Svaneti. When I first got to Georgia in January to teach English, many Georgians told me the second place I needed to visit, after the holy-land of Mtskheta, were the mountains. From police officers to market venders, they all said the same thing: “Go to Svaneti!” What I later learned, is that most Georgians have never been there themselves.
In all of the guidebooks and on every internet site I visited before the trip I read how difficult it was to get there, especially if you don’t have a car. I understood how for many Georgians this could be challenging. Soon after my research into the trip began, however, I discovered a flight from Tbilisi to Mestia, the largest city in the region. That seemed easy enough.
After over two weeks of trying to buy tickets, talking to multiple travel agencies and finally having someone who speaks Georgian call the airline itself, my friend and I were able to purchase tickets. Seventy-five lari, one-way, for the one hour flight into the mountains.
We left on a Friday at 10:00 A.M. As I sat on the bus out to the runway looking at the many airplanes we were passing, I started to think for the first time how small this plane was going to be. Seventeen passengers, a pilot and a co-pilot. It was small! There were five rows of seats with one seat on the left and two on the right and two random seats at the back of the plane. I got to sit by the window and was able to get some amazing pictures as we were flying.
Somewhere during the flight instead of looking down at everything, the mountains appeared and I had to look up to see the peaks. One hour after take-off we landed in Mestia. The village is situated in a valley with grass covered hills on all sides and the Caucasus peaking out behind. It was beautiful.
I had heard about the hospitable people in Svaneti and found everything to be true. We stayed in a friend’s home stay with her host family and they could not have been more welcoming. Although one night we were there, there were eighteen people staying in the house, we each had our own room. We were also given three excellent Georgian meals a day! I had made a list of Svanetian foods to try while I was there and I got to try all of them. As a vegetarian I was a little worried, but there was hardly ever any meat served.
The family had two cows that were milked twice a day. From the milk, cheese was made everyday which meant that there was no shortage of khachapuri! My biggest thrill was getting to milk the cow one night! I went to the barn and watched our host bring the cows in for their dinner, which consisted of all the left over food products, like cucumber peels and tomato innards. A completely organic diet! Amazing! She set the wooden stool down next to the first cow and got to work. She was so efficient. She let me try with the second cow and I had a hard time. It’s hard work! I had no idea how hard you have to pull in order to get the milk out. But by the time I was finished I had kind of gotten the hang of it, but I was no where near as good as she was.
There was also a garden, where much of the food came from, chickens that laid many eggs, a rooster that woke me up every morning at about 5:30 A.M. and a cat and her four kittens, who lived in the top of the barn. It was truly a farm. After living in Tbilisi for the last seven months, it was great to be out of the city and to see how Georgians in the villages live.
On Sunday, we took a little road trip up into the mountains to a village called Ushguli. Ushguli is the highest continuously inhabited village in Europe, or so they claim. The village sits at about 2200 meters or 7200 feet above sea level and the mountains surround it as well. The road from Mestia to Ushguli leaves a lot to be desired. It is unpaved and often times required driving through a stream or rushing river. There were remnants of landslides and huge rocks and pot holes in the road. There were also bridges with gates that had to be opened and closed by each car that passed through.
The village of Ushguli is thought to date back to the 4th century and there are many towers still standing from around the 9th century. These towers, which Svaneti is famous for, were built for defensive purposes. The ground floor was for the livestock, mostly cows, the second floor for the family and the top of the tower was used as a lookout station for invaders. These towers, which can be found all over Svaneti, are works of art.
It was truly a unique experience to visit Svaneti. I bought local honey, saw a watermelon taking a bath (with no fridge, the ice cold water that comes from the tap serves as refrigeration), tried the mineral water (I’m not a fan!), went “fishing” in a stream (meaning I stood in the stream looking for fish to catch with my hands, but none came!), found a bear cave (which was thankfully empty!) and saw more stars in one sky than I have ever seen before. The Georgians do know what they are talking about when they say, “Go to Svaneti!”