The isolated Svaneti region of northern Georgia is as beautiful as it is remote. True to the traditions of the Caucasus, its inhabitants have always been independent-minded, and for centuries frustrated outside attempts at control with the help of the sturdy defensive towers that still punctuate its hillsides.
Yet today Svaneti is a place with a sense of peace that is a far cry from the breakaway Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan to the northeast. Locked under snow for much of the year, in summer defiant green hillsides emerge as if new-made by the thaw, and the bright white meadow flowers echo and amplify the snows on the peaks of the Greater Caucasus mountains all around.
The village of Ushguli, sitting at the head of the Inguri gorge, with Georgia’s highest peak, Mount Shkhara, as the backdrop, claims to be Europe’s highest inhabited spot, at 2300m above sea level.
Actually a collection of four tiny villages, Ushguli is home to just seventy families. It is reachable only by 4WD – it’s two hours from Mestia, the town where most visitors stay, which is two hours from Zugdidi, where the overnight train from Tbilisi stops. Svan drivers take bends at high speed, and the roads are lined with shrines. But the journey is one worth braving.
Walking, biking, or horseriding out from Ushguli or Mestia gives stunning views of alpine valleys, deep gorges and distant peaks.
The walk from Mestia to the Ushba glacier is particularly memorable: starting in gentle alpine forest, you pass guards inspecting passports on the route north to Russia, and end by scrambling over a post-apocalyptic landscape of raw black rock before finally arriving at a unique picnic spot – a crack in the rock and ice that is deep enough to sit in, sited just below the final scramble to the mouth of the glacier.
Svaneti’s welcoming homestays offer unstinting hospitality, including enormous meals of home-made delicacies like khinkali (light meat dumplings in pleated dough), home-made yogurt and honey, and aubergine with walnuts.
Crammed round the family table with visitors from around the world, it is easy to feel like travellers from an earlier century thrown together in some untouched spot. For now, that is just what this small corner of the Caucasus remains.