After 18 days in the country, we found the best of Georgia! The area which enchanted us more was the province of Svaneti, in the northeast of the country. We saw almost untouched nature, mountains, lakes and rivers. But, besides the green, the province has many UNESCO World Heritage sites too. Its villages have survived all this time to tell its history, even if the narrative is in Georgian, Russian or in the local dialect, as only few people are able to speak English!
Svaneti is so remote that amongst all the invasions Georgia had throughout its history, no one has ever reached there. Probably, that is the reason why the Svan people (as the local population is known for) kept its traditions almost untouched. The Svans have their own gastronomy, dance, culture and even own dialect.
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On the other hand though, their region sees a vendetta police since long time ago, which did not guarantee peace entirely for the villagers. It was common (and as the legend says, it still is) for families to fight each other and dispute territories.
The historical medieval towers stand out from the exuberant landscape. It was (is) there where families hide in the during conflicted periods. Each clan has its tower and, during these periods, they bring their animals and food inside while staying at the top floor battling with another family or possible invaders.
During Georgian times of mayhem, when there were war conflicts with other nations, the Svans stopped any conflicts amongst them in order to protect themselves of a possible invasion. Even the families which were not fond of each other understood the importance of unify and strengthen themselves and to be in peace until the country passes through this instability.
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Ushguli – the most distant one of the villages
A specific place, particularly, caught our attention: Ushguli, a set of 4 small villages (Zhibiani, Chubiani, Chazhashi and Murqmel) practically isolated. Only the Caucasian mountains separate the 70 families who live there from Russia. The best description we read about ushguli was: “A remote village, from a remote province, in a remote country”. It can’t get any more isolated than that!
By the way, Ushguli is the highest village inhabited longest in Europe and it is at the bottom of Shkhara mountain, the third biggest of the continent – we still have not found a consensus about Georgia being part of Europe or of Asia, but as most of the Georgians consider themselves as Europeans, we will deal with the topic in that way.
How to get to Svaneti
Leaving from the capital Tbilisi, you take a train (18GEL) or a marshrutky (minivans which serve as Georgian public transport) to the city of Zugdidi (330Km). From there, you just have to take another marshrutky to the capital city of Svaneti, Mestia (130Km for 20GEL).
Mestia is the city with the best infrastructure for tourism in the region (there are many guest houses, restaurants, tourist information points and so on). From there, it gets easier to decide what you would like to do around Svaneti.
Mestia alone is already worth seeing as it is very charming and has many trekking options.
From Mestia to Ushguli there are about 44Km and you can do this route by a few different means:
You can hire a private tour;
take a marshrutky (20GEL);
rent a car and drive yourself (like we did on our second visit to Ushguli);
or go by trekking, which takes about 4 days, stopping at the local villages to sleep.
Many people opt for walking to Ushguli and the view is exuberant! Along the way you will find villages to spend the night for the price of 45GEL, with dinner, breakfast and a lunchbox for take-away included in the price.
Hitchhiking on the way
For those adept of the good and old hitchhiking, just like us, it is possible to do it all the way from Tbilisi to Ushguli.
Once you arrive in Ushguli, you can find accommodation in any of the few hotels. But, you can also simply walk through the city and wait for some of the old villagers to offer you a bed and breakfast for about 15/20 GEL. It is something that would make the staying a lot more authentic.
It does not matter the way you choose to get to this Georgian remote region as long as you do not give up on arriving! The landscape on the way is breathtaking and the Georgian hospitality pays off all the effort. Surely, it is one of the most charming regions we have ever been to and one of the most special ones in Georgia.