The historical mountain area in the north of Georgia is an increasingly frequent destination for tourists, climbers and skiers.
In the heart of Upper Svaneti lies the city of Mestia, which can be reached by an asphalt road from Zugdidi. The nearest airport is Kutaisi or a bigger one in Tbilisi. There is also a small airport in Mestia, but only for local flights. The terminal building is a masterpiece of the Berlin architect J. Mayer and tributes the surrounding traditional stone towers.
The previously isolated town is now experiencing a period of rapid development. Number of restaurants on the main street is growing, a supermarket has established 24/7 opening time, and there is also an ATM next to the modern town hall building. But cows lounging in every bit of shade on the sidewalk don't mind anything.
Taxi drivers seek for passengers to offer trips. The most visited destination is the village of Ushguli, which can only be reached by proper 4WD, although the work on the cultivation of the road continues quite intensively.
The main characteristict of Upper Svaneti are the typical defense towers that have been preserved for centuries. The oldest can be found in Ushguli and has been standing for over a thousand years. Svan families built them as residences that resisted attacks from the outside and also avalanches. Similar to the Italian vendetta, there were frequent blood vengeance between clans.
Numerous families lived in an unimaginably small space. In the summer months, they lived on the upper floor, where they stored hay supplies for the winter. This, together with the stabled animals, was a natural thermal insulation against the severe cold winter.
In Mestia, we can find several accessible towers adapted as a museum. We can also learn about ancient times in the local ethnographic museum. The inaccessible mountain region of Svanetia worked as a refuge during times of enemy raids. Precious religious icons were brought here from all over the country to be protected.
Full of impressions and new knowledge, let's enjoy a hike. Right above Mestia, enjoy a view of the unique panorama of the city. Among the stone towers, the colorful metal roofs of residential buildings and the growing number of hotels shine through.
Climb quite steeply at first, later you can choose between a gentler path passable by jeeps and a steep, sometimes muddy shortcut. We can reach the cross quite easily and from the one-story shelter we can enjoy views of the whole of Mestia and the opposite Zuruldi ridge with the ski area. The view of the majestic of Ushba double peak opens up in the direction of our hiking.
In the house a above the cross, they have newly opened a snack bar with a panorama terrace, where you can refresh with a cold beer or hot coffee. Continue hiking to the lakes along a clearly visible jeep road.
The Koruldi lakes are shallow mountain lakes under the foot of another mountain. It is also possible to continue a little higher on footpaths in the scree. Return by the same route, or alternatively hike all the way to the airport and return through the valley.
The hike takes the whole day with some breaks and it can be quite hot in the summer, so remember to bring plenty of water, sunscreen and a snack.
The northern slopes of the Zuruldi ridge offer entertainment mainly in winter, when a small ski area with a modern cable car operates. Take it even in the summer and enjoy a walk along the ridge. Hatsvali middle station, where there is a decent pub, can also be reached by car.
Hiking from Mestia to Ushguli
The mountains of northern Georgia are beautiful and inviting for a multi-day hiking, where you can literally enjoy nature all day and night. The trekking from Mestia to Ushguli via Adishi has become very popular. The route is described in several websites and in some places even marked along the way. Accommodation can be found in local houses or in a tent in the campsites.
One of the alternatives also passes through the village of Khalde, located on one of the right tributaries of the Enguri River. Today we can find several houses and one small restaurant here. In the nineteenth century, the village with 11 Svan towers, 20 Machubi (stone houses) and 40 armed men fortified inside the buildings was the scene of a fierce resistance against the multiple superiority of the Russian army.
What would a trip to Svaneti be without a visit to the most famous historical village. With its medieval character and the largest number of typical Svan towers, Ushguli desserved to be listed in UNESCO. It is actually a group of four smaller villages Zhibiani, Chvibiani, Cazhashi and the lower Murkmeli, where the oldest towers can be found.
The road from Mestia is passable only in the summer by 4WD vehicles, but in recent years they have made significant progress with its reparation. The second alternative via the Zagaro pass (2623 m) may seem like a good idea in the map, but it is even worse.
Enjoy the medieval character of the streets in Ushguli especially after the rain, when the muddy streets are hard to walk through. Even so, one cannot overlook the modern advances that are being made in favor of tourists and that are slowly making the unique appearance to vanish. The colorful metal roofs of new hostels appear in the panorama of stone towers, and a transmitter has been built under the hill, so unlike previous years, there is full mobile data signal in the village.
The proud owners of historic dwellings are happy to guide curious tourists through their open-air museums and ethnographic museums. Before you sip a cold beer under the colorful umbrellas of one of the restaurants, enjoy one of sightseeing hikes.
Amazing views from the top
Directly above the village, you can climb to the top of the almost 3,000-meter ridge, from where you can enjoy wonderful views of the village, the surrounding mountains and the snow capped Bezengi ridge which forms the border with Russia. Expect to be accompanied by local dogs who will pretend to be guides and ask for a part of our snack when you reach the top. The trail continues along a long ridge, but it's enough return samy way.
Queen Tamara's fortress
The two ruined towers on the lower ridge on the other side of the village used to be the summer residence of Queen Tamara. The period of her rule at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries is considered a golden age of Georgia. The locals like to say that she is also buried here, but archaeologists have not proven anything.
You can take a footpath directly up the slope from Chazhashi, but it's hidden in vegetation. Ascending along the ridge from Murkmeli is easier to navigate. There are two towers, a defense wall, the remains of a chapel and lots of red raspberries. Views of the village are partly covered by tall trees.
Easy hike in the valley with Schara views
Georgia's highest mountain Schara (5193 m) is located on the border ridge with Russia and is also the third highest peak of the Caucasus Mountains. The glacier of the same name flows towards the south. It's is drained by the river Enguri. For most of its course, which ends in the Black Sea, it defines the border between Georgia and the region of Abkhazia.
From Ushguli, hike upstream and you can walk all the way to the bottom of the glacier. Enjoy the views of the glacier and the top of Schara.
The best time to visit Upper Svaneti is the summer months, when the snow has melted and the locals already have had time to repair the roads. Mountain nature and picturesque villages are definitely worth the trip.