There is still a little oriental flavor left in Batumi, the resort town on the Black Sea, perched on the Soviet-Turkish border. Cafe's dot the promenade along the beach, offering freshly made Turkish coffee and -- in season -- grapes and other fruits, under groves of palm trees.
Batumi is the last stop south on the Caucasian coast of the Black Sea, which begins at the port city Novorossiysk and passes through the resort towns of Sochi and Sukhumi. In summertime, the beaches along this shore teem with bodies.
Sochi -- the most famous of Soviet Black Sea resorts -- alone draws more than a million vacationers each summer. Further south, Gagra is one of the warmest places on the coast, with a bathing season that opens in May and closes in October. Pitsunda, with its 10th-century cathedral, is a resort frequented by writers and members of the Soviet political elite. But Batumi has more of a family atmosphere than the other resorts.
True, searchlights sweep Batumi's skies at night and border guards patrol the beaches, one posted about every 50 yards. But in the daytime the eerie effect vanishes, replaced by cheery holiday crowds.
On a recent visit to Batumi, I suddenly realized how often there are unexpected moments on Soviet beaches. For example, there is the peculiar Soviet-style suntanning method of standing up, arms outstretched, in order to give the body maximum exposure. And in Batumi, right on the city's central beach, I watched a cow happily sniffing around the garbage that had spilled out of trash bins.
Batumi is the capital of the Adzharian Autonomous Republic, an enclave within the larger republic of Georgia. Its origins are Roman, although before Rome, Colchis -- as the area was called -- was regarded by the Greeks as the domain of sorcery and a land of legends. It was here that the Argonauts of Greek mythology came to find the Golden Fleece.
The area's history was a series of struggles -- between Byzantium and Persia, Georgia and Turkey. It fell under Russian rule in 1878, and gained importance as a port city. After the Revolution of 1917, Batumi was held briefly by the Turks.
The population of the area reflects its polyglot history: Adjaris -- Muslim Georgians -- make up half the population, the rest is Russian, Armenian and Greek.
There are some streets that still keep the character of the old city, with small shops and stalls. But fires and reconstruction have blotted out much of the historic part of the city, leaving only hints of a genteel, slightly down-at-the-heels Victorian tropical resort, with fading plaster and creeping vines.
Today, Batumi is still a major port, and big cruise ships dock here almost daily. At night, they pull away into the darkness, like floating islands of light.
Most foreign tourists stay at the Intourist hotel, opposite Primorsky Park and the sea. The accommodations are average, perhaps a little danker than most Soviet hotels, because of the humid climate. On the second floor, an alcohol-free bar opens in the evening for local youth, who come to sip ice-cream drinks and dance to music videos.
Batumi boasts a "dolphinarium," where Black Sea dolphins jump through hoops and provide other regularly scheduled entertainment. And a bus ride north of the city takes you to the Batumi Botanical Gardens, stretching three miles along cliffs high above the sea, which are famous for their collection of subtropical flora.
All along the coast road are numerous pensionats and sanitoria (rest houses and health spas), among the most popular in the Soviet Union. Soviets are given vouchers -- putyevkas -- at their workplaces by trade unions, and assigned to sanitoria according to prescribed health cures, to treat real or imagined ailments.
At some sanitorias, the regime is less strict than others, and people wander on and off the beach at will. But at others, the vacationer's time is carefully controlled: so much time for swimming, so much time for sunbathing, a diet under careful control with white-coated attendants on hand to supervise the regime. Some of the sanitoria offer cures in hydrogen sulfide springs, or mud, mineral or sulfur baths.
The focus of the sanitoria is resting. In the Soviet Union, a month off is sacred for everyone, and "rest" is literally the verb people here use to talk about their holidays.
There may be no better place to "rest" than the shores of the Black Sea.