Svaneti



Soanes are foremost in courage and power. They are masters of the peoples around them, and hold possession of the heights of the Caucasus above Dioscurias. They have a king and a council of three hundred men; and they assemble, according to report, an army of two hundred thousand, for the whole of the people are a fighting force, though unorganised. It is said that in their country gold is carried down by the mountain-torrents, and that the barbarians obtain it by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins, and that this is the origin of the myth of the Golden fleece

Strabo, Geographica, 7 BC
Svaneti

Svaneti is probably the most beautiful region of Georgia and the essence of what country can offer to the foreign tourists. All those stunning photos of historical stone villages, lush green valleys and snow-covered mountains.... the most of them were made here.

Svaneti is inhabited by Svans, the ethnic subgroup of the Georgians. Svans lived for long in relative isolation and as a result, they formed their own, unwritten language which only remotely reminds Georgian.

Another attribute they are known for is their love for independence. They were part of the Georgian Kingdom during its Golden Age and still have great respect for Queen Tamar. But once the kingdom collapsed in the 15th century, Svans formed so-called Free Svaneti, a loose confederation of self-governing communities. There were ruled by local councils comprised of adult men and women. Still, feuds were quite common - that’s why each clan built towers Svaneti is nowadays famous for. "Blood feuds" were usually regulated by mediators according to the traditions, but towers were still necessary when things got out of control.

Those times of freedom/anarchy ended in the 19th century when the region got conquered by Russia. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Georgia fell into chaos and Svans temporarily gained de-facto an autonomy. Svaneti got quite dangerous at this period - since there was virtually no police, some Svans turned to banditry and kidnappings. Only in 2004, Georgian government sent an army to the area, busting the worst troublemakers. And the rest quickly learned that there are other, more peaceful and sustainable strategies to get the tourist money.

Ushguli

First skiing resort in Svaneti - Hatsvali

In 2004 started another era in the history of Svaneti. The government of Mikhail Saakashvili pledged to turn it into “Switzerland in the Caucasus”, world´s premium tourist destination and spent millions of dollars on the infrastructure and promotion. A new airport was opened in 2010. The road connecting region capital Mestia with the lowlands was rebuilt and currently it´s being prolonged all the way to Ushguli. Two brand new ski resorts, Hatsvali and Tetnuldi sprung up in the vicinity of Mestia. And there are talks of the tunnel connecting Mestia with Lentekhi to the south.

Unfortunately, the result is in some cases debatable, Mestia being the prime example. The center of the city was rebuilt into something resembling Swiss village. Same with the new church of St. Nicholas which sticks out like a sore thumb since it wasn´t built in a traditional Svan style but in the one typical for the lowlands. And if you want to make a Svan mad, start singing a praise of the new Queen Tamar statue at the central square. While made by a famous sculptor, it´s simply too artsy for the liking of the locals so the government rather decided to install it overnight.

Still, for nature lovers there are still enough places to see "unchanged" Svaneti. Most tourists are concentrated in Mestia, many make daytrips by jeeps to Ushguli but most of them are not interested in serious trekking. Trail from Mestia to Ushguli is the most popular Georgian trek, but still only a little frequented by Western standards.

One more thing - what I wrote above is not related to the whole Svaneti region. Svaneti consists of 2 subregions - Upper (Zemo) and Lower (Kvemo) Svaneti. Upper Svaneti lies in the valley of Inguri river, is much more popular and all I wrote above was actually related to this region.

Lower (Kvemo) Svaneti lies in valley of Tskhenistskali river and feels like completely different world. It has beautiful mountains and villages too, but simply pales in comparison to its northern neighbour. Also, there are no towers and the villages overall don´t look so exotic or “medieval”. Because of this, Lower Svaneti managed to retain lots of its original atmosphere. As a downside, tourist infrastructure leaves much to be desired.


From Zugdidi: Marshrutkas to Mestia leave from Zugdidi train station every day. The first one departs around 6:30 a.m, after the arrival of the night train from Tbilisi, but there should be several others before noon. The last one usually departs at 14:30. The trip takes about 3-4 hours (1-hour break included) and the price is usually 20 GEL per person.

From Tbilisi: In my opinion, the best option is the night train to Zugdidi and marshrutka from there. Train departs from Tbilisi at 21:45 and reaches Zugdidi at 6:05 am. Price of the ticket is 30 GEL, tickets for sleeper berths can be bought in advance at biletebi.ge website (the official web is railway.ge, but that never worked for me).
If you want to save time, you could also consider a flight - there are 4 flights a week from Natakhtari airport near Tbilisi, operated by VanillaSky company . You would see Caucasus from a completely different perspective and for 65 GEL it´s quite a bargain. On the downside, they ocassionally get canceled because of the weather and during the summer, you should book at least month in advance since they get booked up pretty fast. For more info, pls check this excellent post about the flight (covers also flight from Kutaisi).
The last option is the direct marshrutka - it departs at 6:00 from the area in front of Railway Station, come at least 30 minutes earlier to catch a spot. The price is 30 GEL, so it´s quite cheap, but I can´t recommned it since this uncomfortable journey takes grueling 9-10 hours.

From Kutaisi: The most reliable way to get to Mestia is the use the service of Georgian bus (they have a stand at the airport) - the price is 40 GEL per person. You ask also ask some taxi drivers loitering at the arrivals hall, they may be willing to give you even a better price.

From Batumi: Marshrutka is the only option, it departs from the main bus station. Since you will have switch the bus in Zugdidi (you may have to wait for several hours there), this ride takes a better part of the day. The first bus departs at 8:00 am, then there should be another one at 9:30 am.

How to get to Ushguli:

Minivans to Ushguli depart daily in the morning from the Seti square. They wait until they are full, usual price for a ride is 30 GEL
If you prefer walking, very popular is the 4-day trail from Mestia. Ushguli is also accessible from Lower Svaneti via Latpari pass or Zagar pass.



Ushguli

Stunning mountain village of Ushguli justly belongs to the touristic highlights of Georgia. Some people mark it as highest village in Europe. I disagree, but it really doesn´t matter - Ushguli is not the kind of place which needs such crutches to attact tourists.
Ushguli lies in the Upper Inguri valley, only few miles downstream from the source of the river beneath the snow-covered massif of Mt. Shkhara, highest peak in Georgia. It is actually a conglomeration of four settlements (Murkmeli, Chazhashi, Chvibiani and Zhibiani).
At the hill looking up the valley to Shkhara is 12th century Church of the Virgin Mary with defensive tower. In the village lies an ethnographic museum with great collection of golden, silver and wooden icons dating back to 12th century. However, you dont have to go to museum to see a history here, whole village feels like one big open air musem. You can find here over 200 historical defensive towers - also thanks to them is Ushguli since 1996 on the Unesco World Heritage List.
With its muddy streets, pigs, cows and towers Ushguli feels like a place from medieval fairytale. Unfortunately, this beauty feels quite fragile - we can only guess how it will cope with the increased attention of tourists.


Svan towers

Together with mountains, the biggest attraction of Svaneti are its medieval house-towers. After all, there are many nice mountains and many nice towers in the world. But in Svaneti, there are both and match together very well. This exceptional combination of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses earned Upper Svaneti a place on the UNESCO Heritage list.
Svan towers (murkvam in Svan language, koshki in Georgian) were built between 10th and 18th century and reflect an organizational structure of Svan communities at this period. Since there was no higher power, each clan had to rely primarily on themselves. And needed protection not only against foreign invaders, but also against the warring neighbours (Svaneti was famous for "blood feuds" which could last even a decades). So, instead of a single circular fortification, Svan villages were dotten by dozens of fortified houses.
The usual Svan tower is built of shales, has a square footprint and is 25 - 30 meters high. The entrance, located at the second floor is accesible only by a ladder or a wooden staircase so it can be removed at the case of emergency and very hard to access. The tower usually has four to five storeys. The upper storey beneath the roof served as a battle platform - here were located loopholes through which could the defenders shoot at anyone approaching the tower.


Mestia museums

Mestia has three museums, all completely different and still pretty good. The "big one" is the Svaneti Museum of History and Etnography. It´s nice, modern and while quite small, contains really interesting selection of local artifacts - illuminated manuscripts, decorated crosses, icons, weapons, jewellery and so on. I must say I was surprised by the skill of the local goldsmiths and m<>etalworkers - I didn´t expect such delicate work in the remote mountain area. You can also climb onto the roof and enjoy the great views of Mestia. Admission fee is 5 GEL, the museum is closed on Mondays.

Then here is Margiani tower museum, which offers completely different, "down to earth" experience. It´s located in the old Svan house so you learn more about everyday life of locals, see how they cooked, slept or took care of their cattle. This musem doesn´t rely as much on the artifacts as on the explanation of the museum attendant the one we had spoke both English and Russian. During the tour, you will also climb to the top of Svan tower and visit their “prison cells”.

The last of the museums is devoted to the Mikhail Khergiani, a legendary Georgian alpinist. Mikhail climbed numerous peaks in Caucasus, Pamir, Tien-Shan and Alps (where he died at the age of 39). Museum is established in the house where he lived and displays his climbing equipment, photos, awards, paintings and so on. Interesting especially for those interested in mountaineering.


Tower of Love

This lonely tower lies by the river, not far behind Ipari village right by the road to Ushguli. It is linked to one of many Svan legends which involves tragic love and death by jumping into the river. In this case,
Tower is open, so visitors can anytime explore its interior. However, there is not so much to explore except of the tower itself - lower floors are accesible by crude ladders, to get higher you will have to climb on stones. Still, its pretty nice example of Svan defensive architecture.


From Mestia to Ushguli

Probably the most popular multiday trek in whole Georgia and for a good reason - not too long, accesible and still provides great views and passes several traditional Svanetian villages.

  • Duration: 4 Days
  • Difficulty: Moderate

From Mestia to Zuruldi

Short, simple, yet very rewarding walk in the vicinity of Mestia. It offers phenomenal views of some of the most prominent peaks of Caucasus such as Ushba, Tetnuldi, and Layla.

  • Duration: 3 Hours
  • Difficulty: Easy

Trek to Tobavarchkhili lake

This trek crosses Egrisi mountains, which separate Svaneti from Samegrelo lowlands. The highlight of the trek is Tovabarchkhili lake - probably the most beautiful mountainlake in Georgia.

  • Duration: 5 days
  • Difficulty: Hard

From Mestia onto Chkhuti ridge

Great day hike which climbs onto the prominent ridge lying northeast of Mestia and offer great panoramic views. Similar to Koruldi hike but better in almost every aspect.

  • Duration: 1 Day
  • Difficulty: Moderate/Hard

Hike to the Mkheri church

Hike to the small church tucked at the foothills of layla mountain. Often overlooked since it doesn´t start directly in Mestia, yet one of the best day walks in the area.

  • Duration: 1 Day
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Trek from Mestia to Ushguli via Tsvirmi

Alternative of the most popular Georgian trek, which is by mine opinion even better than standard hike via Zhabeshi. Its main advantage are much better views on the first day, when it climbs onto Zuruldi massif.

  • Duration: 4 Days
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Trip from Mestia to Koruldi lakes

Nice dayhike to the group of alpine lakes lying at the foot of Mt. Ushba. Even though the lakes themselves are rather muddy than rocky, the view of surrounding mountains is superb.

  • Duration: 1 Day
  • Difficulty: Moderate

From Mestia to Chalaadi glacier

Another popular trail in the proximity of Mestia, this one is exploring the valley of Mestiachala river. Not that hard and surprisingly nice.

  • Duration: 6 Hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Mazeri to Ushba glacier

This demanding daytrip follows the Dolra valley from Mazeri village to the foot of Ushba glacier and offers breathtaking views of Ushba mountain. On the way to the glacier you will pass beautiful Shdugra waterfall, highest one in Georgia.

  • Duration: 1 Day
  • Difficulty: Hard

Mazeri to Mestia through Guli pass

A beautiful, but demanding day-long hike through the Guli pass offering superb views of Ushba mountain.

  • Duration: 1 Day
  • Difficulty: Hard

From Etseri to Mazeri through Baki pass

A pretty nice day hike connecting two valleys of Upper Svaneti. It offers great views of Mt Ushba and its glaciers as well as a nice view of Enguri valley and Svaneti ridge.

  • Duration: 6 Hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate

From Mestia to Tsvirmi

Amazing hike in the proximity of Mestia. It crosses Zuruldi range and offers phenomenal views on some of the most prominent peaks of Caucasus such as Ushba, Tetnuldi or Layla. Walk finishes in pictoresque Tsvirmi village.

  • Duration: 6 Hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Trek to Okrostskali lakes

Remote, difficult and spectacular - these three words best describe the trek to Okrostskali lakes. Both lakes lie in the mountains of western Svaneti, close to the border with Abkhazia. In some aspects, they resemble famous Tobavarchkhili lakes

  • Duration: 3-4 Days
  • Difficulty: Hard

Ushguli to Shkhara glacier

Easy dayhike in the area of Georgia´s highest mountain to the foot of Shkhara glacier and springs of Inguri river.

  • Duration: 1 Day
  • Difficulty: Easy

From Ushguli to Chvelpi via Latpari pass

Beautiful trek from Upper to Lower Svaneti crossing Svaneti mountain range. First half of the trek offers breathtaking views of main Caucasus ridge.

  • Duration: 1 Day
  • Difficulty: Hard

Crossing of Zagar pass

Nice walk on an old road connecting Ushguli in Upper Svaneti and Mele village in Lower Svaneti.

  • Duration: 2 Days
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Trekking from Svaneti to Racha

This beautiful, but very demanding trek takes you to some of the most remote parts of Caucasus. It follows the old road, which once connected Zeskho village in Svaneti with Ghebi village in Racha, but fell into disrepair long time ago.

  • Duration: 3 days
  • Difficulty: Very Hard

Soanes are foremost in courage and power. They are masters of the peoples around them, and hold possession of the heights of the Caucasus above Dioscurias. They have a king and a council of three hundred men; and they assemble, according to report, an army of two hundred thousand, for the whole of the people are a fighting force, though unorganised. It is said that in their country gold is carried down by the mountain-torrents, and that the barbarians obtain it by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins, and that this is the origin of the myth of the Golden fleece

Strabo, Geographica, 7 BC
Svaneti

Svaneti is probably the most beautiful region of Georgia and the essence of what country can offer to the foreign tourists. All those stunning photos of historical stone villages, lush green valleys and snow-covered mountains.... the most of them were made here.

Svaneti is inhabited by Svans, the ethnic subgroup of the Georgians. Svans lived for long in relative isolation and as a result, they formed their own, unwritten language which only remotely reminds Georgian.

Another attribute they are known for is their love for independence. They were part of the Georgian Kingdom during its Golden Age and still have great respect for Queen Tamar. But once the kingdom collapsed in the 15th century, Svans formed so-called Free Svaneti, a loose confederation of self-governing communities. There were ruled by local councils comprised of adult men and women. Still, feuds were quite common - that’s why each clan built towers Svaneti is nowadays famous for. "Blood feuds" were usually regulated by mediators according to the traditions, but towers were still necessary when things got out of control.

Those times of freedom/anarchy ended in the 19th century when the region got conquered by Russia. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Georgia fell into chaos and Svans temporarily gained de-facto an autonomy. Svaneti got quite dangerous at this period - since there was virtually no police, some Svans turned to banditry and kidnappings. Only in 2004, Georgian government sent an army to the area, busting the worst troublemakers. And the rest quickly learned that there are other, more peaceful and sustainable strategies to get the tourist money.

Ushguli

First skiing resort in Svaneti - Hatsvali

In 2004 started another era in the history of Svaneti. The government of Mikhail Saakashvili pledged to turn it into “Switzerland in the Caucasus”, world´s premium tourist destination and spent millions of dollars on the infrastructure and promotion. A new airport was opened in 2010. The road connecting region capital Mestia with the lowlands was rebuilt and currently it´s being prolonged all the way to Ushguli. Two brand new ski resorts, Hatsvali and Tetnuldi sprung up in the vicinity of Mestia. And there are talks of the tunnel connecting Mestia with Lentekhi to the south.

Unfortunately, the result is in some cases debatable, Mestia being the prime example. The center of the city was rebuilt into something resembling Swiss village. Same with the new church of St. Nicholas which sticks out like a sore thumb since it wasn´t built in a traditional Svan style but in the one typical for the lowlands. And if you want to make a Svan mad, start singing a praise of the new Queen Tamar statue at the central square. While made by a famous sculptor, it´s simply too artsy for the liking of the locals so the government rather decided to install it overnight.

Still, for nature lovers there are still enough places to see "unchanged" Svaneti. Most tourists are concentrated in Mestia, many make daytrips by jeeps to Ushguli but most of them are not interested in serious trekking. Trail from Mestia to Ushguli is the most popular Georgian trek, but still only a little frequented by Western standards.

One more thing - what I wrote above is not related to the whole Svaneti region. Svaneti consists of 2 subregions - Upper (Zemo) and Lower (Kvemo) Svaneti. Upper Svaneti lies in the valley of Inguri river, is much more popular and all I wrote above was actually related to this region.

Lower (Kvemo) Svaneti lies in valley of Tskhenistskali river and feels like completely different world. It has beautiful mountains and villages too, but simply pales in comparison to its northern neighbour. Also, there are no towers and the villages overall don´t look so exotic or “medieval”. Because of this, Lower Svaneti managed to retain lots of its original atmosphere. As a downside, tourist infrastructure leaves much to be desired.


From Zugdidi: Marshrutkas to Mestia leave from Zugdidi train station every day. The first one departs around 6:30 a.m, after the arrival of the night train from Tbilisi, but there should be several others before noon. The last one usually departs at 14:30. The trip takes about 3-4 hours (1-hour break included) and the price is usually 20 GEL per person.

From Tbilisi: In my opinion, the best option is the night train to Zugdidi and marshrutka from there. Train departs from Tbilisi at 21:45 and reaches Zugdidi at 6:05 am. Price of the ticket is 30 GEL, tickets for sleeper berths can be bought in advance at biletebi.ge website (the official web is railway.ge, but that never worked for me).
If you want to save time, you could also consider a flight - there are 4 flights a week from Natakhtari airport near Tbilisi, operated by VanillaSky company . You would see Caucasus from a completely different perspective and for 65 GEL it´s quite a bargain. On the downside, they ocassionally get canceled because of the weather and during the summer, you should book at least month in advance since they get booked up pretty fast. For more info, pls check this excellent post about the flight (covers also flight from Kutaisi).
The last option is the direct marshrutka - it departs at 6:00 from the area in front of Railway Station, come at least 30 minutes earlier to catch a spot. The price is 30 GEL, so it´s quite cheap, but I can´t recommned it since this uncomfortable journey takes grueling 9-10 hours.

From Kutaisi: The most reliable way to get to Mestia is the use the service of Georgian bus (they have a stand at the airport) - the price is 40 GEL per person. You ask also ask some taxi drivers loitering at the arrivals hall, they may be willing to give you even a better price.

From Batumi: Marshrutka is the only option, it departs from the main bus station. Since you will have switch the bus in Zugdidi (you may have to wait for several hours there), this ride takes a better part of the day. The first bus departs at 8:00 am, then there should be another one at 9:30 am.

How to get to Ushguli:

Minivans to Ushguli depart daily in the morning from the Seti square. They wait until they are full, usual price for a ride is 30 GEL
If you prefer walking, very popular is the 4-day trail from Mestia. Ushguli is also accessible from Lower Svaneti via Latpari pass or Zagar pass.





View of Ushba from the trail Svaneti Svaneti Svaneti Ushguli village Tower of love Svaneti Svan towers Svaneti museum of History and Etnography

Copyright © 2016 Jozef Antala. All rights reserved

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