What should people visiting Svaneti expect?
The first things that spring to mind, is the breathtaking scenery and plenty of the famous Georgian hospitality.
After that, I'd probably say those visiting Svaneti should brace themselves for fairly rough roads. The area is still very remote so the roads we use, particularly up to the town of Ushguli, are not what most visitors are used to. We do travel in 4x4 minibuses but if you suffer from motion sickness it would be wise to preapre. The accommodation we use may not be luxurious but they are cosy and all run by local families, who are brilliant hosts and cooks.
Lastly, bring plenty of layers as the mountain weather can quickly change from sunny and warm to windy and rainy. Although we were very lucky and were treated to fantastic blue skies during our walks through the mountains, cricket filled meadows and old villages.
What was the walking like?
On the first full day in Svaneti, we go on an introductory walk to the Ushguli Glacier. This is an easy two hour walk there and back and is good for getting our muscles ready for the following walks as well as a bit of acclimatisation. There's most walking over the next few days which vary in length (the longest being 7 hours) but usually taking most of the day.
The most difficult walk we did was going up the Chkhutnieri Pass (2700m) but the reward at the end made it all worthwhile. On one side was the valley we climbed up from, on the other a huge mountain glacier with a river carving another valley, where we can see a glimpse of our next destination, Adishi village, in the far distance. The views were spectacular.
Why is the region so special?
It's probably its remoteness - you have to be tough to make it to the Svaneti mountains, let alone live there! Its location has meant that a lot of the Svaneti's culture has developed a little apart from Georgia's. You can see it in the ancient UNESCO watchtowers that are scattered throughout the area's valleys and villages. Alongside its history and culture you have the fantastic mountain scenery of the Caucasus, hidden villages, ancient villages and the famous hospitality.
How easy is it to get to?
The longest drive time is 7 hours with stops and lunch from Mestia to Batumi. Of course, this can all be affected by traffic, but there is plans to develop new roads by the government to reduce traffic is some areas. Drive time from Tbilisi to Kutaisi was 4 hours with traffic as there is currently only one road linking the east to the west.
Did you see a lot of other tourists?
The Svaneti region is becoming a little more popular with walkers, however, they all travel from Mestia to Ushguli. Our group tour goes the opposite way, allowing an off the beaten track journey and different experience all together. We didn't find that the villages were swamped with backpackers either, mainly because they msotly camp rather than stay in homestays.
Georgian hospitality is famous – how was it for you?
Every guesthouse we stayed in had a lovely host family, who welcomed us and fed us until we were bursting. The hospitality is reflected in the hearty and delicious food, especially the freshly baked bread. Expect to enjoy great food with great company!
What was your favourite part of your visit?
One of my most memorable experiences in the Svaneti region has to be visiting Ushguli's ethnographic museum. We were welcomed into a traditional Svaneti home by our guide, who explained to us that it was his ancestral home. The home is laid out with trinkets, old and new, carved by our host and generations of his family. He explains how the carved platform around the room used to house animals in the bottom and people on the top, keeping each other warm during harsh winters here. There are beautifully carved chairs, reserved for the head of the house, and expertly carved bowls and weapons. He continues to explain that each home had a Svaneti tower built next to it to fend off invaders. Our guides passion for Svaneti's history and his pride at his family’s craftsmanship made visiting his ancestral home a wonderful experience.