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.
Samegrelo and Upper Svaneti are located in western Georgia in the valleys of the Rioni, Enguri and Tskhenistskali rivers. In Soviet times, Samegrelo 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)
Church of St. Quiricus/Kvirike (in Svan: Lagurka)
– one of the most significant cultural sites in Svaneti. Located in Kala village community on a steep and rocky hill, with the magnificent Mount Ushba in the background, it is the biggest church in Svaneti. Annually it attracts the Svans from all over Georgia to celebrate their most important holiday, Kvirkoba (July 27th). In Svaneti, Kvirike is known as an agricultural divinity, which grants and protects the fertility of both people and animals. (source: georgia.travel) The interior of the church is decorated with extraordinary murals dating back to 1111. The author, Theodore, names himself as “painter of the king” in one of the inscriptions. He was indeed the artist of King David Aghmashenebeli.
– located several kilometers away from Ipari, under Mount Tetnuldi. The village has four churches: the Church of Christ, the Church of the Archangel, and two churches of Saint George. The Church of Christ held icons from the 11th-14th centuries (now stored at a museum), as well as a manuscript of Shatberdi. Shatberdi Codex is the oldest of surviving manuscripts of “The Conversion of Kartli”, a major historical document of medieval Georgia written in 7th and 9th centuries describing the history of Kartli and focusing on Christianization of the country. It dates back to 973 and includes detailed artwork known as the four-chapter book of Adishi.
– this church was built especially for an icon of the Virgin Mary of Vlakerni. The icon, as well as the waistband of the Virgin Mary, were regarded as the most sacred items of Samegrelo. The icon was taken to Russia and given to Alexander I with the hope that the Emperor would one day return this relic to Georgia. Later, the Emperor did return the icon to Levan Dadiani along with the finances for building a church. (source:georgia.travel)
Tsalenjikha Cathedral Church – built in 12th-14th centuries, the Cathedral Church of the Transfiguration of Savior stands on a hill outside Tsalenjikha. It is the best known for its unique cycle of murals which exemplifies the direct import of Byzantine Palaeologan style. The church is encircled by the circuit wall with a two-story bell-tower in its north-western corner. Outside the wall, the Dadiani palace lay in ruins. An interesting structure is a tunnel, 40–45 meters (130-150 ft) long and 3–4 meters (10–13 ft) high, running in a westerly direction from the church. In the 19th century, a new floor was laid down. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the church was partially repaired and incomplete emergency conservation measures of the frescoes were implemented. (source: Wikipedia). A bilingual Greek-Georgian inscription on the South-Western pillar of the church reveals that the interior of the church was frescoed by Cyrus Emanuel Eugenics, a Byzantine artist from Constantinople. The Megrelian Prince Levan Dadiani II and his wife Nestan-Darejani are buried in the Western area of the church in the Dadiani House Chapel.
– the ruins of the castle are located in the village of Rukhi, on the left (east) bank of the Enguri River. The main and easily noticeable difference between Rukhi castle and other fortifications is that it was built on a plain and not on a hill. The castle was built in the 17th century by the duke of Samegrelo, Levan Dadiani II, and served as the major fortification and a hideaway for the local people during invasions. The duke was actively developing the town (at that time it was a town not a village-like today) of Rukhi by bringing craftsmen and traders, sometimes even forcefully, to make the site a trade center. The castle withstood many attacks, and finally in 1725 was captured and destroyed by the Osmans, however, later it was reconstructed and in 1769 Russian commander Gottlieb Heinrich Totleben captured the castle. After that, the castle was abandoned and came to ruin as a result. Presently the castle consists of a citadel and an inner courtyard with two towers in the north and south of the yard. The entrance to the castle leads through the gate of the tower built into the fortified wall of the castle. Within the ruins of the castle, a cemetery with the graves of about 180 German prisoners-of-war from World War II can be found.
– the Guria-Samegrelo eparchy church was established in Poti during the 19th century. The military governor of Kutaisi established a committee for the building of a Cathedral in 1895 with the permission of the Russian Commander. The church was meant to be built in a Georgian architectural style, but the Russian government rejected this project and the architects, Zelenko and Marfeldi, had to submit a new design. According to that proposal, it was intended for the church to be a small version of the Hagia Sophia Church in Constantinople (Istanbul) with enough room for 2000 parishioners. On the Northside of the church, icons were made in the Greek-Byzantine style; the Southside icons were in a Georgian-Byzantine style, and the central side icons were in a Russian-Byzantine style. Saint Nino and Saint David the Builder were featured amongst these icons. In 1932 the communist governors of Poti turned the church into a theatre. It was given back to the patriarchy in 2005 and it has now returned to its original function. (source: georgia.travel)
– a village and archaeological site located by the river Tekhuri in Senaki municipality also known as Archaeopolis (Greek Αρχαιόπολις, literally meaning "ancient town") and Tsikhegoji meaning “Fortress of Kuji” who was a semi-mythical Duke of Egrisi and Svaneti in the 3rd Century BC. The place is thought by some archeologists to be the mythological city of Aia, capital of the Kingdom of Colchis, and home of the fabled Golden Fleece. However other scholars prefer the traditional identification of Aia with Kutaisi. The early Byzantine defensive fortifications of Nokalakevi-Archaeopolis take advantage of the site's position within a loop of the river Tekhuri, which has carved a gorge through the local limestone to the west of the fortress. Archaeological excavations have found several different layers of civilization in the Nokalakevi territory. A wall connected this 'upper town' to the 'lower town' below, where excavations have revealed substantial stone buildings of the fourth to sixth century AD. Beneath these late Roman period layers, there is evidence of several earlier phases of occupation and abandonment, from the eighth to second centuries BC. Various valuable items have been unearthed here, including wine vessels, golden, silver, bronze and glass adornments, diverse pottery and ceramic objects. The ruins of ancient palaces, Christian churches, baths, and tunnels have also been identified and preserved. (source: www.georgia.travel; www.wikipedia.org)
Dadiani Palaces Museum
– the palace complex, located in Zugdidi, belonged to the former Dukes of Samegrelo. The first exhibition of archaeological excavations of the ancient city of Nakalakevi (see below) took place in the palace in 1840. In 1850 Prince David Dadiani opened a museum in the palace. It housed a collection of ancient stone-age items, European military weapons of the Middle Ages, paintings, and fine works of art. In 1921 a museum was founded in the palace housing the items and archives of the palace’s rulers. The museum complex consists of the palaces of Ekaterine Chavchavadze-Dadiani and Niko Dadiani (19th century.), a church and a decorative garden laid out by the Dadianis. Niko Dadiani’s palace contains the largest ballroom in all of Georgia and the palace garden is planted with unique trees and bushes from all over the world. Today more than 50,000 rare exhibits are on display at the museum. Among its collection of relics of European monarchs and imperial families, there is a death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte. The museum also houses the relics of Christian saints, including the Mother of God holy vesture, which was brought to Georgia in 1453. The protected arm of St. Marine, parts of St. Kvirike, St. George and John the Baptist are also housed here. Goldsmith works from the 1st century BC – 9th century AD; archaeological materials representing antique period Greek and Georgian culture; samples of European applied art; relics of Samegrelo princes, and a collection of paintings from Russian, French and English artists can also be found in the museum. (georgia.travel)
Kolkheti National Park
– established in 1999, the park covers the eastern zone of the Black Sea coastal plain and incorporates the Kolkheti State Nature Reserve, which had been established in 1947, and its surrounding wetlands, including the Paliastomi Lake. The park was founded to protect and ensure the survival of the wetland ecosystem devastated during massive drainage undertaken by the Soviet authorities, especially in the 1920s.
Over half of the park’s area consists of wetlands. The climate of the park and abundance of water has resulted in the rich biodiversity of flora in the coastal marshes and swamped forests and the deciduous wetland forest. The park and Paliastomi Lake are also famous for their abundant birdlife and unique scenery. The park was opened to tourists in 2007. Boating tours, notably on Lake Paliastomi and on the Pichori River are offered, as are diving, bird watching, hiking, and horse riding. (source: www.wikipedia.org)