Mestia, Georgia

In October I visited the Svaneti region of Georgia.  I was urged by many to see this beautiful mountainous region of Georgia before the weather turned.  I had read about Svaneti before, through an aged travel book.  It’s known as a remote part of an already remote country, secluded high up in the Caucus Mountains.  The area is celebrated for it’s natural beauty.  The Svans, as the people are known, have a distinct culture which stands apart from the rest of Georgia.  In recent years, tourism has been at the center of the small economy. Serving as the center of tourism is the village of Mestia.

In the past getting to Mestia was an uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous progression. The road was a nightmare.  As recent as a decade ago, according to some sources, tourists were routinely robbed.  Now, although the road has been improved and  banditry is no longer practiced, getting to Mestia can still become a bit of an adventure.

The most common way to get into Mestia is by boarding a marshrutka (old bus) from Zugdidi. Depending on the driver and barring any breakdowns, it could take four to five hours to arrive in Mestia. Our bus broke down, and we were transferred to another one.

Mestia serves as the hub for activity in the area.  As it was just in the last few years the road to Mestia was rebuilt by the government, the area still feels like its under construction.  The sound of hammers and saws can be heard throughout Mestia.  New buildings, with faux rustic facades, are popping up everywhere.  The network of tour guides, lodging, and eateries is growing.  Despite all the forward momentum, Mestia is still a developing destination, with certain gaps in convenience and/or comfort.  However, this fact may hold some of the charm of Mestia.  It’s not like any other mountain town out there.  It will be interesting to see what happens to the area as the amount of visitors increases.

As a result of the past isolation, Mestia has remained well preserved, many of the ancient buildings perfectly intact. The most iconic of these buildings are the Svan defense towers, some of which have been standing since the Middle Ages.

In the two days I had to visit Mestia I was blessed with perfect fall weather.  I chose to spend an entire day hiking to the Chalaadi Glacier, which was entirely worth it.  [If you are a potential visitor to Mestia reading this post, GO TO THE GLACIER]  Leaving early in the morning I walked through Mestia towards the airport, and continued along a dirt road for two hours stopping liberally to take pictures and stand in complete amazement at the views.

The road runs next to the Mestiachala river and culminates at a suspension bridge which takes a person across the swiftly moving glacial waters.  From here, a narrow hiking trail winds through thick forest taking a person to the rocky terminal moraine of the glacier (maybe an hour of blissful hiking).  There are no signs but the way is intuitive – head for the giant slab of ice in the mountains.

After wayfinding through an expanse of glacial boulders and rock, it’s possible to walk right up to the “white ice” of the glacier.  A person can place their hands on the toe of the glacier, but watch out for falling debris.  I’ve hiked to a number of glaciers in the States and elsewhere, but the Chalaadi may be one of my favorites.

Back in Mestia, I sampled the local spring water, which is free flowing from a spigot in the center of the community park.  Any visitor to Georgia will soon discover the pride Georgians hold in local water sources, as well as the prevalence of mineral water.  The water in Mestia, now even months later, remains some of the my favorite I’ve tried.

With tourism in Mestia only expected to increase, hopefully the area can retain it’s heritage and charm.  As it is now, Mestia is an enchanting place to visit, but for how long it will remain this way is unknown.

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