Svaneti: Mestia is a region in north-western Georgia, located high up in the Caucasus mountains close to the Russian border. Before the construction of the new road from Zugdidi to Mestia, Svaneti was hidden from the rest of the world and became an ecosystem in itself. The Svan people speak an ancient form of Georgian that a native from Tbilisi would struggle to understand.
Once a province of Colchis, Svaneti is perhaps the place where the legend of the golden fleece originated from. The locals of the region would pan for gold using sheepskin, which would have left the fleece golden.
The wildness of Svaneti has been famed throughout Georgia. The banditry from local highwaymen and robbers has only stopped in the last few years or so, and the remoteness of the location has made Svaneti perhaps one of the more untamed parts of the country. Its proximity to Abkhazia has also made this mountainous region a haven for Abkhaz refugees after the war in the 90s, so until recently, tourists have been advised to exercise caution when visiting the area. Not to mention the old road leading to Mestia which was one of the most dangerous roads in Georgia, citing an incredibly high mortality rate thanks to dangerous mountain passes and the Svan tendency for drunk driving.
However, recently the Saakashvili government has invested a lot in this region that many say is the most authentic in Georgia. A new road was opened in 2011 between Zugdidi and Mestia, cutting the perilous journey from 5-8 hours to only 2.5. Gone are the dangerous mountain bends, where tunnels have replaced the worst parts, and a nice concrete road with actual barriers is a welcome change. Mestia also boasts a new airport and the town is undergoing a lot of development, with the dream of turning it into Georgia’s own little Switzerland.
The journey from Tbilisi to Mestia was surprisingly smooth. We took the night train out from Tbilisi on Sunday night to Zugdidi, situated close to the Abkhaz border. In theory this should have been a smooth ride out.
This wasn’t the most pleasant way to travel, but at least I had two seats to myself and could raise the armrest to spread out a bit more (sadly I couldn’t say the same about my 9 hour overnight journey from Madrid-Santiago de Compostela a few years ago). The worst was the child who decided to throw a temper tantrum most of the journey, but at some point I did fall asleep, because I was woken up by the guard at sunrise just as we pulled into Zugdidi.
Mestia itself was surprising. The town centre is entirely under construction and feels more like the set of a Spaghetti Western than the “Georgia Proper” the guidebook led us to believe. This was not helped by the country and western music being played from the one of the builders’ radio. Modern buildings had sprung up in the town that were totally out of character and left me wondering whether this trip was actually worth it.
Leaving the town centre, you enter Svaneti Proper. The iconic defensive towers of the region dot the mountain side and the newly paved road turns into a mud track where farm animals get right of way. This is what I was expecting from Mestia! Not Swiss style chalets.