Hidden away in the north west corner of Georgia, not far from the Russian border, lies the legendary region of Svaneti, so isolated and remote that it was never conquered by any ruler. Rugged stone villages, little changed by time, are locked in by snow-capped 4,000 metre peaks that soar above flower filled meadows. The landscape offers some of the best scenery imaginable together with an ancient, mysterious and unique culture.
The region’s emblem and a common sight everywhere, are the defensive stone Svan towers. Some are more than 1,000-years-old, but were still in use fairly recently during the fierce blood feuds the area was famous for.
The Georgian government has started to realise the money making potential of Svaneti, so some places are not as off the beaten track as they once were and are now much easier to reach. The main town Mestia, lying at the foot of mighty Mt Ushba, has plenty of accommodation options and is a fantastic but convenient three hour minibus ride from Zugdidi.
It doesn’t take long to leave the world behind once you walk into the mountains and villages and the region still offers bucket loads of adventure and mystique. There are hikes to suit almost any energy level, from gentle day hikes to the Koruldi lakes to multi day expeditions to Ushguli – the highest village on the European continent. If you’re feeling lazy you can also get here by jeep and the views of Georgia’s highest peak, Mt Shkhara (5,193 metres) will take your breath away.
Due to its isolation, many people here still speak an ancient unwritten language, which is barely understood by other Georgians. There are also plenty of local culinary specialities, including kubdari meat pies and cheese cooked inside maize bread. If you are lucky enough to visit during one of the regions many festivals you will likely get a taste of both.
Local councils are currently in the process of improving several hiking trails into some of the more remote areas, which will hopefully be a blessing for intrepid travellers and locals alike. As is the case with many beautiful places, things are changing fast with the increase in tourism, but most tourist traffic is centred around Mestia and Ushguli, with many services still supplied on a local level. This coupled with the fierce and proud nature of the Svaneti people means the culture and beauty of the area is in no danger of disappearing too fast.
How to get to Mestia
By bus: Several marshrutkas to Mestia leave from Zugdidi train station every day. The first at around 7 a.m, after the night train arrives from Tbilisi, with more departures until just after noon. The trip takes about 3 hours and usually costs 15-20 GEL per person, depending on yours haggling skills.
By plane: Vanilla Sky currently operate flights to Mestia from Natakhtari airfield, located near Tbilisi. They operate all year round with departures everday apart from Tuesday and Thursday. A one-way ticket costs about 65 GEL, for booking details check on their website.
How to get to Ushguli
Most people arrive to Ushguli from Mestia. In summer there should be at least one minibus leaving in the morning from the main square for about 20 – 30 GEL. If there are no marshrutkas it is possible to hire a whole car for about 150 – 200 GEL.