Letter from Europe

A Georgian Vichy

Issue no. 2018/12

Picture above: The former house of the Iranian consul (called Firouza) in Borjomi, Georgia (photo © Mikhail Markovskiy / dreamstime.com).


The Iranian consul's residence and the Romanov's Likani Palace are just two of many extraordinary buildings which attest to the one-time importance of Borjomi, a Georgian spa town best known for its mineral water. It's a town with a complex history which includes Romanov, Soviet and Georgian strands.

Dear fellow travellers

In summer 1887, Tchaikovsky had a spell in Borzhom, in those days a quiet spa town in what was then the Russian Empire's Tiflis Province. Shortly after leaving Borzhom, the Russian composer reflected on his stay at the spa in a letter to the opera singer Emiliya Pavlovskaya, commenting: "I do feel that Borzhom is one of the most bizarrely wonderful places in the whole world."

Today Borzhom is known as Borjomi and this spa town in the Republic of Georgia is still as wonderful as it was in Tchaikovsky's day. The town is known mainly for its mineral water which, being now available in Russia again after a seven-year ban, has helped quench the thirst of football fans during the FIFA World Cup. The water bottling plant in Borjomi was created at the behest of Nicholas Mikhailovich Romanov in the last decade of the 19th century, around the same time as the Grand Duke was supervising construction of Likani Palace at Borjomi - which in the late tsarist period served as a Romanov palace in the Caucasus. So, for the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, this town in the hills had all the cachet of Vichy or Baden Baden.

Likani Palace is just one of many extraordinary buildings which attest to the one-time importance of Borjomi. The palace was designed by Leon Benois, whose work is not much known outside the wider Russian realm - although he did design the very striking Russian chapel in Darmstadt in western Germany. Likani is an oddball confection of styles - a dash of Moorish whimsy with Tuscan affectations. For a while after Georgian independence it served as an official residence of the President of Georgia, who no doubt enjoyed relaxing in armchairs given to the Romanovs by the Shah of Iran. In the Soviet period, when the palace served as a sanatorium, Stalin stayed at Likani on a number of occasions, where the local Borjomi water evidently helped his digestion.

In recent years, there has been much debate about the future of the Likani Palace. A Kazakh consortium acquired it in 2006 with grand plans to turn it into a recreational complex. Then there was talk of a museum. Now it's back in Georgian hands, and last year the palace was listed by the Georgian government as a national monument. In June 2018 a major plan was announced for the refurbishment of the Likani Palace, although it's still not clear if this means it'll end up as a high-end resort reserved for travellers with big budgets. Let's hope they leave the original interior wood panelling into which Stalin, never the most considerate of guests, hammered a nail upon which he could hang his coat.

There may be style and history in the Likani Palace, but it's certainly not the most beautiful structure in Borjomi. That accolade may go to the charming spa colonnades or to the remarkable turquoise building known as Firouze. In the late 19th century, it served as home to the Persian consul. It's now a hotel - part of the Golden Tulip chain - and it has been magnificently renovated by Georgian and Iranian craftsmen who have restored original detail.

Projects like the restoration of Firouze have helped breathe new life into Borjomi. Another recent initiative has been the reopening of the scenic narrow-gauge railway which climbs through the hills from Borjomi to Bakuriani. The 37-kilometre route is the only surviving narrow-gauge railway in Georgia that is still regularly used. Along the way - perhaps the scenic highlight of the two-and-a-half-hour journey - is a gravity-defying moment when the train crosses the deep valley of the River Tsemistskhali on a viaduct designed by Gustave Eiffel.

There is more than just mineral water in Borjomi, and those who take the time to linger are invariably surprised to discover that it's a town with a complex history which includes Romanov, Soviet and Georgian strands.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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