Svaneti is a historic region of Georgia, high up in the Caucasus Mountains. We hear all about this land of picturesque mountain villages and friendly, yet fierce people, from our Travel Expert, Yulia!
“I dreamed of visiting the Svaneti long before I ever travelled to Georgia. Seeing the pictures of ancient medieval towers amongst stunning mountains looked incredibly mysterious and inspiring, and I couldn’t wait to see it someday….
This fall – that wish came true! On our Treasures of Georgia tour in September, we stayed in Mestia, the capital of the Svaneti region – and travelled up to the remote village of Ushguli – recognized by UNESCO as the highest inhabited settlement in Europe!
Our first stop, on our way to Ushguli was Mestia – a city of authentic medieval charm. In the fresh mountain air we explored this fascinating city, and learnt its history and culture from our local guide.
The land of Svaneti is beautiful, wild and mysterious. Home to blood feuds for centuries and centuries, the history of this land was not always a happy one. Svan tribes fought amongst themselves, and built defensive towers in each town and village which acted as small fortresses for protection.
These towers are now an iconic part of Svanetian history. The lower part of the tower – about two meters up from ground level – had neither windows nor doors. A small door was built at the level of the second or third floor, which needed a ladder to be accessed – useful if attackers were coming and you could pull up the ladder!
Above were the household and living floors, plus an observation platform at the top, which in the event of an attack or siege, the defenders could use to repel the intruders. Nowadays, some towers (they are called “cats” in Svanetia) have been turned into guesthouses – so tourists have the great opportunity to see them not only from the outside but also the inside. Of course, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see one for myself!
Of all the mountain ethnic groups of Georgia, only Svans built churches and painted icons. For many centuries Svaneti was, in fact, an isolated region that had minimal external influence. This led to the emergence of a unique and distinctive culture, which you can get a feel of at the Ethnographic Museum of Mestia. The museum presents a wide collection of weapons, pottery, and religious artifacts. You can also look at antique photographs taken by Italian Vittorio Sella showing the lives of the Svans at the end of the 19th century.
Next – we drove up into the Caucasus Mountains to Ushguli. We passed many beautiful scenes of the rocky mountains, and could see why the Svans were such a secluded people.
We stopped for pictures, coffee and to buy a local specialty –
– a must when you visit Svaneti!
It’s not just ordinary salt, but a mixture of salt, pepper, dried garlic and about FIFTEEN different spices, all grown in the mountains. The salt can be used in all kinds of meals, from soups to salads, vegetables and meat dishes – this is what makes much of Georgian cuisine so special and unique.
The story behind Svaneti salt is just as interesting.
Long ago, people had to climb the high mountains on foot, carrying all their possessions with them. Salt was heavy, expensive, and difficult to come by, so the local people came up with the idea of mixing the salt with the mountain herbs, which grew on the rocky slopes. This way everyone could have as much as they liked – by adding herbs to the salt they could get much more out of it.
They ended up liking the new salt so much, they decided to use it all the time!
Although civilization is evident here, in the form of several guest houses, cafes and even a museum, the first impression of Ushguli is of a very special, different world.
You feel like you are in one of the remotest villages in the world, a place far removed from anywhere you have ever been!
The central part of Ushguli is itself an open-air museum, with some of the buildings dating back over 1000 years. Here you can walk among the ancient stone houses and towers, immersing yourself in the life of the Svaneti, exactly as it was in the 10th century. The feeling of timelessness here was incredible – Ushguli truly feels like a time capsule, hidden away in the mountains of Georgia. Who knows what mysteries you may unearth here…
It is thanks to these incredible, ancient towers and buildings in Ushguli that Upper Svaneti was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Lastly, the 10th century church of St.Mary on the top of the hill is another impressive sight of Ushguli. Locals believe that King Tamar, who is the central figure in the history of the Svans, is buried under this church. You also get some incredible views of the snowy peak of the highest mountain in Georgia – Shhara – from this hill.
The feeling of wildness and the primordial, aswell as the intuition that many secrets are still undiscovered makes me want to return to Ushguli and Svaneti.
Join me next year on our Treasures of Georgia, and discover more of the mysteries of Svaneti.”
Blog Post by Yulia Kluskovska, our CFT Georgia Expert