MESTIA AND USHGULI
As a mountainous, adventurous country, Georgia hides many surprises. In the remotest part of Europe, the Svaneti region is one such delight. Svaneti is home to the proud and chivalrous Svans. Surreal is a word that best matches the experience of exploring Svaneti. Steep and snowy peaks, glaciers, fierce defence towers, mystical towns, wine and ancient traditions are all present. This is a true travel frontier, Svaneti is slowly getting recognized as a wild and untamed destination. It is truly vital that this region is preserved, therefore the whole of Svaneti is on UNESCO's World Heritage list. Mestia being the capital of Svaneti, is a base for explorers of the region. Especially Ushguli is a favourite spot to visit for a day or a couple more. The region is easiest accessible via Zugdidi in western Georgia, on the border of Abkhazia. Zugdidi can easily be reached by train from Batumi with a switch in Samtredia or Kutaisi and directly from Tbilisi. There are also buses available from Batumi, Kutaisi and Tbilisi.
Zugdidi has several city hotels along the main boulevard that offer decent and comfortable rooms at good rates. There are a couple of restaurants and plenty of ATM's in town as well. It is a good base from where to start your trip to Svaneti. From Zugdidi on, the only way to reach Mestia is by bus or private transport. Since a couple of years there is a high-quality road that gets you all the way up to Mestia in just a couple of hours. Right in front of Zugdidi's train station, buses for Mestia leave from very early in the morning once they are full. There are only a couple a day, it is best to ask bus drivers in front of the station for the latest updates. The train/bus station is a kilometre and a half from the center.
The trip to Mestia is smooth and there might be a stop for some drinks or food on the way. Be sure to pack at least some water as the trip lasts a couple of hours. Mestia has recently been completely renovated. It looks beautiful but its antiquity is only found outside the center, where watchtowers still stand strongly. The central square is modern and cosy - however the real Svaneti where time never seems to have existed, is nested in the deep into the mountains and vin other villages.
Guesthouses in Mestia are plentiful, meaning that you should move on when one does not meet your wishes. Some are very well maintained and renovated and others are ill-equipped and old. As choice is sufficient, you can always look around and come back to one you like best. There are only a few restaurants in town and a couple of shops. Everything is at hand, just be sure you already have the right shoes for rough terrains. Excursions can be booked from a restaurant on the central square, they have a big sign outside. The hostess provides all information for the excursion, which leaves early in the morning. Mestia - Ushguli can take upto 3,5 hours. First, 15 kilometres are paved and the rest is potholed but not as bad as it seems. The 45 kilometres will be traversed quickly as the landscape is simply breathtaking. In Ushguli, the driver typically waits for the group to return to the small restaurant at the beginning of the village. Normally, a daytrip is done and this gives you the chance to see the center and the ancient church above the village. Air is scarce at 2.410 metres so it might take a little more effort to make basic hikes.
The village has plenty to offer for a busy and interesting day. The church on the village's end is worth a visit and so is the ethnographic museum in the center. Children at the door will receive you with open arms and after a small entrance fee they tell you all about the historic artifacts in this original Svan house. As the children speak English well enough, this visit will let you better understand the region and the daily way of life.
Ushguli's most stunning asset is the gorgeous backdrop, Shkhara mountain is one of the highest Caucasian summits. After feeling like you stepped out of time in Ushguli, the Shkhara glacier is 8 kilometres away. The hike on mostly flat, accessible terrain, will take about 7 - 8 hours return. Of course it is best to spend the night in town in case you'd like to see it - as hurrying will not benefit your experience. Small streams of ice cold water will have to be traversed so be sure to have the appropriate shoes. The glacier is gorgeous and so are the views along the way. As I stayed in Ushguli only for a daytrip, I have not made it to the glacier and pictures are not included. It seems to be most beautiful to visit in June, when spring flowers decorate the view and spread their fresh aroma.
Guesthouses are available and all you need to do is ask the first passer-by. As there are more animals than people in Ushguli, one knows all and the people are very hospitable and happy to help you further. Spending the night in Ushguli is an unforgettable experience, this village is the highest in all of continental Europe. Its remote location makes for a silent night and the stars must be bright in the sky. The fresh mountain air will have you exhausted before dawn and having some Georgian wine with your hosts must be lovely.. I will definitely return for more of Svaneti.
First-hand advice? Discuss your trip?