Today I have a guest taking over my blog. A fellow blogger and Eastern Europe enthusiast Emily tells you about visiting Svaneti, Georgia – a region that is very high on my bucket list and now, after reading Emily’s story, I want to go there even more! Enjoy!
My bid to explore every corner of Georgia unsurprisingly took me to the Svaneti region, in the north-west of the country. People keep visiting Svaneti for its distinctive watchtowers, but this mountainous region, 1,500m above sea level, in the Greater Caucasus is a must not only for those interested in hiking or climbing. Any fans of breath-taking scenery with unique history and culture thrown in will love the place too. The Svan people are an ethic subgroup of Georgians, with their own dialect, traditions, and versions of the usual Georgian food.
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How to get to Svaneti, Georgia?
Visiting Svaneti by public transport is simple and there are several options. I took a direct marshrutka to Mestia, the ‘main’ settlement in Svaneti, from Kutaisi, which leave daily from the bus station at 10am.
To get to the bus station from the centre of Kutaisi, hop on any No.1 marshrutka; I got on at the stop outside the tourist information centre. As it’s a circular route, you will eventually get there, and it costs just 0.5GEL a ride.
I asked one of the many drivers walking around the bus station, but the marshrutka to Mestia goes from directly behind the very noticeable McDonalds, and there are some large signs. Just buy your ticket (25GEL) from the little desk next to the casino, and you’ll be all set.
If you miss the 10am marshrutka, another option is to go to Zugdidi and then change to a Mestia-bound bus there. This is the option I was told I might have to take, as I was travelling on Easter Sunday, a huge event in Georgia, but nope, luckily the Mestia bus was still running!
Going by land from Tbilisi obviously takes longer, but an option might be to take the sleeper train to Zugdidi then a marshrutka from there, or to change in Kutaisi.
It is also possible to fly to Mestia! Vanilla Sky operate tiny aircrafts from Tbilisi (four times a week – 90GEL) and Kutaisi (twice a week – 50GEL) airports. Apparently, the journey is stunning, and I’d love to try it someday, but I have heard that they get cancelled frequently due to bad weather, so I guess booking a ticket is a risk especially if your trip is time constrained.
The long ride was really enjoyable. After whizzing through Zugdidi, the descent up to the mountains soon begins, with hairpin bends, crazy plunges, and beautiful backdrops emerging.
If you are lucky, like me, the bus made a stop for about an hour at a little café. Myself and two other tourists on the bus were treated to some amazing Georgian hospitality, with the driver and another passenger insisting on paying for our food and wine, which kept appearing and flowing! We tried a traditional Svan version of khachapuri (Georgian stuffed bread) which contained what seemed to be chopped steak and onions. Perfect! The driver even dropped me at my guesthouse.
Things to do when visiting Svaneti
I spent my first evening visiting Svaneti in Mestia simply walking around the town, avoiding cows, and breathing the crisp mountain air. I got a good view of many Svan towers on my way, and even found an old ruined church right at the far edge of the town.
As I wasn’t feeling too confident about going hiking alone in such a remote wilderness, I opted to spend my one full day in Svaneti taking a day trip to Ushguli, a remote settlement relatively near to Mestia. When there is less snow around, many people spend four days hiking in Svaneti between Mestia and Ushguli, stopping at guesthouses along the route. I heard from one traveller I met that the road is also hitch-hike-able, with guesthouses in Ushguli making an overnight excursion feasible.
I was very kindly invited by the two girls who I met on the bus to join them in sharing the cost of a driver for the next day, and I’m very glad that I chose to accept. The stunning scenery, and the sun shining on the melting snow, lessened the scariness of riding there in such an unsuitable car, but that’s another story!
In about two hours, we arrived in Ushguli. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ushguli is one of the highest inhabited settlements in Europe, and its lack of proper roads makes it feel very remote. Knee-deep snow drifts were still piled everywhere, making trudging through extremely challenging, but the village gave a unique insight into an old-fashioned way of life.
Being Easter, we hardly saw another soul, or any signs of human life, in Ushguli, and we only found one coffee shop that was (probably unofficially) open.They greeted us warmly anyway, and their tables were piled high with prepared food for the later festivities!
Where to stay and eat in Svaneti
Mestia is full of little simple guesthouses, many of which offer breakfast and an evening meal, so you can take your pick. Like most budget accommodation in Georgia, you won’t spend much more than ten euros per person for a night. The place I stayed at had a friendly resident cow who tried to steal my cake!
On both evenings, I went for food and beer at Koshki on the main road opposite the makeshift ‘bus station’. It seems to have quite bad reviews on Tripadvisor, but I found it to be a friendly place with good service and nice Georgian food. I ate the best lobiani (bean-filled khachapuri) that I had on my trip there!
Again, as it was Easter weekend, few places in town were open, however Cafe Laila, on the main square, seemed like another popular option.
You can purchase marshrutka tickets from many outlets in the town. Even though the marshrutka wasn’t direct (we changed in Zugdidi), I bought a through-ticket for 30GEL to Batumi from the little shop next to Cafe Laila. These outlets presumably inform the driver when someone buys a ticket there, as I was picked up from the shop at 8am the next day!
If you don’t buy a ticket in advance, the buses begin their route on the main road, just off the main square.
Thoughts on visitig Svaneti, Georgia
I’d like to go back to Mestia to attempt some hiking in Svaneti, although I still found my visit worth it, to experience a part of the such diverse landscape that is Georgia. It was a lovely place to relax for a while and escape the big cities. The long ride there was compensated by such an outstandingly beautiful journey, and I would definitely recommend a visit as a part of any trip to Georgia.
About the author: My name is Emily, I’m from the UK and I love travelling to off-the-beaten-track locations, especially in Eastern Europe. I’ve recently started to write about my adventures, and would love to hear your comments: good or bad! You can follow my blog and Instagram!
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