Ushguli, a community of five villages in northern Georgia, and only 10km from the Russian border, is one of the highest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe.
The 46km journey from Mestia in a 4WD with a local driver, took just over 3 hours. The majority of the trip was on a narrow, winding, uphill, downhill track with sheer drops on one side and mountains on the other, and in places, streams to cross.
Despite its remote location, the attraction for visitors are the Svan Towers: the area, called Svaneti, is noted for fortified towers built from the 8th century onwards, which were designed to protect family groups who threw projectiles from the upper windows onto marauding invaders.
We stopped several times en route for views back over Mestia, the twin peaks of Mount Ushba, the settlement of Ipari, and the ‘Love Tower’ where, according to legend, a girl shut herself in the tower after her married lover drowned in the river whilst hunting. For two Lari (60p) we could access the tower, reached by climbing over a stile, negotiating stone steps down, and finally a rickety wooden ladder up to the entrance. This was always on the second floor for protection as the ladder could be drawn up. We had to duck inside to enter the small room and then there was a very steep ladder to reach the other floors which we opted out of as it was very small, dark and busy. At the entrance, souvenirs of birch wood towers and quartz crystals were on sale.
At Kala we photographed one of two remaining towers and were told it was one of the last places to be invaded and that as the villagers had been pre-warned of the attack, they had removed the icons from the church, now housed in a museum in Mestia. This was the last stop for a while as the next stage was said to be dangerous with the possibility of falling rocks.
On arrival, we checked into our hotel for our overnight stay and walked to the Ushguli church of the Mother of God, more simply known as the Lamaria church of Ushguli. The medieval Georgian Orthodox church, built from limestone blocks, had both an inner stone defensive wall to repel invaders and an outer modern fence around it, designed to repel four-legged intruders. We ducked under the low door leading into the church and found colourful frescoes and two unusual caricature-style icons of Mary and Jesus who had a long nose, sad eyes and small ears. The floor was the original stone and there were three bells outside of varying sizes which would be rung to summon the villagers. Within the grounds was accommodation for the one or two monks who lived there. Its setting was delightful: with a backdrop of snow-clad mountains, even in June, and green pastures. Although I’d thought the land would have been ideal for grazing sheep, I was told that they are not part of the Svan culture, unlike cattle.
Whilst the area is ideal for mountainous hiking, on our free afternoon, the rain poured, and we contented ourselves with reading in a quiet corner of the café attached to our hotel.
Our departure the following morning was delayed as the track had to be cleared of debris caused by the rain. So, we took the opportunity to amble through the village, carefully avoiding cow pats and rain puddles. This gave us the chance to view the fabulous scenery, get up close to the Svan towers, and see a little more of how people lived in such a remote and isolated spot.