THE STRUCTURE RISES from the centre of Batumi like a spy-station, an out-sized television transmitter, a space-age helter-skelter.
The lower part is a mess of bars, poles, and support wires, wound around with immense strips of steel sheet metal, into which are cut letters in Georgian script, indecipherable as usual to me. In the middle of this mass of metal is an exposed elevator shaft leading to the crown of the structure, a colossal, silver, geodesic ball 30 or 40 metres in diameter. The silver coating on the ball is such that it can’t be said whether it’s made of metal or mirrored glass.
It’s impossible to see whether anything is going on inside, but it’s safe to assume something is happening in there, as every now and then the lift makes the journey to the top of the tower and back down again, apparently with people inside, although it’s difficult to tell from a distance whether the shapes in the lift are indeed people.
On my first day in the city, as we walked together to the beach through throngs of Turkish and Polish tourists, I asked Natali, our neighbor’s daughter, who was accompanying me on the jaunt to the sea, about the structure.
“… It’s a restaurant,” she replied, leaving me unsure of whether her momentary pause prior to answering resulted from her having to consider the formation of her reply in English, or from something else.
“Are you sure?” I quizzed her, trying to imagine why anyone would want to place a restaurant in a silver ball on top of an 80-metre pole. “It’s not something else?”
“No,” she replied, with more confidence this time. “It is a restaurant.”
I next found myself in town the following Sunday. Sundays in Georgia are not like Sundays in the rest of Europe. Everything is open, the market is as crazy as ever, and the taxis and marshrutkas still weave homicidally through the streets on the hill side of town, intent on killing any pedestrian stupid enough to try to cross the road. I was poking around vaguely for new sandals in a clothes market near the bus station when I ran into John, an American acquaintance. He seemed to have even less reason to be in town than I, so, after a wander through the food market, where I added to my tea supply with a large-leaf local blend, we made for a bar on the beach.
As usual, there was bad Western pop music blasting from speakers along the boulevard, but we almost succeeded in ignoring it as we sat in the shade of an umbrella, watching sunburned Russians toasting themselves further and commenting boringly on how the imported Turkish lager we were drinking was preferable to the sugary local brands. When we reached the bottom of our glasses, John suggested we take a walk along the boulevard.
“Why don’t we go and check out the thing?” I ventured, pointing up at the silver ball.
“Sure,” he replied. “I’ve been wondering what it is too.”
We stopped on the way at one of the council exercise parks and amused ourselves on the ‘humping’ machine, the rusty bars of which creaked and groaned with every enthusiastic thrust. We moved on when the overweight woman whom we’d been not-so-subtly observing on the neighboring cross-trainer made it clear it was her turn on the humping machine.
The base of ‘the thing’ was mostly surrounded by glass and metal fences and appeared deserted, although the lift still seemed to be going up and down. We discussed the possibility of asking a passerby on the boulevard what the building was, but realised that, although we possessed the language to ask, we would have no hope of understanding the answer. Following the perimeter of the tower’s base, it seemed every place that wasn’t fenced off was blocked by red and white danger tape, but then, around the far side, we found a ramp where the tape had already been cut. Here, at least, we had an honest excuse for venturing in.
We ascended the ramp, and had almost reached the lift, when two guards in khaki appeared from behind the elevator shaft. They didn’t exactly say “Stop!” but the way in which they approached us made it clear we were not to proceed. I knew I probably wouldn’t get anything out of the answer, but I decided to ask the guard what the structure was anyway.
“Ra aris es?” I asked in my best Georgian accent, flashing a touristy smile.
The guard paused and turned to his partner. The other gave no discernible response. Then the first turned to face me again.
“Restaurant,” he said.
The deal: Alphabetic Tower, in the resort town of Batumi, on the Black Sea coast, was designed as a celebration of the unique Georgian alphabet. At 130 metres high, it is one of the tallest buildings in the Republic of Georgia. According to builders CMD Ingenieros, when completed, the tower will house an observation deck, a restaurant, and the studios of local television stations. So far, however, visitors to Batumi do not seem to be able to enter the building. For further (somewhat confusing) information on Alphabetic Tower, visit www.alphabetictower.com.