This mountainous region in the northwestern part of Georgia is made up of two parts, Upper and Lower Svaneti. Upper (Zemo) Svaneti encompasses an area of 3,044 sq. km (1,175 sq. miles) and has a population of 14,248. Lower (Kvemo) Svaneti covers 1.344 sq. km (519 sq. miles) and has a population of 8,991. A total of 45,000 Svans live throughout Georgia.
Svaneti’s terrain makes it one of the most remote and inaccessible regions of Georgia. The first car arrived in Mestia, the administrative center of Upper Svaneti, only in 1935 with the widening of the cart track from Zugdidi. The road was built with dynamite and shovels, and Svans joke that they would like to give a prize to Nobel (the inventor of dynamite). That same year, the first plane landed in Mestia. In November 1975, Georgian communications specialists completed the Kutaisi-Mestia radio relay line, allowing for the first television transmission from Moscow and Tbilisi. Despite the advent of cars, television, and helicopter and plane service, Svaneti retains a pristine medieval quality, with villages and back streets that look as though they were constructed as sets for the Caucasian version of The Return of Mai tin Guerre. I his sense of time warp, combined with the grandeur of the natural setting, makes a trip to Svaneti well worth the effort no matter how difficult it may be to get there.
The Svans are indigenous Georgians and speak their own language. Svanuri belongs to the Southern Caucasian language group known as Kartvelian. Svanuri broke away from the original proto-Georgian tongue to develop on lines of its own in the 19th century BC. It has no alphabet and is mostly spoken at home and socially. Georgian is taught at school and used officially. Most people speak and understand Russian with varying degrees of fluency, but in this remote region, one wonders if it won’t go the way of Italian in Rhodes. English will get you absolutely nowhere here.
The harsh climate and mountainous landscape of the region arc the principal factors behind the Svanetian character. They are a proud, laconic people who find virtue in a certain austerity and stoicism. Vendettas and blood feuds between certain families and villages exist to the present day. Hunters and alpinists arc the most respected members of the community. Although perhaps not as immediately gregarious as Georgians from other regions, the Svans are in no way remiss in the practice of traditional Georgian hospitality. Svanetian hospitality had been sorely tested by the number of IDPs who were forced to flее there from Abkhazia but now it is the general financial constraints that so many Georgians are feeling because of the state of the economy that requires travelers to be circumspect in their exchanges with people. Because of the elevation of the region, wine is not served as frequently as a potent vodka made at home from yeast. As in other parts of Georgia, you’ll come to know your hosts best during the drinking of toasts: a Svan who wears the traditional felt cap will never take it off except to drink the third toast of the night to St. George, whom some here revere above Christ. Before taking your leave you might hear the last toast of the night couched in the following terms: “I drink to your safe journey, and may every person on your road greet you as a mother and father.”
Lower Svanetis administrative center is in the town of Lentekhi, at an elevation of 800 meters (2,625 feet). Although the entire province possesses spots of great natural beauty, Lower Svaneti is not a place where a traveler without an inexhaustible amount of lime should bother going. There are very few of the famous Svanetian lowers in this region, and the Lower Svans themselves refer to the Upper Svans as Gvidam Svan, their version of “the Real McCoy.”
Upper Svaneti is most famous for its II th-century watchtowers and superb mountains. Among the tallest are Mt. Ushba (4,700 meters /15,420 feet), Mt. Tetnuldi (5,007 meters /16,427 feet), and Mt. Shkhara (5,068 meters /16,627 feet); at least ten mountains in the region arc higher than Mont Blanc. Alpinists are the most frequent visitors here, and Upper Svaneti has produced some of the most famous climbers in Georgia, Mikheil Khergiani, known as the Lion of the Rock, was considered the first citizen of Mestia. After his death as a result of a climbing accident in the Dolomites in 1969, his house in Mestia was turned into a museum. (By the way, Mikheil’s father Beknu climbed Mt. Elbrus in 1943 and the look down the Nazi flag that Hiller’s Edelweiss Corps had planted there when they advanced upon the Caucasus.)
Upper Svaneti has an eight-month winter, with the lowest temperature -32° C (-26° F) and an average of -15° C (5° F). Snow can reach two meters (6.5 feet). In summer the average temperature is 25° C (77° F) during the day and 7-10° C (45°-50° F) at night. June is the beginning of the season and a wonderful time to go. Indeed, most touring and climbing is done in summer; the ferocious winters feature often impassable roads and frequent avalanches. You’ll note small birdhouse-like structures along many mountain roadsides. These memorials mark the spot where someone was killed in an accident. Inside the small stand is a picture of the victim along with glasses and a bottle of wine. Friends or relatives passing that way slop when so moved io drink in memory of their loved one.
The reverence for tradition and continuity has its physical manifestation in the medieval watchtowers and the family plots of land that dominate the villages and environs and contribute to the tenor and tempo of this virtually feudal way of life. The lowers were constructed primarily as a defense against the invading Northern Caucasian tribes, the Kabardians and Balkars. More than 200 towers arc found in Mestia alone, the last having been built in the 19th century. Potatoes and beans are the staple agricultural product, and entire families can often be seen bent double over hoes. Mosi fruit, with the exception of citrus, also grow here. Stock-breeding is also an essential occupation, and the alpine and subalpine bells provide rich pasture lands primarily for cattle.
Upper Svaneti itself is subdivided into two regions by the Bal mountain range. The people of the Upper Bal have never known a ruler; they have a reputation as one of the proudest and most independent peoples in Georgia. This region is said to serve as the sanctuary for many important icons from the central districts of Georgia, supposedly brought here to protect them from the Moslem forces that have invaded Georgia many times throughout her history. The people of the Upper Bal remain tight-lipped on this subject.
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