6 Reasons to Visit Svaneti – Georgia’s Undiscovered and Unrivaled Mountain Region (video)
Svaneti is a ravishing UNESCO-listed mountain region of Georgia, home of the self-sufficient Svan people, whose traditions and culture have survived for thousands of years, thanks to the region’s remoteness. Tell anyone down in the capital that you’re on your way to Svaneti and they get a far-away look in their eyes and admit they wish they could go with you.
As untouched as it has been until now, Svaneti is beginning incrementally to change and modernize. The time to visit is now, before these changes sweep away the rituals and practices perfectly suited to an isolated and challenging environment.
Here are 6 reasons Svaneti is an unrivaled favorite – in Georgia, and among discerning travelers:
- Mountain Magic
- UNESCO-listed Medieval Watchtowers
- Moving Music
- Fabulous Cuisine
- Wonderful People
- Modern Changes
1. Mountain Magic
The first thing you need to know is that it’s unbelievably beautiful – the kind of beauty you need to experience for yourself. It’s not simply visual, it’s all-encompassing.
On an October morning in Mestia, chilled air rolls down from the high snowfields and picks up whiffs of woodsmoke along the way. An errant cow ambles fancy-free up the street, the snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains catch the early sun like blades of amber in the distance, and the leaves on the grapevines and persimmon tree in the yard turn to flame. Down the way several 80-foot stone watchtowers peer over the trees.
Here’s a glimpse of what you see as you drive up the winding road into the Caucasus Mountains and through the steep-sided Inguri River Gorge toward Svaneti. You think the scenery can’t get any more gorgeous, and then you round the next bend, and it does.
2. Medieval Stone Watchtowers
There are hundreds of them up here, sticking up above the villages to afford a clear view of ancient enemies, enemies who could be your neighbors. Made of stone in medieval times and topped with slate, they have stood upright through centuries of avalanche and flood, protecting their families, as well as the treasures of the rest of the country, which were laboriously hauled up here for safekeeping when times were bad.
You can tour one of these 12th century watchtowers, connected by a passageway to a stone peasant house, or machubi. Typically the machubi was built around a central room with carved wooden stalls for cattle and livestock on three sides.
A family group of twenty could live in such a house, with sleeping quarters above the cattle for warmth. Fodder and foodstores would be kept in the nearby watchtower. The seat of honor, nearest the fire, was reserved for the elder.
3. Moving Music
Georgia has one of the oldest and most exciting polyphonic vocal traditions in Europe. Developing independently of Western European rules of harmony, Georgian vocal music has been passed down by ear for hundreds of years – possibly since the 5th century BC. Its tuning system is based on fifths rather than octaves, giving its choral music a rich yet slightly discordant sound (to western ears). The traditional structure of these old songs incorporates one voice singing the high part, one in the middle and the rest taking the low droning part.
Each of Georgia’s ethnic regions has its own typical harmony and way of singing. In Svaneti, the songs are startlingly moving, and can give you goose bumps.
A famous Svanetian song, sung in the complex polyphony of the region, is floating around in space. A recording of Chakrulo, a song of resistance against oppression sung at ceremonies and festivities, was launched into space with Voyager I in 1977, along with other vital information about the humans of Earth.
In 2008, the polyphonic choral music of Georgia was elevated to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
4. Fabulous Cuisine
Books have been written about Georgian hospitality and the abundance and savor of its food and wines. Georgians believe that travelers are sent by God, and they treat them accordingly.
The table is covered with plates of delicacies balanced on top of each other – chicken in crushed walnut sauce, khachapuri (a savory cheese pie), puff pastries, little meat dumplings called khinkali, salads and marinated vegetables, just to name a few.
5. Wonderful People
Self-sufficient, industrious, life-loving, unpretentious mountain people, the Svans are descended from dashing dagger-carrying warriors whose crimson coats were studded with pockets for bullets. The Svan people had defied conquerors since medieval times, finally capitulating to imperial Russian rule – at least in name – around 1853.
Unreachable by car until 1935 when the cart track from the town of Zugdidi was widened to allow car traffic, Svaneti has maintained its own way of life for centuries. The Svan language, 1,000 years older than Georgian, is dying out, but their traditional music and dance are being salvaged.
There are so few international travelers in Svaneti that a feast for visitors is a special occasion, and an excuse to invite an acclaimed vocal group to join the merrymaking. The singers are happy to take part in such a joyous, and delicious, affair.
6. Modern Changes
Svaneti is beginning to modernize, however slowly. Its medieval stone towers keep their watch through the long alpine winter and the short, blooming summer, but interlopers have been moving in, including a new police station in Mestia that vaguely echoes the towers in preformed concrete with big curvy windows.
An up-to-date ski resort, Tetnuldi, opened near Mestia in February 2016, with three chairlifts and diverse trails ranging from 5,250 to 10,400 feet in elevation. Heli-skiing is available as well. It won’t be long before many more travelers will be arriving in the secluded villages and valleys of Svaneti. The time to visit is now.
Travel to Svaneti with MIR
You can also experience Georgia on a small group tour:
- You can sample the food, song and scenery of Svaneti and gorgeous Georgia on MIR’s A Taste of Georgia: Wine, Cuisine & Culture.
- Explore Svaneti and the remote mountain region of Tusheti, a place where very few international travelers manage to go: Village Traditions of the South Caucasus.
- Travel and tour around Georgia and the other South Caucasus countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan, on Treasures of the South Caucasus.
You can also opt to travel on your dates and at your pace on MIR’s private independent trip, Essential Georgia & Armenia, or on a handcrafted private journey of Georgia, customized to your desired dates and style.
Top photo: Ushguli, at nearly 8,000 feet in Svaneti, Georgia. Photo credit: Paul Schwartz
PUBLISHED: March 3, 2016