Impossibly beautiful, wild and mysterious, Svaneti is an ancient land locked in the greater Caucasus, so remote that it has never been tamed by any ruler, and even during the Soviet period it largely retained its traditional way of life. You need a minimum of three days to visit Svaneti (including one getting there and one getting out again), but if you can manage it, Svaneti is a must.
Svaneti, the land of the Svans or Svanebi, hidden in obscure recesses of the High Caucasus, is an area to which much mystery attaches itself. It's seen as more Georgian than Georgia proper, the repository of the country's soul, due to having been the last refuge from the Mongols - the holiest icons and richest treasures were carried up beyond the Inguri gorges for safe keeping in times of crisis, and artistic and religious traditions are felt to have been better preserved here than elsewhere.
This mountainous region in the north-western part of Georgia is made up of two parts, Upper and Lower Svaneti. Upper (Zemo) Svaneti encompasses an area of 3,044 sq. km and has a population of 14,600. Lower (Kvemo) Svaneti covers 1,344 sq. km and has a population of 11,400. A total of 45,000 Svans live throughout Georgia.
Uniquely picturesque villages and snow-covered peaks rising over 4000m above flower-strewn alpine meadows offer marvelous walking opportunities. Svaneti's emblem is the defensive stone tower, designed to house villagers at times of invasion and strife. Around 175 towers, most originally built between the 9th and 13th centuries, survive in Svaneti today.
Svaneti's terrain makes it one of the most remote and inaccessible regions of Georgia. The first car arrived in Mestia, the administrative center oа Upper Svaneti, only in 1935 with the widening of the cart track аrom Zugdidi. The road was built with dynamite and shovels, and Svans joke that they would like to give a prize to Nobel (the inventor of dynamite). That same year, the first plane landed in Mestia.
In November 1975, Georgian communications specialists completed the Kutaisi-Mestia radio relay line, allowing for the first television transmission from Moscow and Tbilisi. Despite the advent of cars, television, and helicopter and plane service, Svaneti retains a pristine medieval quality, with villages and back streets that look as though they were constructed as sets for the Caucasian version of The Return of Martin Guerre. This sense of time warp, combined with the grandeur of the natural setting, makes a trip to Svaneti well worth the effort no matter how difficult it may be to get there.
The Svans are indigenous Georgians and speak their own language. Svanuri belongs to the Southern Caucasian language group known as Kartvelian. Svanuri broke away from the original proto-Georgian tongue to develop on lines of its own in the 19th century ВС. It has no alphabet and is mostly spoken at home and socially. Georgian is taught at school and used officially. Most people speak and understand Russian with varying degrees of fluency, but in this remote region, one wonders if it won't go the way of Italian in Rhodes. English will get you absolutely nowhere here.
The harsh climate and mountainous landscape of the region are the principal factors behind the Svanetian character. They are a proud, laconic people who find virtue in a certain austerity and stoicism. Vendettas and blood feuds between certain families and villages exist to the present day. Hunters and alpinists are the most respected members of the community. Although perhaps not as immediately gregarious as Georgians from other regions, the Svans are in no way remiss in the practice of traditional Georgian hospitality.
Because of the elevation of the region, wine is not served as frequently as a potent vodka made at home from yeast. As in other parts of Georgia, you'll come to know your hosts best during the drinking of toasts: a Svan who wears the traditional felt cap will never take it off except to drink the third toast of the night to St. George, whom some here revere above Christ. Before taking your leave you might hear the last toast of the night couched in the following terms: "I drink to your safe journey, and may every person on your road greet you as a mother and father."
At the same time the Svans are seen as strong but unsophisticated, speaking a 6th-century dialect of Georgian which is largely incomprehensible to the people of Kartli and Kakheti, and often disregarding the norms of law and order. It's also reckoned that between 1917 and 1925, 5% of the population (600 people) were killed in feuds, so now politeness is ingrained, and 'fool' is the strongest insult the Svans allow themselves.
The typical Svan name 'Kurdiani' actually means 'thief, although the family has in fact produced many well-known Tbilisi architects and artists. However, the Svans are for the most part very hospitable and friendly, and given the amazing beauty of the surrounding peaks, the clusters of defensive towers that dominate the villages, and the frescoes and icons of the churches, it is hardly surprising that these valleys are enticing an ever-increasing numbers of visitors.
Georgian authorities are looking to develop tourism in Svaneti, turning the region into a 'Switzerland in the Caucasus', complete with reliable air access, ski slopes and modern hotels.
Lower Svaneti's administrative center is in the town of Lentekhi, at an elevation of 800 meters. Although the entire province possesses spots of great natural beauty, Lower Svaneti is not a place where a traveler without an inexhaustible amount of time should bother going. There are very few of the famous Svanetian towers in this region, and the Lower Svans themselves refer to the Upper Svans as Gvidam Svan, their version of "the Real McCoy."
Upper Svaneti is most famous for its 11th-century watchtowers and superb mountains. Among the tallest are Mt. Ushba (4,700 meters), Mt. Tetnuldi (5,007 meters), and Mt. Shkhara (5,068 meters); at least ten mountains in the region are higher than Mont Blanc. Alpinists are the most frequent visitors here, and Upper Svaneti has produced some of the most famous climbers in Georgia. Mikheil Khergiani, known as the Lion of the Rock, was considered the first citizen of Mestia. After his death as a result of a climbing accident in the Dolomites in 1969, his house in Mestia was turned into a museum. (By the way, Mikheil's father Beknu climbed Mt. Elbrus in 1943 and the took down the Nazi flag that Hitler's Edelweiss Corps had planted there when they advanced upon the Caucasus.)
Upper Svaneti has an eight-month winter, with the lowest temperature -32° С and an average of -15° С. Snow can reach two meters. In summer the average temperature is 25° Сduring the day and 7-10° С at night. June is the beginning of the season and a wonderful time to go. Indeed, most touring and climbing is done in summer; the ferocious winters feature often impassable roads and frequent avalanches. You'll note small bird-house-like structures along many mountain roadsides. These memorials mark the spot where someone was killed in an accident. Inside the small stand is a picture of the victim along with glasses and a bottle of wine. Friends or relatives passing that way stop when so moved to drink in memory of their loved one.
The reverence for tradition and continuity has its physical manifestation in the medieval watchtowers and the family plots of land that dominate the villages and environs and contribute to the tenor and tempo of this virtually feudal way of life. The towers were constructed primarily as a defense against the invading Northern Caucasian tribes, the Kabardians and Balkars. More than 200 towers are found in Mestia alone, the last having been built in the 19th century. Potatoes and beans are the staple agricultural product, and entire families can often be seen bent double over hoes. Most fruit, with the exception of citrus, also grow here. Stock-breeding is also an essential occupation, and the alpine and subalpine belts provide rich pasture lands primarily for cattle.
Upper Svaneti itself is subdivided into two regions by the Bal mountain range. The people of the Upper Bal have never known a ruler; they have a reputation as one of the proudest and most independent peoples in Georgia. This region is said to serve as the sanctuary for many important icons from the central districts of Georgia, supposedly brought here to protect them from the Moslem forces that have invaded Georgia many limes throughout her history, and many of them remain in private homes. The people of the Upper Bal remain tight-lipped on this subject.
Svaneti also has a rich church-art heritage of its own, with many of the tiny village churches boasting frescoes 1000 years old.
In recent decades many Svans have moved to Tbilisi and southeast Georgia in search of a less difficult lifestyle. Tourism is one hope the region has for economic improvement. Svan food tends to be less elaborate than other varieties of Georgian cuisine, but can be delicious.
Typical dishes are chvishdari (cheese cooked inside maize bread) and kubdari (minced meat in a khachapuri-type pie).
The Svaneti Mountain Tourism Centre (www.svanetitrekking.ge; Stalin 7, Mestia), an NGO set up to develop locally based tourism in Svaneti, can provide accommodation in Mestia and several other villages (35 GEL per person, full board), plus hiking guides (50 GEL per day), foreign-language guides (30 GEL to 40 GEL per day), horses (20 GEL per day) and vehicle transport within Svaneti. The office in Mestia is open erratic hours and may only have Russian and Georgian speakers available, so allow a day or two to make any arrangements, or contact the staff in advance. The website is an excellent source of Svaneti information.
Mestia is the administrative capital of Svaneti, at an altitude of 1400m, is a conglomeration of at least 10 neighbourhoods, with old buildings and typical Svan towers mixed in among drabber Soviet-era structures. Mestia has around 3,700 inhabitants. Lying on the banks of two rivers, the Enguri and the Mulakhi, the town is reminiscent of an Austrian village where the peaks of the surrounding snow-capped mountains seem so deceptively close that a short stroll could bring you to the top. The Enguri is connected to the legend of the Golden Fleece and Jason's journey to Colchis to obtain it. Svanetian practitioners still exist who know a gold-prospecting technique described by Strabo as early as the first century AD. The technique entails putting a sheep fleece into the river to trap the flecks of gold being carried down from the mountains. It is believed that just such a fleece, covered in gold, was brought down from these mountains, along archaeologically proven trade routes, as an offering to the Colchian King Aeetes in his palace along the Phasis River.
Mestia has no ATM, but many shops will change cash euros or US dollars. Six hundred metres south from the central square, across two bridges, you’ll find Mestia’s excellent Museum of History & Ethnography (10am-5pm Tue-Sun).
Despite security problems, the Svans are reluctant to see their amazingly rich treasury of religious items moved from the villages, but this museum’s collection is comprehensive, and labelled in English as well as Georgian, so it’s the best place to get an overall idea of the glories of Svanetian art. The exhibit includes a historic collection of 1890s Svaneti photos by Italian Vittorio Sella, and a hall with reproductions of famed Svaneti church murals, but the highlight is the two-room treasury: here you can see a 12th-century Persian silver jug given to Svaneti by Queen Tamar; a number of beautifully illuminated gospels from the 9th to 13th centuries; and golden altar crosses and chased-metal icons of amazingly high quality from the 10th to 14th centuries.
One rare 11th-century icon shows St George spearing the emperor Diocletian instead of his usual dragon. The 12th-century
icon of the Forty Martyrs (who died by drowning) has a highly unusual modern quality; this piece is not Svanetian, rather it is thought to be from central Georgia.
GETTING THERE & AWAY
Getting to Mestia is an adventure in itself. The five- or six-hour marshrutka or jeep trip from Zugdidi travels through increasingly spectacular scenery as it runs up the Enguri valley, then the Mulkhura valley. From Tbilisi you can take an overnight train that gets you into Zugdidi at 5.30am, in time to catch a marshrutka to Svaneti the same morning. Alternatively, there’s a 6am marshrutka that goes from in front of Tbilisi’s main train station all the way to Mestia (11 to 12 hours). Get there by 5.30am to ensure a seat. Returning, a marshrutka leaves Mestia at 5am or 6am daily to Zugdidi and Tbilisi. There may be others later but you can’t depend on it.
The jeep roads from Mestia to Ushguli and from Ushguli to Lentekhi in Kvemo Svaneti (via the 2623m Zagar Pass) can be blocked for weeks in December, January and February, but the Zugdidi–Mestia road is normally kept open all year.
Mestia has an airstrip about 1km east of town. Flights have been an on-off affair but may have restarted by the time you go.