Fabulous Svan Towers in Mestia

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June, 2023

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We stayed in Mestia before and after visiting the mountainous settlement of Ushguli, but it wasn’t until our return visit that we got to explore the Georgian town.

The area is noted for the unique Svan towers, built as defensive dwellings in the Svaneti region between the 9th and 12th centuries. From our hotel’s terrace, we had a splendid view across the river Mulkhra to the town, towers, and distant mountains. It was particularly picturesque in the early morning when clouds swirled around the valley.

We visited the modern Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography, a 15-minute walk from the centre. Our guide took us through the various rooms after telling us about Ekvtime Takaishvili, the archaeologist and historian, who in 1921 took the Georgian treasury to Marseille following the Soviet invasion and persuaded a Paris bank to store the 39 boxes. Although he lived in poverty, he refused to sell either the entire collection or individual objects, despite demands by various European museums. Eventually, he was encouraged to return with the collection in 1944 but spent the next 10 years before his death under house arrest.

Exhibits included coins, bronze age artefacts, jewellery, bibles and weapons. There was also a good display of icons from the Svaneti school of painting whose artists were regarded as naïve as they had not been formally trained. It was well laid out and although it looked huge from the outside, it wasn’t too big.

Back in town, we enjoyed drinks on the terrace of Lushnu Qor before a visit to the ‘cinema’.

Whilst staying in Ushguli we heard about the 2017 award-winning film ‘Dede’ which had been shot in the area. Apart from one professional actor, the film used local people, fluent in the Svan dialect. Although I was going to look up the film on return, I spotted a ‘cinema’ which turned out to be a small, slightly damp basement room with deck chairs and bean bags in front of a white projector screen. A young girl introduced herself as the sister of the director, Mariam Khatchvani, and gave a brief overview of the film which featured her brother, Mose. Based on true events at the outset of the Georgian Civil War it revolved around a patriarchal society of forced marriages, pride and tradition which dictated the code of daily life. As the only visitor, I watched in splendid isolation, and followed most of the story, although some parts weren’t clear and, as many of the men had dark hair and beards, I found it difficult to differentiate between them. However, it gave me a fascinating insight into winter in Ushguli, with two-feet of snow on roofs and people trudging through waist-high drifts. It was hard to understand why people remained living there through the harsh weather.

Mestia is a laid-back town, and we enjoyed simply wandering the narrow streets and marvelling at the Svan towers. However, if you’re staying longer or are more active, there’s lots of mountainous hiking in the area.

Helen Jackson

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