about the Batumian queer culture, mainstream sexism, drug use, and grandmothers living on their balconies.
“Tchaobi” means swamp, which is what Batumi used to be just a few years ago, before becoming a metallic garden of towers following former President Sakaashivili’s dream of a “Las Vegas on the Black Sea” in the early 2000s. The structures now embody the mistrust and the lack of communication between the government and the population. Regardless of local tastes and priorities, or global trends in tourism, the government envisioned Batumi as a flourishing investment and business place. Symbolically, the construction of the first Batumian World Trade Center has started, with its avalanche of promotional billboards mushrooming around the city. It will include a “A-class shopping centre, A-class office spaces and WTC exhibition centres, also international hotel brand and casino,” says the webpage of the investment group behind the project. Besides these projects, the role of culture in urban development has fallen by the wayside.
A group of young Batumians has begun organising protests against reckless investment plans in recent years. Marita, who recently moved to France to study tourism and urban development, has been vocal about the risks and limits of these strategies in the long run. She showed me around when I first came to Batumi in 2019.
“The main problem is that we don’t actually have any defined urban development. We are not against high-rise buildings in general, we are against the narrow thinking it involves and the damage it will do to our city over the years. Developers can get permission to build more apartment-hotels and casinos here very easily; it doesn’t matter if it is in the old town or on the seafront. It’s all monkey business. When this government goes, together with the tourists maybe, another government will come and those apartments will still be standing there, empty, and spoiling the city’s urban landscape.”
In any other year, this would be a David versus Goliath scenario. But the global pandemic and the resulting turmoil of 2020 has forced many to reassess how we collectively make sense of our urban environment and our travel plans. And this new situation has been a game-changer for Batumi. It has demonstrated the transformative power of local initiatives and youth culture to meet and cope with external economic and cultural pressures, beyond the margins of flawed governmental plans. Hopefully, it will pave the way for Batumians to reclaim their city’s creative potential — and make its outdated labels finally irrelevant.