Tour in Georgia: Svaneti
Svaneti is a remote region inhabited by the Svans, clans of highlanders who speak their own Georgian-related language and who still use sheep fleeces to pan for gold from bubbling streams. It’s possibly from here that the legend of the Golden Fleece originated.
Feuding between Svan clans was also legendary, and it seems that the distinctive Svan towers in which villagers could take refuge served to protect the Svan communities from each other as well as from invading forces. The very difficult terrain made Svaneti much more resistant to invasions than the rest of Georgia, and that helped to preserve many ancient buildings – most notably churches from the days of King David the Builder, some of them with vivid frescoes painted by the royal artist Tevdore. Most Svan churches seem to be simple, stone-built single-nave basilicas dating from the 8th-14th centuries.
What to see
Visit Lamaria, a 12th century church on top of Skhara mountain, and Ushguli (47 km east of Mestia), which at 2200m claims to be the highest village in Europe and is famed for its stone towers.
Where to stay
Mestia is the largest Svan village and is in many ways the centre of Svaneti. As independent travel is particularly difficult in Svaneti, most people will have had their accommodation arranged for them. However, accommodation in one of the houses in Mestia can be booked direct through Nana Nijaradze (953139) – recommended as offering conformable beds, hot showers and good food. Nana Nijaradze can also arrange more basic accommodation in Ushguli.
The shops at Mestia are reported to be well-stocked – you might even be able to buy camera film there.
The Museum of History and Ethnology at Mestia contains coins from the Colchis, Byzantine and Macedonian civilisations, and 10th- and 11th-century Georgian relics. Mestia is also home to the Mikheil Khergiani Museum, a house that belonged to an outstanding Svan mountaineer.
Getting to Svaneti
Mestia can be reached by road (up the Inguri river from Zugdidi) or by air (helicopter or microlight aircraft, from Kutaisi). The terrain in Svaneti makes transportation so difficult that it was not until 1935 that a car entered the region.
Safety in Svaneti
Because of many Svans’ suspicion of strangers, independent travel in Svaneti is inadvisable – uninvited strangers, including foreign travellers, seem to be seen by some Svans as legitimate targets for robbery.
Further adventure tours in Georgia:
Hiking in Borjomi National Park
Hiking in Mount Kazbek