And so the chacha fountain is dry. The Alphabetic Tower is structurally unstable, leased for the equivalent of 40 cents a year to a Spanish company that has promised to take over its upkeep. Nobody knows exactly what happened to Trump Tower, only that no ground was ever broken. On midnight on a Saturday at the tail end of the summer high season, waiters in the cafés at the “Piazza”—a newly built square designed as an imitation of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor—are already putting away the tables. There was meant to be an open-air concert, I later learn from Kikliashvili, but the local authorities who invited the musicians down from Tbilisi forgot to coordinate with the venue or technicians. The musicians arrived, were paid, and were promptly sent away.
“Typical,” Noe says.
In the shadow of the Radisson Hotel sits a seven-star Kempinski hotel franchise that, almost a decade after the papers were signed, is still a skeleton. (Rumor on the street, Kikilashvili says, is that they’re desperate to sell it off as quickly as possible.) For every erected hotel, there is a derelict site, or one whose posted computer-renderings change abruptly and without warning (until a few weeks ago, Kikilashvili tells me, the “Crowne Plaza” was supposed to be a Holiday Inn).
But that doesn’t stop Batumi. The city’s energy, like that of its onetime champion, is relentless.
Along the waterfront boulevard, a neon-illuminated fountain jolts up water in time with pre-recorded music (on this Saturday night, a techno cover of Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I Were a Rich Man”). Lime-green Batumvélo bike rental stations are interspersed with minimalist-chic rotating statues of famed fictional lovers Ali and Nino. Batumi has a Hilton, a Sheraton. The Radisson is a crooked “S” of glass with a terrace swimming pool overlooking the newly paved boulevard. It has a Europe Square—anticipatorily renamed—where the tragic child-killer Medea is immortalized on a golden column in front of a new stained-glass façade. (The Radisson Hotel’s café, too, is called “Medea’s Pizza.”)
There is a German beer restaurant where nineteenth-century ceiling frescoes have been repainted to look new. There are rooftop bars and limoncello cocktails and Golden Palace casinos and advertisements for luxury developments projected onto the rocket-ship building. Champagne glasses with Toulouse-Lautrec’s courtesans on them go for 60 GEL ($25) apiece, an astonishing sum in Georgia. There is a house on Rustaveli Avenue with a façade in the shape of an astonished face. There is a restaurant that is quite literally “upside down.” There is a fake Chinese pagoda overlooking the sea. None of these are ironic. Most of them are remnants of Saakashvili projects, but not all; there are rumors of a Marriott Courtyard going up on the boulevard. At the Porta Tower, one of the few active construction sites in the city, the sound of cranes echoes over the water.
On the surface, Batumi makes no sense. But somehow, the city survives. “Fun Goes Down All Day Round,” promises a poster I see at least ten times around the city.
In search of information about Batumi’s development, I meet with Volker Riedl, a German brought to Batumi by the promise of sunshine (though it rains in the region 50 percent of the time) and profit in the real-estate sector. We meet in the Piazza under an imitation Venetian arcade at a café called Brioche.
Oligarchs buying up fifty or a hundred apartments in one go
Riedl plans to open a real estate management company in Batumi. I ask if such a business might still be profitable, given the slowing of construction. Of course, he says. People may not be building in Batumi anymore, but they are buying.
“Russians, Ukranians,” he shrugs. “After the [Crimea] crisis, they want to get their money out of the country.” And Batumi, he says, is a perfect fit: located in a stable country, a short weekend flight over the Black Sea. He’s heard of oligarchs buying up fifty or a hundred apartments in one go. “One Ukrainian guy,” he says, echoing a sentiment I hear several times—always shadowy and unsubstantiated—during my time in Batumi, “I heard he bought seventy at once.” Apartments at the Kempinski-adjacent, just-completed Palm (advertised as “elitist apartments at the seaside”) can go for up to a million U.S. dollars, he says, all but unheard-of in a country where the average salary is around $270 a month. The current government may be doing little to court investors—the recurring sentiment I hear among Georgians is that the government is, for better or worse, doing nothing at all—but private investors are still making their way across the Black Sea.