Svaneti: The Old and the New

By | Category: Travel destinations

It is unusual to be able to visit an almost virgin area as it is being developed but Mestia in the Svaneti region is one of those. Svaneti is to be found in the mountainous part in the north east of Georgia. Eighteen months ago it was a place visited by die-hard skiers and walkers who would make the eight hour journey from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, by road This was almost an adventure in itself for, as the road got closer to the area, the worse it got. As part of the development ideas of the government, it was decided to create a tourist destination given over to skiing in the winter and trekking and walking in the summer.
In the future this is going to be one of the key adventure holiday areas in the world. Already the influential Adventure Tourism Development Index for last year puts Georgia into the “high” category meaning that it is amongst the most competitive set. It’s not in the top 10 yet but that can be just a matter of time. This area offers more than just skiing. In one hotel there were mountain bikes stacked against a wall so the hikers and bikers will be attracted. There are hundreds and hundreds of acres to trek through providing chocolate box views of the mountain slopes and valleys.
An airport opened last Christmas Eve in Mestia which has reduced the journey to just an hour from the capital. And what a flight it is! Because the airport is in a valley, you fly between mountains with the slightly unnerving feature of looking out of the window and seeing pine trees towering above you. At an equivalent of about £70 for the trip it isn’t cheap by Georgian standards but it certainly adds to the holiday thrill. The sole De Havilland Twin Otter that makes the service is not one of your normal everyday passenger planes. Piloted by Canadian pilots on rotating tours of duty lasting six weeks, they can only fly if the weather is good. Keep ear plugs handy because the flight can be noisy. Unlike other flights, you keep your seat belt on at all times but the pilot will happily take snapshots for you though their windows and they load and unload your luggage for you too! No drinks or cabin crew service on this flight though.
The airport building is small and creatively designed. One person thought it reminded them of a boot; another, the erect caterpillar on the front of an old cover of the children’s book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” Another thought it looked like chimney stack erupting from the ground. Whatever you think, it is striking and unlike any other building around. But it’s small and that is probably the key to the way this whole area is being developed. It might have 4 hotels and 6 guesthouses with more planned but this is never going to rival the large ski locations around the world. Nor would it wish to do so. This is going to be an area for the aficionado.
At present the roads are grisly to drive on as small hills and ravines tax the strongest suspension. Dentists aren’t needed here. The jolting of the vehicles will remove any loose teeth you have. But that alone highlights the speed that is behind the push for development. By winter 2012 what I have seen will be a thing of the past. The memory of completed buildings that I have seen; some hotels and a town garden, a town hall, a bank and shops will probably be lost as the town reshapes itself. The new buildings are smart and elegant contrasting with mud and dust of this enormous building site. Near the town garden, trucks were in convoys to be filled with excavated rubble torn from the earth as the pylons for another building were laid. Traffic drives on any side of the road in a desperate attempt to find the less mountainous sections. Who needs speed limits here? Go more than 10mph and you lose your exhaust. Give it a year and what a difference there will be.
But not for the surrounding hills. It is not just commercial developments that have government support. People’s home are being refurbished as well but existing styles must be retained.

Watch tower

There is more than the prospect of adventure holidays though. Almost unique to this area is a type of building that shows how tough life must have been as little as a couple of hundred years ago. In those days most houses had their own watch tower which would be up to six stories high. Here, if under attack from neighbours or outsiders, the families would enter the towers and climb up pulling the ladders behind them and rolling a stone over the entrance to each storey. They could survive for some time before returning to their homes. If health and safety comes to the area will you be able to climb these towers? It requires some agility just to climb the steep tracks to get to them in the first place and then that same agility to hoist yourself from the top of the ladders onto stone ledges and the floors above.
Mestia also has an unusual museum; a former wooden house, call it a peasant’s house if you will, that survives from the days when harsh winters showed how tough life here could be. In this squarish building there are two storeys. The top one would be where the hay was kept for the winter. Beneath it in the middle of the room is where a hearth would be for family cooking. The women of the household would prepare meals over it with the smoke rising but blocked from scorching the wooden ceiling by large block of stone. Either side of the block would be a wooden carving with a horse’s head carved at either end. This is one of the remnants of a pagan belief that lasted long after Christianity came to other parts of Georgia.
Around the hearth was their furniture; a bench for the women and more ornate armchair bench for the men the belief being that the men, having toiled on the mountainside during the day, needed the backs to the bench so they could relax. And around the walls of the lodge would be space for the cattle, goats and other animals. On a slightly lowered floor they have their own area which encircled the adult one. Each animal had its own, arched hole through which it could thrust its head to eat from the trough in front of them. But this was no jerry built hole smashed through the wood for them to eat. These are intricately carved and ornate horseshoe shaped holes. Was there a village sculptor who came and carved this work or did a member of the family have the skill?
Into this house came the members of the family and their extended family as well. There could be as many as forty people living here. Yet their pride in the building led to a well-conceived design to house both humans and animals and which extended to creating wood carved decoration that must have taken considerable time and effort.
There is one other feature unique to this area. In Mestia and Svantia as a whole they speak another language, Sweti, which is no dialect of Georgian. Most Georgians would be unable to understand it and would find it hard to study as it is unwritten having been passed from parent to child. That it has survived is probably because of the remoteness of this place. Luckily, the locals speak Georgian as well.
As we flew back to Tbilisi in the Otter, one of only a handful of plane types that could land there, it isn’t hard to believe that on a return trip, this place will look nothing like what it was today. Do visitors go now and experience something very few of us ever have the opportunity to see wait until the work is finished in a year? You have to decide.

With thanks to Mako, Sophie, Lado, Tamara, Aliona, Kristina, Irakli and Sopho for all their help

I flew to Georgia with British Midland International. bmi flies between London Heathrow and Tbilisi three times per week, with fares starting from £526 return. For more information and to book,

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