Svaneti one of Europe’s last great adventures 680km away from Atlanta, Georgia is a beautiful, wild and mysterious ancient landlocked in the Caucasus so remote that it was never tamed by any ruler. Uniquely picturesque villages and snow-covered, 4000m-plus peaks provide a superb backdrop to the many walking trails without a single ski-lift, luxury hotel or advertising hoarding to be seen.
What you’ll find instead is excitement, breath-taking views, pristine mountains, deep gorges, gushing river and roads which are definitely not for the nervous driver! Winding roads lead to hidden villages dotted with medieval watchtowers. There is something about the region that makes you feel as if time has stood still. The people of Svaneti are a race apart – the pace of life is different there, they have their own language and traditions, their own architectural styles, and for them, ancient customs are still very much a part of everyday life.
Set in the topmost reaches of the Enguri valley beneath the snow-covered massif of Mt Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak, Ushguli is an unbelievably picturesque spot. With more than 20 ancient Svan towers, it has been on the Unesco World Heritage List since 1996. This community of four villages, a 47km, 2½-hour drive southeast from Mestia, reaches up to 2100m above sea level and has a claim to be Europe’s highest permanently inhabited settlement. There’s some wonderful walking around Ushguli which takes about six hours to walk 8km up the valley to the foot of the Shkhara glacier and back. One tower in Chazhashi houses Ushguli’s main Ethnographic Museum, with a superb collection of gold, silver and wooden icons and crosses dating back to the 12th century from Ushguli’s seven churches. At the top of Ushguli, beautifully situated on a hill looking up the valley to Shkhara, is the 12th-century Lamaria Church, with a defensive tower next to it.
Becho, the community strung up the Dolra valley west of Mestia, is a very beautiful and relatively little-visited area with some wonderful walks. The spectacular, twin-peaked Ushba, Georgia’s toughest and most dangerous mountaineering challenge, towers at the head of the valley. The highest village in the valley, Mazeri, is the best base. One lovely walk from Mazeri leads north up the Dolra River then steeply eastward up past waterfalls to the glacier on the west side of Ushba. Other trails lead over the hills to Etseri and Latali. In summer you can walk to Mazeri from Mestia in a long, hard day via the Guli Pass.
The local cuisine of Svaneti
Georgian traditional meals are significantly enriched by Svanetian cuisine. Chvishdari is a corn bread mixed with cheese and eggs or Matsoni (a milk product particular to Caucasian cuisine, similar to sour cream). The mixture is baked in a shape of balls or flat circles in an oiled pan. Chvishdari perfectly goes with fresh tomato and cucumber salads. In other parts of Georgia, baked cornbread and cheese are eaten separately.