Ushguli is the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe at 2,200 metres. It actually comprises of four small villages, sitting at the foot of Mt Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain, 5,203 metres high.
One of the villages was totally devastated by a massive avalanche in 1987 and most the residents packed up and left. Now they are starting to return and houses are starting to be restored. A lot of this is due to the arrival of tourism as both locals and visitors discover the incredible beauty of the area. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
A visit to Ushguli is like a trip back to a time of ancient traditions, blood feuds and the kidnapping of brides. Conditions were harsh. Everywhere, there are the stone towers which protected from potential invaders and avalanches.
The Tower of Love
This is the Tower of Love. Legend has it that a woman fell deeply in love with a man. However, as he was already married with children she rejected him. The man was then killed in a hunting accident and was turned into a trout. Every day the woman would sit by the river, her tears falling into the waters. Everyday she also fed the trout which made the river their home. Her father built the tower for her as a symbol of love.
The Chalaadi Glacier
Chalaadi Glacier, one of the most beautiful hikes in Georgia, is at 1850 metres high and the source of the river Mestia. It is fed by mountain streams. It is in a beautiful setting and is unusual in that it extends down to the forest.
Walking towards the glacier is very beautiful. A bridge over the river brings you into the coniferous forest. Huge fire trees rise up into the sky, the sun shimmering through the branches and tantalising glimpses of the mountains behind. Wild flowers provide splashes of colour amongst the greenery.
Afterwards, the next part of the hike is by the side of a raging river fed by the glacial waters. A scramble over the deposited rocks finally brings you to the glacier. The glacial cave is stunning, the trapped turquoise blue water shining through the ice. The water was truly glacial and a few seconds was all I could bear before it became very painful. It was another beautiful hike full of contrasts.
Mestia is a good base from which to explore Svaneti. It has accommodation options to suit all budgets and a wealth of wonderful restaurants, some with traditional music. It is also the starting point for many of the walks. Cars and minibuses also offer day trips to Ushguli.
It is also home to the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography. A good way of finding out more about the traditions of Georgia and contains local crafts and many icons.
Cinema pub Dede is owned by the sister of the director of the film of the same name. This film was showing whilst I was there. I went to one of the screenings, very interesting especially as I had just visited Ushguli.
Local Specialities in Svaneti
As well as the famous Georgian dishes such as Khachapuri and Khinkali, the Svaneti area has it’s own specialties:
- Kubdari – bread filled with meat and spices.
- Tashmijabi – mashed potato mixed with cheese.
- Svaneti – famous for the protection of salt and I was given some as a gift from the guesthouse.
Of course all these have to be washed down with a glass of Georgian wine. Georgia makes some of the best wines I have ever tasted.