Towers of Stone
An exploration of the remote valleys and villages of the Upper Svaneti, from Mestia to Ushguli
As we drove along the winding mountain road towards Mestia, an eagle soared overhead, gliding majestically high above the ancient stone settlement nestled below. Back and forth, the powerful raptor swooped and dived gracefully, as if welcoming us into his domain. Far below the cliffs we traveled on, a mighty river roared through the valley, carving out a canyon that had been constantly changing shape for eons. Piercing the vivid blue sky were the mighty snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, which rise to unprecedented heights in Europe.
It was a humbling experience watching the eagle elegantly display his mastery of flight and dominance over these skies. Yet it was equally humbling to feel small surrounded by the sheer vastness and grandeur of these ancient landscapes - the soaring summits, the plunging river valleys, and expansive views in every direction. For so long we had yearned to explore the remote northern valleys and majestic peaks of Georgia's Caucasus Mountain region. Back in 2018, we had entered this ancient country for the first time, but without nearly enough time to venture into its most isolated highlands. This time, we were determined to change that. And if the first glimpse of the peaks with the eagle over head was any indication, we are in for a treat.
Welcome to the land of the Svaneti.
WHO ARE THE SVANETI?
The Svaneti is an ancient region situated on the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, highlighted by Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s tallest peak at 5,201 meters. Green, coniferous forests, deep gorges carved by rushing rivers and the sweeping views of the mountains are the landscapes that have come to define the region. The people who have made this harsh landscape as their home are known as the Svans. For thousands of years they have lived side by side with nature, forming a formidable bond that is still displayed today. The natural barrier between the Svans and the rest of Georgia has caused large portions of their history to be lost, but not without legend. Christianization came during the Byzantine Era of the 5th century, with ancient remnants of that era still in use. Genghis Khan in his nightmarish march west devastating Asia never reached the land of the Svans due to their remoteness, leading to a remarkably intact culture. But for this reason this area was known throughout history as a formidable place for foreigners to venture, where robberies were commonplace.
The Svaneti region in the last few decades have truly opened up for the first time in history, offering the intrepid explorer to glimpse their way of life and appreciate the grandeur of the mountains.
THE LAND OF STONE TOWERS
Perhaps what makes the Svaneti region so unique and mysterious are the medieval legacy of the Svans in the form of stone towers. Numerous towers of stone dot each of the villages of the Upper Svaneti, used originally for defensive purposes. During raids of enemies over the centuries, families hid themselves, cattle and belongings in the towers, hiding for weeks or months long. By no means was it comfortable, but it helped preserve the unique culture of the Svans.
All ventures to the region start in Mestia, the largest town in the Upper Svaneti, we were immediately struck by its atmosphere. After driving along winding cliffs, the stone towers and sloped rooftops appeared suddenly like a scene from a fairy tale. As we walked through the main square, we could feel the atmosphere was alive with excitement from other fellow travelers who made it out to this region as well. The center was no doubt touristy, though it changed suddenly when walking north a few blocks where we headed to 12th century Laghami Church, passing by modest farms with cows grazing. The church’s weathered stones contrasted beautifully with the snow-capped Caucasus peaks beyond. Sitting quietly within those medieval walls, I felt Laghami’s lasting spirit, humble yet enduring.
- Explore the Laghami Church
MESTIA IS JUST THE BEGINNING
While based in the town of Mestia, we took every opportunity to explore the surrounding peaks and valleys of Georgia’s breathtaking Caucasus Mountains. One highlight was taking the cable car high above Mestia for panoramic views of the jagged, snow-covered ridges. From the top station, we hiked up to the iconic Mestia cross, a true pilgrimage passing waterfalls and Alpine meadows. Though challenging at times, especially for 3-year-old Zion on my back, reaching that windswept cross amidst the grandeur of the Caucuses was magical.
After a few days of exploring Mestia’s surroundings, we decided to venture further to the remote, historic village of Ushguli. Negotiating with some locals, we secured seats in an old Soviet minivan for the 2-hour journey along cliffside roads to Ushguli. Zion was glued to the window as we passed ancient Svan towers, eventually rolling into Ushguli with its crumbling castle remains overlooking the valley. Stepping out, we were struck by the timelessness of this ancient place, untouched by modernity. We knew our days exploring this last bastion of traditional Svaneti culture would be the highlight of our Georgia adventures.
THE WAY TO USHGULI
On the back of the mashrutka, we are whipped back and forth, up and down as the ancient minivan careened through the rocky road, oblivious to the potholes and rivets. It was the perfect sleep recipe for Joy River; for Zion, he enjoyed looking out and spotting the stone towers, rushing rivers, and cows that blocked the road. For so long I’ve desired to reach Ushguli, the heart of the Svaneti region with its best preserved villages and at the foot of Georgia’s highest peak. At 44 kilometers from Mestia, it was a journey that still took an hour and a half. It was a journey worth remembering though, as it wound through forests with ancient settlements, peaks of glacier-clad peaks, and hikers hugging the hillsides for many to be a dream-trek.
The final switchbacks were met with the most unfavorable road conditions as we climbed to 2,000 meters above sea level. Soon, the first of the four villages of Ushguli appeared, followed shortly thereafter the village of Chazhashi, the crown jewel of Svaneti culture.
And our home for two nights.
Explore Chazhashi Village
A SIMPLE LIFE
Disembarking the mashrutka, we made our way to our guesthouse, a XII century structure adapted to welcoming travelers. Walking through Chazhashi felt as if walking through a medieval fairy tale. Modern amenities were devoid at first impression - only the old-world charm of village life that has all but disappeared in most countries. Cows and sheep dogs outnumbered humans, the aroma of fresh bread filled the air, and the locals exhibited warm welcoming. And it is exactly why we went through the trouble of reaching this remote land.
It truly is a simple wonder in a world that is ever more complicated and materialistic.
For two nights we set up base at this village of a couple dozen families. Life slowed to a crawl, with no real agenda or plan. Yet it remains one of our fondest experiences and a memory that will last a lifetime. Wandering the ridges above the village afforded some of the most incredible views. Sitting down in the rustic homes for a home-cooked meal of cheese bread and meat soup made us feel homesick for the homely comforts.
The main draw to many in this region are undoubtedly the mountains, and the village of Ushguli in particular sits at the base of Georgia's largest peak, Mount Shkhara. The soaring snow-capped mountains begged for our attention around every bend in the road, inviting us to walk closer and immerse ourselves in their natural splendor. Hiking the winding trails around Ushguli gave us an even deeper appreciation for this settlement.
As we wandered through alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers, the imposing icy peaks of the Greater Caucasus Range toweringly regally before us. We breathed in the fresh mountain air, gazing upward at Mount Shkhara's glacier-encrusted summit high overhead. Passing Ushguli's clusters of ancient defensive stone towers, we hiked up the steep hillside to the crumbling ruins of Queen Tamar's 12th century castle, taking in panoramic views of the valley below. Although modern amneities are creeping in, the land still seems relatively untouched by modernity, where the trails are still crisscrossed by shepherds and their flocks just as it was centuries ago. As we soaked in Ushguli's scenic hiking trails and fascinating history, we were left in awe of how this secluded mountain village opened a window to Georgia's majestic highland landscapes and medieval past.
A LIFE UNCHANGED, YET CHANGING
We live in a peculiar time where even the remotest of regions are still easily reached by those on holiday. Not even 20 years ago, the Svaneti region was untouched from the outside. It was a region much like today, but despite welcoming trekkers and travelers, unruly gangs lived in the valleys side by side the locals. Robbery and kidnappings were almost everyday occurrences to those who ventured out here, until a crackdown by the government cleaned up the place in 2004, marking a new period of stability of the Svans and an opening to explore their cultural and natural wonders.
Nowadays, the situation has changed dramatically. The road is generally paved, guesthouses are popping up everywhere, and the folk now predominately make a living from tourism.
As one of the highest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe, the remote mountain village of Ushguli stands as a living vestige of the past amidst Georgia's soaring Caucasus peaks. Yet we wondered what the future would bring for this UNESCO World Heritage community as modernity slowly trickles in. Will Ushguli's old stone towers still stand sentinel over the valley centuries from now? Much depends on the younger generation embracing their Svan heritage and remaining in the village. If young Svans continue speaking the distinct language, upholding ancient cultural traditions, and carrying on time-honored livelihoods like sheep herding, there is hope.
Still, spending time in Ushguli gave us immense joy. Staying in a local guesthouse, we connected with a family who had lived there for generations. The simple kindness they showed little Zion left a mark on our hearts. The simplicity of life here has given us time to bond without the distractions of daily life. As we soak in our last views of Mount Shkhara and the valley, we are already looking forward to coming back to Upper Svaneti.
I hope Ushguli's timelessness will endure for many generations, bringing future travelers the same joy we experienced in this magical place suspended in time.