Samegrelo-Upper Svaneti

SAMEGRELO

Tropical summers, mild winters, exotic fruit, spicy dishes and unforgettable hosts – Samegrelo is one of those places it can be hard to leave.

Also known as Mingrelia or Mengrelia, this western region, warmed and watered by the Black Sea, is home to the Megrelians, a distinctive sub group of Georgians who have their own language. The region is divided into a low-lying wetland around the major seaport of Poti and a hilly northern section, guarding the approaches to Svaneti.

The humid streets of Zugdidi, Samegrelo’s main city, house some of the country’s best cooks. Megrelian food, much more spicy than in the rest of Georgia, includes dishes that almost taste like curry such as Bazhe and Satsivi, as well as maize and cheese sticky goodness called Elargi, and a local variant of Khatchapuri. Along with sampling the local specialties, no visit to Zugdidi is complete without a trip to the Dadiani Palace Museum. Housed in an extraordinary neo-gothic pile, the museum displays the collection of the Dadiani family, the former Dukes of Samegrelo. Along with swords, guns, antiquarian books and a shawl believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary, the museum also contains one of only three copies of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask. The mask found its way to Georgia after Napoleon’s nephew married into the Dadiani family.

The impressive ruins of Nokalakevi lie by the river Tekhuri, on the northern edge of the Colchian plain in Samegrelo. The fortress is located 15 km from the town of Senaki on the Martvili road. The site was known to the Byzantine historians as Archaeopolis, and to the neighboring Georgian chroniclers as Tsikhegoji, or the fortress of Kuji – a semi-mythical Colchian ruler or “Eristavi”.

The Kolkheti National Park is just outside the town of Poti, and was established as a national park between 1998-99. Over half the park, 15,742 hectares, consists of wetlands.

The Park was opened to tourists in 2007 and offers a wide range of tours from diving and bird watching to hiking and horse-riding.

UPPER SVANETI

The highest permanently inhabited place in Europe, Svaneti truly has to be seen to be believed.

Svaneti is real highland territory, with several peaks rising to over 5000 meters, and some of the most challenging mountaineering anywhere in the world. In spite of the altitude, the warm, wet winds flowing from the nearby Black Sea moderate the climate, making for pleasant summers and surprisingly mild winters. Lower in the deep valleys, this moisture produces what is known as a temperate rainforest, and in the highlands the mountain slopes are covered with pines and hornbeams.
But aside from the stunning natural beauty, the region’s real treasure is the culture of its people – the Svans. With their own language, related to but distinct from Georgian, their own ancient traditions and crafts, and their immense sense of honor, Svans have always been a proudly independent people.
Reflecting their pride and independence, many Svans today still live in medieval towers, of which thousands survive. These towers, some with foundations dating back a millennium, were used to protect families in time of war, and some still house ancient treasures, brought up to Svaneti hundreds of years ago to guard them from invaders. Indeed, Svaneti’s museums boast world class collections of icons, religious manuscripts and jewellery.
The combination of awe inspiring scenery and jaw dropping medieval architecture is why Svaneti is a UNESCO world heritage site, but there is much more to this amazing region. The interiors of many ancient Svan towers now boast wireless internet and cutting edge technology. Svaneti is also becoming a major tourist centre with dozens of hotels and guesthouses, some offering you the chance to stay in a fortress.

In spite of the pace of development in Svaneti the Svans remain devoted to their ancient traditions – especially hospitality. To be a host in Svaneti is an honor, and guests are treated with huge respect and warmth. Visitors are toasted with locally brewed vodka and feasted with delicious, fresh mountain food. For the Svans, friendship is a sacred bond, but in this land of mountains and towers it is a bond every visitor is happy to make.

Svaneti is host to the highest mountains in Georgia, and several of the highest mountains in Europe. Shkhara is Georgia’s highest mountain at 5,201, but the twin-peaked pillar of rock Ushba (4710 meters) is the most dramatic mountain in the area and considered one of the most difficult mountains to climb in Europe.

The history of Svaneti stretches back into the times of myth, and the area may even be the true home of the Golden Fleece. The ancient state of Colchis, to which Svaneti belonged, was the fabled home of the Fleece until Jason stole it. But rather than stealing the fleece, what Jason may have been looking for was a method of panning for gold still used today in Svaneti. By fixing a sheep’s fleece to a wooden support and leaving it in one of Svaneti’s fast flowing mountain streams, particles of gold collect in the wool. The fleece is then dried and burned, leaving a solid lump of gold. This ancient technology, still practiced in Svaneti to this day, could be the truth behind the legend of the Golden Fleece.

Whatever the truth behind the legend, Svaneti has been an independent, unique place for millennia. The Svan language, the ancestor of which ordinary Georgian diverged from at least three thousand years ago, is incomprehensible to other Georgians, and Svans are proud of their distinctness.

Although Svaneti is home to over seventy churches, some of which are decorated with extraordinary frescoes from the 11th and 12th centuries, some local festivals and rituals still include elements from the pagan, pre-Christian past. Svaneti is also a treasury of sacred objects. During times of invasion and danger, of which there have been more than a few in Georgia’s history, icons, crown jewels, manuscripts and other precious things were sent for safe keeping from the lowlands up to Svaneti – a land where no invader stood a chance. Today, this has resulted in the remote valleys having world-class collections of religious art. The museums in Ushguli and Mestia exhibit the best of this extraordinary collection.

Most visitors to Svaneti will want to see Mestia, the region’s capital, and Ushguli, the highest village in Europe. Mestia is the staging post for most trips to Svaneti, with a range of hotels and guesthouses, as well as local travel services; Mestia is a convenient base for exploring the area. From the centre of the town it is possible to hike up to the glaciers at the foot of mount Ushba, or take horses up to pristine alpine meadows. A new ski resort makes it possible to ski or snowboard even in the height of summer.

Mestia also contains the amazing History and Ethnography Museum, which houses a unique collection of icons, manuscripts and metalwork, testament to Svaneti’s place as a sanctuary for the treasures of Georgia. Also worth visiting is the Margiani Family Dwelling Complex, which recreates what life was like in Svaneti for hundreds of years. The complex consists of a typical Svan house and watchtower. The tower, angled towards the slope of the nearby mountain so as to withstand avalanches and landslides, and the house with its dining room/cow shed, show just how dangerous and hard life was here.

At 2200 meters above sea level, Ushguli is the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 45-kilometer road from Mestia is stunningly beautiful, with breathtaking views of Ushba and Shkhara, as well as the lovely villages of Kala and Ipari en route. Ushguli itself is a collection of four smaller villages, all of them made up of four or five story towers. There is superb hiking and climbing in the area, as well as possibilities for horse riding and mountain biking. Accommodation in one of Ushguli’s fortresses can be booked in Mestia.