Samegrelo and Upper Svaneti
are completely different regions and the only reason to present them together is that they are united administratively. Because of their dissimilarity however it seems reasonable to split the description into two parts, one describing Samegrelo, and the other Upper Svaneti. A very special region of Georgia, not only because of its diverse climate and landscape but also because of the local people – Megrelians.
It is located in western Georgia in the valleys of the Rioni, Enguri and Tskhenistskali rivers. In Soviet times, Smaegrelo was one of the richest regions of Georgia and one can still see it as an echo of their past – wide streets (often with sidewalks) in the villages, clean and big yards, neat houses. Even the Megrelian khachapuri (kind of Georgian pizza) is with double cheese ;-) The climate is subtropical with frequent rains in the summer and mild winter. The coastal areas still have many marshlands despite the Soviet Georgian authorities' efforts to dry them up. These marshlands contain many rare birds and animals not found in other parts of the country. For this reason, a substantial part of the territories is protected by the Georgian law as part of the Colchetian Nature Reserve. (source: Wikipedia) In ancient times Samegrelo was a major part of the kingdom of Colchis (9th-6th centuries BC) and its successor Egrisi (4th century BC-6th century AD). According to a Greek legend the mythical King Aeetes – the son of Helios, the God of Sun – ruled over the Kingdom of Colchis. The pre-Christian Kingdom of Colchis was the first Georgian state mentioned in Greek history and mythology, as the country where the Argonauts came to find the Golden Fleece. (source:)
Svaneti, one of the most ancient provinces of Georgia, is located on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus mountain range, on the territory of the valleys of the two rivers: Enguri (Upper Svaneti – “Zemo Svaneti”) and Tskhenistskali (Lower Svaneti – “Kvemo Svaneti”, which administratively is a part of another region). Surrounded by the gigantic, snow-capped peaks of the high Caucasus, Svaneti is one of the most remarkable and picturesque regions of Georgia. The highest mountain in Georgia, Mount Shkhara at 5,201 meters (17,059 feet), can be found in the province. Mount Ushba (4,690 m or 15,387 ft), “The Matternhorn of the Caucasus”, the most dramatic mountain in the area and considered as one of the most difficult mountains to climb in Europe, is located in Svanti as well. It is also the highest inhabited area in the Caucasus and the only one never conquered by the enemy.
Getting to Svaneti was a challenge even 10 years ago and only recently a new road was built letting the region open to the world and tourism more widely. Medieval stone towers, of which thousands survived, can still be found in many private yards. The majority of tower settlements in Svaneti come from the early middle ages and were used primarily as defensive structures. Most of these towers are 20-25 meters tall and have four or five floors. The tower levels are connected to each other via internal wooden staircases and covered by gabled roofs, with several narrow defense windows. The ground floor was used for living and keeping livestock, the first floor was used for storing hay. The house was heated by a hearth in the center of a big room, where the food was also cooked. As a rule, the house was attached to a tower. On the highest floor, there is usually a platform to attack from during invasions. Surrounded by mountains, Svaneti is a great place for visitors seeking an adventure. With many of its mountain peaks over 5,000 meters, the region is one of the world’s best locations for mountaineering.
Svaneti is also great for skiers and snowboarders - the newly opened Mestia ski resort offers good quality slopes. There are some ski rentals, but so far they don't have enough equipment to serve all the tourists wishing to rent skis or snowboards, so you'd better bring your own skis, or you might end up just sitting and admiring the surrounding mountains, which is not a bad option after all. Maps of trekking trails, information about guides, horse rentals and jeep tours can be found in the regional tourist information center. The history and culture of Svaneti are rich with folk music, with rigorous and powerful singing to match the severe habitat and hard lifestyle of the Svans. The songs are mainly dedicated to national heroes, fights against the conquerors, religious holidays, famous royals (e.g. Queen Tamar), and the pre-Christian gods e.g. Goddess of Hunting - Dali, or the goddess of the Sun - Kaltidi. Listening to these songs surrounded by snowy mountains and Svan towers and fortresses, you will certainly get a sense that you are back in the middle-ages. (source: www.georgia.travel) Unfortunately, sometimes you get the same sense of middle-ages when dealing with local services ;-)
Ushguli - a group of four historical settlements (Zhibiani, Chvibiani, Chazhashi, and Murqmeli) located in the very East of Svaneti. It is one of the highest settlements in Europe, reaching the altitude of 2,410 meters (7,910 ft) above sea level. Ushguli was a part of the so-called “Free Svaneti” as for centuries the people here defended the region against numerous attacks. Local Medieval constructions, just like the towers and churches of Svaneti, are under the protection of UNESCO. The Church of Saint Mary is located on one of the highest points in Ushguli and it is also the home to the remnants of one of the most ancient fortresses of Svaneti with 37 towers, dating back to the reign of Queen Tamar. It is also a superb hiking and climbing area. Horse riding, as well as mountain biking, are also available. (source:georgia.travel) The transportation to Ushguli is quite limited – it is possible to rent a private SUV with a driver in Mestia (the road is passable to SUVs only). Despite the small distance (about 50km), the drive from Mestia takes about 4 hours, due to the very poor quality of the road. Apart from that, driving is possible mainly in the summer months, because the area is covered with snow for about 6 months a year and the months before and after the winter time are wet and make the road impassable.
The main regional center of Upper Svaneti is situated about 450km from Tbilisi and is 1,500 meters above sea level. The whole town was seriously renovated in 2012 – new hotels, hostels, parks, roads, public buildings some of them built from the scratch and some refurbished completely to make Mestia and Svaneti more accessible and attractive for the tourist. Mestia is a convenient base for exploring the area and the starting point for most trips in Svaneti. From the center of the town, it is possible to hike up to the glaciers at the foot of mount Ushba or take horses up to the pristine alpine meadows. Tourists interested in religious history will find plenty of examples of wall paintings, frescoes and icons from the Middle Ages in the churches around Mestia. Within Mestia, Saint George Church has preserved crosses and icons from the 12th century. Also, Pusdi Church still contains fragments of 13th-century wall paintings. (source: georgia.travel). It is also possible to access Mestia (and Svaneti) by air - Queen Tamar airport was opened in 2010. However, if you arranged to fly to Svaneti, have a "Plan B" ready. The flights can't be relied on - due to moody weather conditions in Mestia, they are often canceled.
This glacier lake is located as high as 2,643m above the sea level. The lake is also known as “Crystal Lake” due to its clear, transparent water. It was formed by a glacier eroding the rock and then melting, filling in the space it created. It is possible to reach only after a 20km hike from a town of Chkhorotsku. Visitors need to be physically fit and equipped with appropriate clothing and boots. The best time to visit is from the end of June until early September. At other times of the year, there is often heavy rain and thick fog. (source: georgiaabout.com)