Svaneti: Land of tall towers, tall mountains

 

The Lamaria Church, located above the village of Ushguli, with Mount Shkhara in the background. Like most houses in town, it has a defensive stone tower, too.

MESTIA, Georgia — The Caucasus Mountains have long lived in my imagination as one of the world’s most exotic and intriguing places.

So, it is no wonder I took up an opportunity to accompany a small group of travel agents and journalists into those

Some of the defense towers seen in the ski resort town of Mestia, in the Caucasus Mountains.

mountains, in the country of Georgia, a former Soviet republic.

It was a sunny September day when we began our sometimes-bumpy drive from the town of Zugdidi into the mountains, viewing deep ravines, trees with early fall colors and snowcapped peaks.

Our destination, Mestia, is a ski resort and starting point for trekking tours, at more than 4,500 feet above sea level. It is the chief community in a mountain province known as Upper Svaneti, home to legendary stone towers, approximately 600 of them, built for defensive purposes.

The towers were used for temporary refuge, not for permanent housing, and they were a symbol of a family’s strength, our guide Maia said. She said they were usually five stories tall, and one entered at the second level via a hanging ladder used to prevent unwanted incursions.

There were secondary benefits: The towers provided some protection from avalanches. And, the top floors were natural refrigerators, Maia said.

Towers aren’t built these days; locals have lost the skills to build defensive towers they no longer need.

Defense towers stand out in the village of Ushguli, located high in the Caucasus Mountains. The trees in the background are putting on a colorful autumn show.

The towers generally date from the 16th and 17th centuries, but they can be older. In a village called Ushguli, some date from the 11th and 12th centuries.

We were told Ushguli is Europe’s highest-altitude village, but sources don’t agree on the altitude, placing it anywhere from about 6,900 to 7,500 feet above sea level.

Georgia’s highest mountain, Shkhara, at 17,063 feet above sea level, provides a backdrop to the village.

After an overnight in Mestia, our group traveled to and from Ushguli, only 27 miles distant. However, the trip took three hours each way, and four-wheel-drive vans were necessary to handle the roads, which were narrow, rough and slow going. Plus, there is the matter of taking care, given the proximity of ravines and (very occasional) oncoming traffic.

Scenery is dramatic in the mountains of Georgia.

We also took some time for photos of particularly attractive or dramatically situated villages.

At some stopping points, many houses looked abandoned. A host advised that when Georgia’s economy crashed after the Soviet Union collapsed, people left these mountain villages, but some are now returning, thanks to tourism development supported by the government.

Evidencing another government project, we saw dramatically tall, and apparently sturdy, supports for numerous power lines sprinkled throughout the mountains, not adding to the beauty, but likely to improve life for locals. We could see the old poles and power lines set up under the Soviets.

Our driver, a man of retirement age, said he owns three stone towers, which are traditionally passed down from generation to generation in each family. I don’t know how he came to own three, but, in Soviet days, he was the communist headman for a collection of villages. Maybe his having three towers has something to do with that — or not.

Also, as we rode, we heard his tapes, which included Sting, Police and rap music!!

As for Ushguli, it is four settlements, one of which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Maia said the four settlements together house about 60 families.

Ipari, one of numerous villages seen alongside the bumpy roads in the Upper Svaneti province in Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains. The stone towers were built for defense purposes.

In the two settlements I walked through, it seemed as if many buildings were abandoned, much like places we had already passed. Occupied houses also were sometimes quite rundown.

Svaneti people differ from more typical Georgians with lighter-colored eyes. As one

On the steep terrain of the high-altitude Caucasus Mountains, old-fashioned methods of transport work best.

host said only half jokingly, their ancestors were less likely than other Georgians to be raped by all the (generally darker) invaders because of their safer location.

Svaneti churches are noted for their small size and plain exteriors. They also have short doors, to force people to bow on entering.

Given the altitude, an Ushguli visit can be a chilly affair, but during our September visit, it was hot and sunny.

In this beautiful setting amid peaks of the Caucasus, it was fascinating to walk along what passed for streets and to see the farmers’ fields, which slanted sharply. Also, many trees on the mountainsides were turning color, which was lovely.

Campaigners in a national election bring their case to voters in the highest-altitude villages in Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains.

During our visit, a car caravan of flag-waving supporters of one candidate or another (in Georgia’s autumn 2012

elections) drove noisily — horns blaring — into town. I cannot imagine driving a caravan into the Caucasus Mountains on the roads we had traveled!!

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