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As we duck and weave through the lush foliage of the mountain road, I can feel the excitement and trepidation rising in me for what’s to come. A cascade of rainwater falls around as we continue driving, with each drop matching my heartbeat. The small town of Ushguli is only a few hundred meters away as the mountains begin to slowly creep into view. The anticipation is building frantically; then, suddenly, the picturesque town reveals itself.
Encompassed by the mystical Mt Shkhara, the setting here is simply breath-taking: snow-capped peaks, lush green fields and a beautiful medieval Georgian church nestled between it all. After we picked our jaws up from the floor, our guide then explained that, at a staggering 5,193 meters high, it is the highest peak in the country.
We ventured into the church, known locally as “Lamaria”. Whilst relatively small, the hall inside offered a beautiful array of frescos. Their deteriorated condition in no way concealed the beauty that was so clearly on display. The church itself is shrouded in mystery. It doesn’t appear in any historical records and only whispered rumours exist from those that live in the area to suggest that it originates circa 9th Century.
Once we took a moment to reflect on the peaceful ambience, we headed out for a short walk towards the base of the mountain. As with most of Georgia, there is an abundance of wild dogs in the area. It may seem unsettling but, in reality, they are well fed and of a loving nature. Funnily enough, as we approached the base of the mountain, I turned around to find that there were five canines which had decided to join our group and walk with us.
This only furthered my love for this region. Everything felt natural and completely relaxed; there were no screens, few people and unrivalled beauty. We made it as far as the small river before deciding not to continue further due to schedule. Our guide was telling us how he had climbed the mountain in the past, which was unbelievable to imagine. If he wasn’t pulling my leg, then it was certainly an admirable feat.
Shortly after we parted ways with our canine companions, we wandered through the town admiring the architecture and way of life. Agriculture is at the centre of everything here and there is little space for promoting to tourists in this genuine and old-fashioned approach to living. Our guide explained that many of the locals are made up of local Svaneti families that have a different dialect to the rest of Georgia. And, because of it, that communication between the two groups was difficult but intriguing to watch.
As we explored more, we learnt that the population sits at around 200 in total and is made up of a tightly-knit group of around 70 families that work together to maintain the community.
We sat down to enjoy some local food in one of their traditional taverns. Georgian food can only be described as sumptuous, with a large variety of cheese, bread, beef stews and much more. In the Svaneti region, there were fewer choices; I wanted to try something local and decided on a spicy beef pie, which was both delicious and huge. It’s clear that the Georgians don’t do small portions. It is also worth noting that the local Svanetian salt should be an essential purchase for anyone visiting the region. It has a fantastic flavour and goes well with so many meals back home.
Shortly after lunch, we delved into the history of Ushguli. Fascinatingly, this remote town is the highest permanent settlement in Europe, at 2200m above sea level. Considering the village is completely inaccessible for six months of the year due to road conditions and weather, it is remarkable the people survive the harsh winters and maintain such a unique way of life.
Ushguli is an integral part of making the Upper Svaneti a UNESCO heritage site; not only for its scintillating scenery but also its collection of old Svan Towers. For centuries, the locals had to repel invasions and, as such, built the structures to combat these attacks. Despite suffering a significant earthquake and a variety of attacks, these towers are still very present and serve as a stark reminder of this region’s rich history.
As we began driving back to Mestia, I was met with sadness and immense satisfaction in knowing that I was leaving this wonderful little location. More so, because I managed to see it before a flood of visitors undoubtedly makes their way to the ever-popular region.
Georgia is quickly becoming a hot favourite with travellers looking to explore the enthralling cultures, stories and communities that are tucked away deep in mainland Europe. I can’t wait until the next time I step foot into the Svaneti region. Georgia has already been so eye-opening.