In the summer of 2017 I attended the 2017 SRAS Russian as a Second Language program in Batumi, Georgia. My heart had always been set on studying in Saint Petersburg, but after researching various SRAS programs to see what else was available and looking at photos of Georgia and the Black Sea I could not seem to shake Georgia from my mind. After my experience in Georgia, I have absolutely no regrets about choosing to study Russian in Batumi.
Batumi, Georgia lies on the coast of the Black Sea about 10 miles north of the Turkish border, and four-hour train ride west of the capital, Tbilisi. Batumi is a resort town that attracts many tourists from the former Soviet republics, Turkey, and the Arabian Peninsula. Warm weather, rocky beaches, great food, and long strolls along Batumi Boulevard, which is lined with palm trees and runs along the Black Sea, also make Batumi an ideal place to study. Even though I was studying on a Russian Language Program, it felt like I was on vacation. After class I would often go to the beach and soak up the sun and later in the evening I would often meet up with friends and explore the city.
I landed in Batumi in late May after connecting from Istanbul. SRAS arranged a ride from the airport to my host family’s house located on Pushkin Street a little inland from the beach and the school (about a 30-minute walk away). My host family was extremely kind and welcoming.I lived with Nana, her husband Malkhaz, and their 7-year-old grandson Gio. The accommodations were great; I had my own room on the third floor and felt comfortable in the house. Nana and Malkhaz spoke both Georgian and Russian (no English), which helped me improve my conversation skills in Russian. Nana always made sure I was well fed and also included me in family activities such as dinner at relatives’ houses, an outing to their dacha, and drinking homemade wine and chacha (strong Georgian moonshine). I became very close with my host family and we still keep in touch; I even stayed with them again this summer when I revisited Batumi.
The SRAS Russian language program is done in partnership with the NovaMova School of Language based in Kyiv, Ukraine. NovaMova’s facilities in Batumi are located at the Maritime Academy near the dolphinarium and The Sixth of May Park, and just across the street from the beach! Class is held for four hours each day (including coffee breaks) and class sizes vary depending on the number of students at the school during any given week. My teacher, Lena, was excellent; she kept class fun and light-spirited (she even played the accordion for us). I also became close friends with the student coordinator, Natasha. The program was exactly what I wanted from a summer program; it was effective in improving my Russian conversation skills, but also allowed time to explore and enjoy my time in Batumi.
Old Town Batumi is a great place to stroll around and has many historical sites to visit. Its main drag, the Boulevard, is lined with nightlife attractions, including rides, a small aviary, clubs, and places to play ping-pong, billiards, and carnival games. The Dancing Fountains in the heart of old Batumi play music and are a great central point to meet up with friends, rent bikes, or people-watch. Walking the 4.3 miles (7km) Boulevard is also great at any time of day. It starts in old town Batumi and meanders along the beach to the new part of the city, which has recently been expanded and updated to attract more tourists.
During the day Batumi can get extremely hot because it lies within a sub-tropical climate zone. Like people in Spain, Georgians rest in the afternoons during peak heat hours. One great way to beat the heat is, of course, to take a dip in the Black Sea. The Batumi beaches are rock (not sand) and lounge chairs are available for 5 lari ($2) to make sunbathing on the beach more comfortable. Exploring the shady streets of the old town is also a great way to explore Batumi’s history as an important port city. The small cobblestone streets provide great shade, little shops and cafes, and postcard-perfect photo opportunities. In the center of the old city is the Piazza, where one can grab some famous Georgian wine and relax. 6 May Park is also a great place to stroll; it is filled with benches, a mini-carnival center, a pond, a zoo, an aquarium, and the dolphinarium. The dolphinarium is the oldest in all the former Soviet Republics; it is a place where dolphins perform tricks and flips (like at Sea World). Shows take place at various times during the day and are a popular attraction for tourists.
Another place to explore is European Square, which is a great place to relax close to shops, cafes, the Old Town and the beach. Batumi also has one of the most interesting McDonalds in the world; the building, which resembles a spaceship, serves as a gas station, drive-thru, sit-down restaurant, and greenhouse. Another famous Batumi landmark, the Ali and Nino statue, is also located on the Boulevard. This moving statue commemorates two lovers, Ali and Nino, whose love overcame religious and cultural differences. The romance between Nino, who was a Christian Georgian, and Ali, a Muslim from Azerbaijan, took place in Baku between 1918-1920. Ali and Nino truly are a Caucasus version of Romeo and Juliet.
The SRAS program set up three excursions out of the city that were included in the tuition price. Two of the excursions, to the old Roman Fortress of Gonio and to Mtirala National Park, were closer to Batumi. The Gonio Fortress is located close to the Georgian-Turkish border just 15 km south of Batumi. The first historical mention of the fortress dates back to the 1st century AD and demonstrates the Roman Empire’s vastness. Gonio offers a museum and tours of the ancient fortress and even permits walking along the upper perimeter of the fortress.
The second excursion was to Mtirala National Park north of Batumi. The park rests in the mountains of the Adjara region and is breathtakingly beautiful. The day trip included a ride up a winding mountain road, a guided hike to a beautiful waterfall, and paths along the Betslemistskali River. The tour then ended with a homemade meal with local residents.
The third excursion was to Svaneti, about seven hours away by marshrutka. Svaneti lies among the slopes of the Southern Caucasus and is known for its breathtaking beauty and traditional way of life. The excursion included a two-night stay at a bed and breakfast not far from the old town of Mestia. The bed and breakfast, which is run by a local family, serves delicious homemade breakfast and dinner. Our tour also included an 18-mile hike through the rugged mountain trails to the base of a peak. Snowpack is present all year long in the Caucasus, whose peaks reach heights up to 16,400 ft. Our excursion ended in Mestia, where we walked through the old town and visited a home demonstrating the traditional way of life of the Svan people. Svaneti was the highlight of my time in Georgia and is a must for anyone who plans to visit Georgia.
Overall, the SRAS Batumi RSL program was the best experience I have ever had abroad. Batumi is never lacking in things to do, and Georgia is one of the best countries for those seeking adventure. Georgia has the trifecta of everything one could want when visiting a foreign country: breathtaking beauty and nature, delicious food, and incredibly warm and welcoming people. SRAS now offers a program called Georgian Foodways, which focuses on the cuisine, culture, and religion of the Caucasus region. Georgia will always be a place I will want to return to. Eleven out of ten would recommend!