Beautiful, wild and mysterious, Svaneti is an ancient land locked in the Caucasus, so remote that it was never tamed by any ruler. We had been intending to visit for ages and finally we got to visit. Svaneti’s emblem is the koshki (defensive stone tower), designed to house villagers at times of invasion and local unrest (until recently Svaneti was renowned for its murderous vendettas). Around 175 koshkebi, most originally built between the 9th and 13th centuries, survive there today. Well, now I’ve been there and got the koshki fridge magnet to prove it!
We set off from Tbilisi early on Thursday morning. There were seven of us in a Toyota Isis, an unfortunately named seven seater SUV.
First stop, apart from what George W Bush might have referred euphemistically to as “bathroom breaks”, was Zugdidi. Zugdidi is home to Dadiani Palace and a museum established by Akaki Chanturia.
Inside the palace were many items connected to Napoleon Bonaparte and an old Larousse encyclopedia. After a brief interlude in Zugdidi, we proceeded to the Enguri Dam, a hydroelectric dam on the Enguri River in Georgia on the border with Abkhazia. Currently it is the world’s second highest concrete arch dam with a height of 271.5 metres.
The highway winding its way up to Mestia is very scenic. Mestia itself is quite touristy like the towns of Capadoccia in Turkey. Mestia is the hub for exploring the region and where we had booked 4 nights accommodation. Whilst we were there, a Thai film crew were shooting a drama “Doubleman” about Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Siamese twins set during the American Civil War, which seemed an odd combination.
On the Friday we hired a 4 x 4 mini-van and went to Ushguli, a UNESCO world heritage site, it is at 2100m above sea level, the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe. Ushguli has some stunning panoramas and an interesting ethnographic museum.
On the Saturday, we took the ski lift to Zuruldi, (Mestia is a ski resort in the winter). The Georgian-Thai film crew were at the top filming their period drama. The Georgian government is actively encouraging overseas film crews to shoot in Georgia.
Seeing Mestia from above…
In the afternoon, we decided to do some trekking and sought to get to the Shdugra waterfall – the tallest waterfall of Georgia. A marked path starts from Mazeri village, the 8 or 9km to the waterfall may have been a little ambitious for an afternoon stroll. Our party was disorganised, the vanguard raced ahead, the rearguard was left with the bags and Ana and the middle section, confused, didn’t know whether to advance or retreat.
We got within sight of the waterfall but didn’t get right up close.
Our last day, the Sunday was spent closer to Mestia with less exertions. We visited a couple of museums: the Svaneti Museum and the Mikheil Khergiani House Museum, dedicated to a famous Georgian alpinist. Each had some interesting items.
Then a relaxing picnic in a meadow above Mestia.
Most of the food you can find in Svaneti (and most of Georgia) are variations of potato, cheese and dough ingredients. We tried Kubdari, a local delicacy, a beef filled bread loaf, usually seasoned with fresh white onions and Svaneti salt – a mixture of cumin, dry coriander, fennel, red pepper, garlic and salt. Personally, I prefer lobiani, the bread filled with beans.
We returned to Tbilisi on the Monday visiting Martvili Monastery en route. It is a long journey from Tbilisi to Mestia and back but the route is scenic. It is worth a visit, not just as an excuse to get another fridge magnet.