Part of the charm (?) of a trip to Svaneti is the ungodly hour at which you must depart–apparently regardless of whether you leave from Tbilisi or Zugdidi, or if you take the public marshrutka or charter a private one. (Maybe the flights leave at a more decent hour, but given the reputation of flights in Georgia, I’m skeptical). Unfortunately, our tour guide missed the memo about our departure time (although he presumably had written said memo) and we ultimately departed at a reasonable hour after waiting for him for over an hour. Finally, after stopping to pick up a random family (on a chartered marshrutka–I don’t know) we were on our way to Svaneti! Huzzah!
And then we stopped at Martvili Canyon, which is actually a relatively interesting place, except for the fact that we had no idea what we were doing there, which hampered our enjoyment a bit. Nonetheless, it was a lovely location for a picnic lunch. We continued on, and then stopped again at the Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi. Once again this is a place with the potential to be interesting, but our visit didn’t go quite that way. I love a good museum tour, but ours was not. We didn’t get any stories or explanation of why the Dadianis were important. Rather, we were given a list of objects in the house as we walked past them: “Candlestick. Table. Painting. Library. Napoleon’s death mask–wait, what?.” (I’ve asked around about that death mask, and I haven’t really gotten much more information beyond that to share)
After departing Zugdidi, we were finally on our way into Svaneti and the mountains. We made a quick scenic overlook stop at the Jvari-Enguri Reservoir created by the Inguri dam, and to be honest it was one of the highlights of the trip. For those interested in such things, it’s the second highest concrete arch dam in the world, and while I’m not sure exactly what that means, I can tell you that it is an incredibly impressive structure. The reservoir was absolutely gorgeous, a huge body of stunningly clear turquoise water that looked like the Caribbean had been transplanted amidst the Caucasus mountains.
We continued along the road, which follows the Enguri river out of the reservoir and into the heart of Svaneti. Near the town of Khaishi, the Nenska river meets the Enguri, and from the bridge you can clearly see the confluence of the slate-colored Enguri and the turquoise Nenska as they roil and mix together. The road itself is new, and really quite good. It’s quality was similar to that of a mountain road in a US National Park–windy, but in decent repair. In fact, it was far less of a white-knuckle ride than the Georgian Military Highway. We arrived in Mestia after dark, and didn’t see much of the place, just a short wander in the evening and a photo walk in the morning. Seems like a nice enough town, and the fabled Svan towers do indeed exist. Even if you don’t have time to stop in the museum (we didn’t, though I’ve heard it’s very well-done), the view from the roof is worth a visit for lovely views of Mestia. That’s where almost all of my photos of Mestia are from.
We left right after breakfast for a trip to Ushguli, the highest-elevation village in Europe that is inhabited year-round, and home of more Svan towers. The road between Mestia and Ushguli is starting to get paved, and although there’s a long way to go, it has already made the trip faster than I’d heard it would be. It is, of course, a stunningly beautiful drive. One worthwhile pit-stop on the road is the Love Tower near the village of Ipari. Due to the lack of gender pronouns in Georgian, I’m a little unclear as to the specifics of the story of the Love Tower, but in short there was a boy from one village and a girl from another village (perhaps the villages were feuding, this is Svaneti), and there was a war. The girl promised to wait for the boy, but he never returned, nonetheless, she remained faithful to his memory. His/Her/Their father(s) built the Love Tower in his/her/their honor. It’s in a lovely location alongside the river, and for a 1 lari admission fee you can clambor about the tower, which is lots of fun!
It was rainy in Ushguli itself, but still lovely. We wandered around, looking at nothing in particular, and got very behind schedule.
On our trip, we glimpsed the iconic peak of Ushba out our marshrutka window, but not at an angle that allowed photographs, and saw the bottom of Shkhara, the highest point in Georgia, though most of it was wreathed in clouds, it was nonetheless beautiful and dramatic. The views of the mountains are one of the main attractions of Svaneti, and even though we were not blessed with perfect weather, the scenery was worth the trip. However, the rain which had turned into serious thunderstorms (people were actually killed when a road washed out in Imereti) led to an unpleasant drive from Mestia back to Tbilisi.
I offer you two take-aways from my trip to Svaneti: 1) It is beautiful and well worth a visit, particularly for more than 48 hours (including driving time) 2) Don’t hire the cheapest tour company you can find–though it does lead to an entertaining tale, it’s also rather stressful to always be behind schedule and clueless (I’ve left out some of the details for the sake of brevity and not being a whiner).