Svaneti is a secluded region hemmed in by jagged mountains which for centuries escaped the grasp of the kings and armies which repeatedly marauded the rest of Georgia. The Svan people speak a language all their own and survived through the ages by mustering their fearless warrior mentality and Svaneti’s foreboding geographic location to keep invaders at bay.
Today, Svaneti is like a time capsule buried deep in the mountains. You won’t find chain hotels, souvenir shacks, or ski resorts here. Instead, you’ll find small medieval villages nestled in lush green valleys set against 4,000 meter snow-capped peaks stretching into the blue mountain sky. Stone watchtowers still stand sentry over those villages, as if at any minute invading Mongols or Persians might yet ride through the narrow glaciated passes which serve as the only opening to the outside world.
Families still plow their fields by hand, while livestock freely roam the dirt streets of Svaneti’s tiny hamlets. And, despite the Svan people’s reputation for combat, travelers will be welcomed into crumbling but friendly family guesthouses offering warm fleece beds and dinners consisting of strong wine and food quite literally home-grown.
The country of Georgia is filled with stunning landscapes like Abkhazia and Kazbegi, as well as vibrant cities like Batumi and Tbilisi. But after asking a half dozen locals for the best spot in the country, there was a clear consensus: the prettiest place in Georgia is Svaneti.
Getting there is part of the charm, however, as Svaneti’s gorgeous valleys are protected on all sides by peaks that would challenge even the most experienced mountaineers. Seeking to encourage more visitors, the government of Georgia just recently launched daily flights to Mestia, the largest town in Svaneti. But the 15 seat planes, though affordable at a mere 65 lari, fill up months in advance. That leaves only the old way of access — via a three hour shared minibus ride up a bumpy and winding road from Zugdidi, a town that itself is already seven hours from Tbilisi.
Mestia is a small town set against a dramatic mountain landscape. It is starting to resemble an American or Swiss ski town, though, as visitors are beginning to pour in after hearing Svaneti described as one of Europe’s last remaining untouched gems. But, despite being the most accessible base for tourists seeking a taste of Svaneti, the town has done an excellent job of maintaining an authentic feel even as it develops. Just steps from the main square you can still watch locals driving cattle to pasture or buy fresh baked kachapuri (cheese bread) for 30 cents from a bakery sitting in a centuries-old stone building.
Many gorgeous day hikes are accessible from Mestia, but the intrepid traveler will be rewarded for venturing deeper into Svaneit and to Ushguli, four small villages tucked away in the mountains that together make up the highest permanent settlement in Europe. Ushguli is only accessible via a single road that winds for hours around mountain gorges. Until ten years ago, that road was rife with bandits and thieves, making travel to Ushguli a mission for only the most daring.
Ushguli’s two hundred residents survive harsh conditions during long winters but, by the time of my visit in June spring had brought along bubbling streams fed by glacial melt, the soft squeal of newly birthed piglets, and horses galloping high on the green hillsides to feast on the green buffet now finally open to them.
Ushguli is a base for a gorgeous hike to a glacier high near the mountain peaks separating Georgia from Russia. When I did it, I was joined for the hike by a handful of travelers I met on the ride up and, after a few kilometers, we picked up four more companions: a motley crew of friendly canines eager to join us on our jaunt.
The hike takes you through stunning scenery — the best I’ve seen since hiking Ala Archa National Park in Kyrgyzstan — and is fairly easy, if you don’t mind wading through glacially cold streams!
The next day, joined by one of the same dogs who hiked with us the day before, I set about to photograph as much of this incredible time capsule as I could. With the road from Mestia being slowly paved, a part of me couldn’t help but worry that I was witnessing Ushguli’s last few days before it is cracked out of its amber by modernity.
With Georgia’s meteoric rise on the travel scene, it’s inevitable that more travelers will find their way to Svaneti. And why shouldn’t they? It’s one of the most mysterious, beautiful, and secluded places I’ve visited. And the locals, many of whom still live very basic agrarian lives, certainly seem to welcome the infusion of cash.
Svaneti survived for centuries without being compromised by the Persian, the Arabs, the Mongols, or the Ottomans. I desperately want to believe that Svaneti will be able to responsibly handle what I think will be an oncoming hoard of a different kind: mass tourism. No stone watchtower or treacherous mountain pass will help in this fight. I think the real secret to Svaneti’s persistence through the ages, though, is the determined attitude of the Svan people.
And I wouldn’t count the Svan out in any battle, no matter the odds.
Further reading for your Georgia trip: