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Visit Svaneti: Mestia and Ushguli, the wildest face of the Caucasus

When a Georgian speaks of Svaneti, he does it with a mixture of admiration and respect. Its isolation and the brave character of its people have meant that this region has never been conquered. Here, they say, the essence of Georgia survives. It is a land of deep traditions, of millenary justice, snowy peaks and peoples that seem to be taken from a Tolkien novel.

Until recently it was also an area of ​​highway robbery banned from outsiders, blood feuds, stolen brides and free men who lived outside the rest of the planet: the Caucasus in its purest form. Today, things have changed and tourism has tamed the area a little bit.

Svaneti has become a much safer place where groups of robbers seem to be a thing of the past. However, you should take the very usual precautions and if you are a girl, avoid walking alone at night. In 1994 UNESCO declared the upper part of the region (Zemo Svaneti) a World Heritage Site and the recent cash injection by the Government of Tbilisi to open the region to the world.

This has served as a call to attract more visitors. Hotels and restaurants have been opened, communications have been improved and even two small ski resorts have been opened. Although many things have changed, it still has that ‘something’ so special that it became instead of legends.

The question here is: for how long? It is divided into two zones: the upper part (Zemo Svaneti) and the lower part (Kvemo Svaneti). The Upper Svaneti is much more visited. Here, nature is wilder and locals still keep their traditions askance. The landscapes are incredible: it has mountains surpassing 4.000 and 5.000 meters (13,124 and 16404 feet), thick forests, meadows of intense green color and hundreds of defensive towers of the Middle Ages that are cut halfway on the horizon.

The highest peak is the Shkhara (17037 feet), but the Ushba (15419 feet), with its twin peaks. It is the most photogenic and a magnet for mountaineering expeditions. The svans speak their own dialect, the Svanuri, which it is incomprehensible for the rest of the Georgians. They have a reputation for having a lot of character and their polyphonic songs are known throughout the country. As in other parts of the Caucasus, feudalism did not exist here and all its inhabitants were free people.

They developed a communal lifestyle based on agriculture and livestock where men and women over twenty years elected their leaders in assembly. Its inaccessibility caused that during centuries Svaneti was the place where the Georgians hid all their treasures and icons while the regular invasions destroyed the rest of the country. In fact, the first road connecting Mestia with Zugdidi was not inaugurated until 1934.

The defensive towers of Svaneti

The symbol of Svaneti is its defensive towers (koshkebi). There are still hundreds of them standing and the majority was built during the Middle Ages. They were designed as bastions to protect the family against the invaders. They were prepared to withstand a siege of years and they were practically impregnable. But what was originally created to fight armies eventually became a refuge against the vendettas between clans.

Fiefdoms of blood were there until not long ago and the most serious offenses were never forgotten. Most of these watchtowers are between 20 and 25 meters (65 and 82 feet tall) and they have four or five floors. The last floor has a viewpoint with 360-degree visibility. Men were watching from the top and they were shooting everything that moved. The entrance door to the tower was several feet from the ground so that once the family was inside, they removed the staircase and it was almost impossible to step through it.

Mestia

Mestia is the most important town in Upper Svaneti and the best place to set up the base camp for exploring the region. It is not very big. There are barely 2,500 people living there. However, it has a good hotel offer and an extensive network of shelters. It also has a few restaurants of different type and category.

It is located at almost 1.500 meters (4921 feet) above sea level and life goes on in the town’s main square. It has a few museums and it is the starting point for some walking tours such as the Chalati glacier. In the Mestia Tourist office, they will leave you maps of the area and they will explain you in detail the ascending paths.

Another excellent way to prepare any route through the mountains of the area is surfing the webpage www.svanetitrekking.ge It is specialized in hiking and trekking and it offers a detailed description of Svaneti’s best-known routes such as the ascent to Shkhara, which is Georgia’s highest mountain (17037 feet), the Latpari Route, which connects the upper and lower Svaneti through the pass of the same name, or the ascent to the Chalaadi. You have several places offering horse riding or bicycle rental in the area.

What see in Mestia?

Hatsvali ski resort

It is 4.97 miles from Mestia and it was inaugurated in 2010. It is quite small since it only has three tracks. The season lasts from December to April. The all-day ski pass costs 15 GEL. They have material to rent in the ski resort.

Tetnuldi ski resort

The second best ski resort in Georgia was opened in 2016. It has a difference from 1600 over 3165 meters (5249 and 10383 feet tall) at its peak. It has good background skiing and sections for experts, intermediate level and learning. It has about 18 skiable miles and one of the longest tracks of the Caucasus, of 5.90 miles. It is a beautiful and unique environment. If you want to visit it in the summer, there are good trekking routes. It is 12 miles east of Mestia, and the ski season in Tetnuldi lasts from December to early May.

Museum of History and Ethnography of Svaneti

Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Ticket price: 7 GEL. If you want to go deeper into the amazing culture of Svaneti, it is worth visiting. It exhibits an interesting collection of archaeological and ethnographic objects with ceramic dinnerware, jewelry, weapons or cult items. The center was renovated in 2013.

Other museums

Historic House Museum of the Margiani

Address: 8 Lanchvali Street. Opening Hours: from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Price: 5 GEL. It is a private historic house museum showing a traditional Svaneti home. The building was inhabited until the beginning of the 20th century by the owner’s grandparents. There is a small jail cell that all the houses in the area had to keep the enemy in the basement. At the top, there is a single multi-purpose room which served as a stable, kitchen, hall and dining room. During the cold winter, animals lived with people to provide warmth. The room is presided by the chair of the man of the house. He was the only person running in the family group. The visit ends with the ascent to the defensive tower of the house. If you want to enter the museum, you have to notify the owners, who live right next door, at the Larisa Guest House. They do not speak English.

Mikhail Khergiani Museum

Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Price: 5 GEL. The center is dedicated to the life of Mikheil Khergiani, the most famous mountaineer of the former USSR and the favorite son of Mestia. He died tragically when climbing the Dolomites in 1969.

Practical information

Mestia Tourism Office Address: Setis Square (Setis Moedani). Opening Hours: from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (summer from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.). Phone: +995 551 080 894. E-mail: ticmestia@gmail.com It is in the town square. They will inform you about routes, accommodation and transportation and they will also give you some maps of the area and brochures. If you are interested in attending a supra (typical Georgian food) and listening to the local polyphonic chants, they can help you organize it at the tourist office. Contacts that organize horse riding:

    <li “>Beso: +995 598 50 06 87 <li “>George: +995 598 57 73 29 <li “>Giorgi: +995 551 58 72 71

Bike rental Tetnuldi Hotel rents bicycles throughout the day for 40 GEL, by making a preliminary deposit of 100 GEL.

Transportation

  • Marshrutkas.
    • <li “>To Mestia:

      • <li “>Tbilisi-Mestia: there is a daily marshrutka leaving at 7:00 a.m. from the Central Railway Station, and there is another at that same time from the Samgori station (30 GEL). The trip lasts around 9 hours.
  • <li “>Zugdidi-Mestia: Zugdidi is the main shuttle to access Mestia. There are marshrutkas practically every two hours from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (20 GEL, although they may charge you for luggage). <li “>Batumi-Mestia: leaving at 3:00 p.m. from the bus station, in front of the Machakhela restaurant (30 GEL). <li “>Kutaisi-Mestia: leaving at 10:00 am from the bus station (25 GEL).

      • <li “>From Mestia:

        • <li “>Mestia-Tbilisi: If you want to go back to Tbilisi there is a marshrutka (30 GEL) leaving the Mestia downtown at 7:00 a.m. (in summer, sometimes they put an extra one by leaving at 2:00 pm).
    • <li “>Mestia-Zugdidi: leaving at 8:00 a.m. (20 GEL). In summer they sometimes put extra minibusses at 2:00 p.m. <li “>Mestia-Batumi: leaving at 8:00 a.m. (30 GEL). In summer they sometimes put extra minibusses at 2:00 p.m. <li “>Mestia-Kutaisi: leaving at 8:00 am (25 GEL). In summer they sometimes put extra minibusses at 2:00 p.m.

<li “>Tren + marshrutka: a very popular option is to take the night train to Zugdidi which leaves at 10:15 p.m. (www.railway.ge) and from there, the marshrutka to Mestia is normally coordinated with the arrival of the train (20 GEL + 5 GEL if you are carrying some luggage). <li “>Airplane. For all of us, the best quality-time-price option is to fly from Tbilisi to Mestia. The views are amazing. There is a daily flight from the Natakhtari airport (L-X-V-D at 9:30 a.m. and M-J at 1:00 p.m.). It is operated by the local company Vanilla Sky and the price is around 70 GEL, with transfers from the capital downtown to the airport. Reservations: www.vanillasky.ge E-mail: info@vanillasky.ge Phone: +995 32 242 74 27. The returning ticket costs the same and they work on the same days. The only disadvantage is that flights are canceled when it is raining a lot or there is poor visibility in Svaneti.

Svaneti and the myth of the Golden Fleece The myth of the Golden Fleece could be linked to Svaneti. The rivers of the region transported gold nuggets for years and their inhabitants used the skin of the sheep to filter it. Many believe that Jason and the Argonauts could reach these mountains to steal the golden skin from the hands of the giant serpent which was protecting it day and night.

Accommodations

Cheap Lodging

Guesthouse Fadaland

Address: 2 Bethlem Alley. E-mail: inmestia@gmail.com It has 4 double rooms with shared bathrooms. Calm, beautiful views, cleanliness and good treatment, although the family does not speak English. For more information: www.inmestia.com

Mestiatour Guesthouse

Address: 15 Guladi Japaridze Street. E-mail: japaridze195819@mail.ru. Phone: +995 595 923 870. It is a very clean, cozy and well-kept house with a large garden. It offers pretty and decent rooms: doubles and triples with private bathroom, doubles with shared bathroom and beds in shared rooms. They have a shared kitchen, WIFI, washing machine and a living room with TV and computer to relax. They offer transport services in SUV to Ushguli.

Nino Ratiani ´s Guesthouse

Address: 1 Jondo Khaptanis Street. Phone: +995 5 99 18 35 55. E-mail: ninoratiani@gmail.com It is one of the most famous accommodation among backpackers in the area. Cleanliness, good treatment, and good food. Recently Nino has expanded the business and now it offers rooms with or without private bathroom, of different prices, sizes, and styles (20-50 GEL per person). The owner speaks English and he organizes excursions to Ushguli in SUV.

Roza´s Guesthouse

Address: 17 Vittorio Sella Street. Phone: +995 5 99 64 14 55. E-mail: rozashukvani@gmail.com It is a good option if you go with enough money. It has sextuple, quadruple, triple and double rooms with shared and private bathroom in the typical house of Svaneti. It was clean, bright and multi-purpose rooms. Roza, the owner, speaks English. She is a very good cook in the kitchen. They also organize tours around the area.

Medium price Lodging

Chubu Hotel

Address: 17 Erekle Parjiani Street. Phone: +995 5 99 80 00 27. E-mail: chubuhotel@yahoo.com It is a new and cozy mountain hotel. The ex-Minister of Georgia stayed in one of the rooms. The price of the standard double room in half board is around 150 GEL.

Svan House Hotel

Address: 15 Vakhtang Goshteliani Street. Phone: +995 592 717 230. E-mail: svanhouse@gmail.com. It is a small hotel that occupies an old traditional house of Svaneti that has been completely remodeled inside. It offers eight double rooms, some of them with a balcony. Cleanliness and friendliness in a quiet area about 310 miles from the downtown of Mestia. Price for double: 100 GEL in half board.

Expensive Lodging

Tetnuldi Hotel

Address. 9 Margiani Street. Phone: +995 599 37 00 55. E-mail: info@tetnuldi.ge 36 simple and superior rooms. It is the typical stone and wood mountain hotel with beautiful views and a cozy interior. There are common and multi-purpose areas and the rooms are spacious and comfortable, all with private bathrooms. Price with breakfast: 180-270 GEL. For more information: www.tetnuldi.ge

Restaurants

Medium Price Lodging

Laila Cafe Bar

Address: 7 Seti Square (Setis Maidan) Street. It is a fashionable place in Svaneti. Good music, modern decoration, and a terrace to enjoy the good weather in summer. It is a good place to eat something or have a couple of beers. The staff speaks English, German and Italian.

Dael Restaurant

Address. 2 Betlemi Street. It is the Dael Hotel restaurant. It has typical Georgian food and traditional decoration. It has a fireplace in the dining room and it is well located.

Festivals

Kvirikoba It is the most important public festival of the Upper Svaneti. On July 28 the people in this area are gathering in the church of Saint Kvirike, in the town of Kala. There is a mass, blessing, and then people gathering in the small garden of the temple to sing, dance and compare their strength by lifting stones or bells. It is a day of a lot of food, blessings, wine, vodka, and typical songs.

Ushguli

You can not leave Svaneti without visiting Ushguli. It is one of the most distant villages in Georgia and it is also one of the most authentic ones. Its medieval towers are gleaned between the mountain pastures and the highest peak of the nation, the Shkhara (17037 feet), is rising behind them. Visiting it is like traveling in time.

You can only enter Ushguli on all terrain through a winding road crossing quaint villages, hermetic forests and amazing landscapes. It takes about two and a half hours to travel the 34 miles of the battered road that joins it with Mestia.

Local people say that it is the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe (7217 feet above sea level) and that no one has ever been able to invade it. And then you may think: “the difficult thing would be if someone knew that it existed”. It is divided into four neighborhoods: Murkmeli, Chakhashi, Chviani and Zhiviani.

Its people are mountaineers and they are used to the excesses of nature. However, one of the greatest tragedies of his History occurred in 1987 when a strong avalanche buried part of the town killing more than sixty people. UNESCO included it in its list of World Heritage Sites during the nineties.

If you want to sleep in this dream place, it is easy to find accommodation in one of its shelters and there are also a couple of ethnographic museums that you can visit. If you have come to breathe some fresh air and enjoy nature, one of the most typical routes is the Shkhara Glacier, which you can do in a single day. Of course, you should get up early.

Museums

Ethnographic Museum of Ushguli

Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Ticket price: 5 GEL. It is inside of a defensive tower. It is sometimes closed and you have to call to open it. It has an interesting collection of icons and religious elements of the Middle Ages.

Ethnographic Museum in the Zhibiani neighborhood

It is the second museum of Ushguli. Ticket price: 3 GEL. It’s inside of an upper quarter house. It has stuffed animals, hunting material and other typical objects of the area.

Transportation

There is a marshrutka that connects Mestia with Ushguli (30-40 GEL), but it only leaves when it is full. The Mestia-Ushguli-Mestia trip by taxi costs 200 GEL per vehicle. The road is in poor condition and you should take it for non-SUV traction vehicles during the summer months.

Accommodation

Vila Lileo

Phone: +995 5 99 91 22 56. E-mail: ratiani.dn@gmail.com It is in the Chviani side. They have the Internet and they offer ten rooms with shared bathroom. They usually are in high demand. Here is a tip, the owner, is a policeman and he is watching over the border between Georgia and Russia. He knows every inch of the region and he speaks English poorly. Price per person: 25-60 GEL (depends on the type of alimony you choose).

Eleonora Charkviani Guesthouse

Phone: +995 5 99 97 48 73. It is in the Chviani neighborhood, next to the village bar. It offers comfortable, double, quadruple and triple rooms with a shared bathroom. It has a small living room with TV. Laert, the man of the house speaks a little English. At the time we were looking for some information, they were building a new building a short distance away to increase the number of beds available. Price: 20-60 GEL.

Restaurants

Kafe Koshki It’s in the Chviani neighborhood. It is the meeting point of the town and it is a good place to eat or have a couple of beers. They give you big portions at good prices. Typical Georgian food: khachapuri, mtsvadi… As soon as the weather is right, the terrace is opened.