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Introducing Svaneti

Impossibly beautiful, wild and mysterious, Svaneti is an ancient land locked in the greater Caucasus, so remote that it has never been tamed by any ruler, and even during the Soviet period it largely retained its traditional way of life. You need a minimum of three days to visit Svaneti (including one getting there and one getting out again), but if you can manage it, Svaneti is a must. Uniquely picturesque villages and snow-covered peaks rising over 4000m above flower-strewn alpine meadows offer marvelous walking opportunities. Svaneti’s emblem is the defensive stone tower, designed to house villagers at times of invasion and strife. Around 175 towers, most originally built between the 9th and 13th centuries, survive in Svaneti today.

Until recently Svaneti was rather unsafe, with armed robberies against tourists too common to ignore. It’s become a much safer place since 2004, when security forces shot dead the area’s leading robber baron and his son, and jailed several other thugs. We did still hear of two attempted armed robberies (one successful) against tourist groups in 2006, but the overall picture is much safer. It’s sensible to go with a local guide when you venture out on hikes, or at least get good local information first.

Svaneti’s isolation has meant that during the many murderous invasions of Georgia over the centuries, icons, art and other religious artefacts from elsewhere were brought here for safekeeping, and many of them remain in private homes. Svaneti also has a rich church-art heritage of its own, with many of the tiny village churches boasting frescoes 1000 years old. This mountain retreat is regarded by many as the most authentically Georgian part of the country, despite the fact that the Svans speak an unwritten language that broke away from Georgian some four millennia ago and is largely unintelligible to other Georgians.

Svaneti is divided into Upper (Zemo) and Lower (Kvemo) Svaneti. Upper Svaneti offers the best walking and climbing as well as the strongest traditions; it is very green, with subalpine forests of hornbeam, chestnut, spruce, pine and fir.

There are different species of wild goats, wolves, foxes and bears. The Svans mainly live by farming cattle, though they keep a breed of semiwild pig as well. In recent decades many Svans have moved to Tbilisi and southeast Georgia in search of a less difficult lifestyle. Tourism is one hope the region has for economic improvement.

Svan food tends to be less elaborate than other varieties of Georgian cuisine, but can be delicious.

Typical dishes are chvishdari (cheese cooked inside maize bread) and kubdari (minced meat in a khachapuri-type pie).

The Svaneti Mountain Tourism Centre (895 358049; www.svanetitrekking.ge; Stalin 7, Mestia), an NGO set up to develop locally based tourism in Svaneti, can provide accommodation in Mestia and several other villages (35 GEL per person, full board), plus hiking guides (50 GEL per day), foreign-language guides (30 GEL to 40 GEL per day), horses (20 GEL per day) and vehicle transport within Svaneti.

The office in Mestia is open erratic hours and may only have Russian and Georgian speakers available, so allow a day or two to make any arrangements, or contact the staff in advance. The website is an excellent source of Svaneti information.