Visiting Mestia? Make Sure You Pack Your Hiking Boots!
First published in Newas Magazine October 2017
There are times when an assignment lands on my desk which can be a little confusing. “We need a 1500 - word piece on Mestia by Friday …can do?”
Now, if you mention Mestia to even the most seasoned of travelers I am almost sure even they would be hard-pressed to place it on a map, which is why it makes for such an intriguing destination.
Naturally, I took the assignment! (Even though hiking has never been my thing!)
The city of Mestia in Georgia is located in the Svaneti region of the Zemo Svaneti province, some 128 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of the regional capital of Zugdidi.
Georgia is an altogether diverse place, squeezed as it is between the majestic Caucasus Mountains to the north, the Black Sea to the west and arid deserts to the south. It has always been a major crossroad of several cultures bordered as it is by Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey. It is a small country but has some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet.
The government of Georgia has over the last few years been actively promoting this picturesque part of the Caucuses with the result that Mestia has seen a surge in visitor numbers.
The town of Mestia itself is a little ‘fractured’ as it is made up of about ten separate hamlets scattered across a fairly wide area with the hamlet of Lekhtagi to the northwest, and its sister hamlets, Lanchvali and Lagami to the northeast. The town with a population of around 2,600 inhabitants, is the regional capital of Svaneti and is also the main center of tourism for the region. Each of the charming hamlets is dotted with the distinctive Svan towers (But more about that later)
Getting around Mestia is easy as it consists of just one main street that runs east to west through the entire town. Along this street, you will find all the guest houses, hotels, and restaurants.
The townlet’s main square, Setis Moedani has recently undergone and brought back to its original splendor. The recently opened airport just a couple of kilometers out of town means that the region has become far more accessible for travelers.
The region’s population is predominately Svans, a cultural and linguistic subgroup of the overall Georgian population. Despite Mestia’s tiny size, the townlet has, for centuries always been an important center of Georgian culture due to its plethora of medieval monuments, churches, and forts and was recently included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Everywhere you go in this region it is impossible to miss the distinctive Svan Towers which are the symbol of Svanetia. Many of these towers date back to the Middle Ages when families built these structures as part of the house itself. Here they could take refuge in the event of war or siege from the marauding armies from other districts.
In essence, they were sentry posts when in the event of approaching danger a fire could be lit on top of the tower alerting the next hamlet of the imminent danger. Fires were then lit on all of the towers so that the entire gorge had fires burning, allowing the inhabitants to prepare for whatever events might occur.
Every tower is identical rising to a height of about 25m containing up to five or six levels with windows built into the upper floors. Mestia has a number of these towers that still stand after several hundred years.
One of the primary reasons for visiting this district is to get out and about to explore the surrounding countryside and Mestia is the ideal jumping off point to discover some of the most incredible scenery that you will see anywhere.
Before embarking on your hike it is advisable to pop into the local tourist information center, situated on the main street and there, the more than helpful staff will willingly provide all the information and maps covering the most popular treks.
Chalaadi Glacier makes for a perfect day trip from Mestia. The hike follows the river heading north and is fairly long (about 20km return). Once you have passed the airport, the scenery becomes simply majestic. Along the route be sure to stop at Cafe Chalaadi to sample their cakes and sweet tea. If the 20 km proves daunting, renting a car is an option as it will allow you to get close to the glacier. (about 10 – 20 lari per person)
Koruldi Lakes. A great way to see Mestia from an elevated position is to hike up behind the town to a rather imposing wooden cross perched on top of the hill. The views are panoramic and from here you are able to branch off and head to the Koruldi lakes. Be aware though that this hike will take about 8 – 10 hours so be sure to pack a lunch and take plenty of water!
Ushguli is certainly worth a visit gave that it is the highest the inhabited point in Europe. Its tiny, with just a few dwellings but does have a great ethnographic museum that has a surprising collection of 12th-century religious artwork. You will need a car to reach this destination as well as the ones listed below.
Mountain Ushba in good weather is definitely worth a visit as it is a stunning peak and is easy to get to the base and the altogether charming village of Mazeri. There is a cable car ride (Kanatnaya Doroga) a fair walk from the village which will take you some way up the mountain.
If you are planning a visit to Mestia it is recommended that you get out and about to really appreciate what this district has to offer. The mountains are awe-inspiring as the Caucuses are almost akin to the Southern Alps in New Zealand. The rolling hills are reminiscent of the opening scene from the Sound of Music and on hot summers days, the lakes provide excellent picnic and swimming spots.
So, pack your hiking boots and be prepared to be awestruck and to be a little stiff.
WHERE TO STAY;
In the past few years, a number of new hotels and guest houses have sprung up along the main street in Mestia that are well run and more importantly comfortable.
Old Seti Hotel is pretty much situated in the center of Mestia nest to the renovated Seti Square. It has a tranquil garden free Wi-Fi a 24-hour concierge desk and an in-house restaurant. All rooms feature a desk and en-suite bathrooms.
Svan House is a charming guest house that offers fabulous views of the mountains. It offers 24 -hour concierge service free Wi-Fi and has an in-house restaurant. Try to get a room with a balcony.
Georgian food is renowned the world over so expect great food from most of the restaurants in the main street. Do try the khinkali (dumplings) to khachapuri (cheese-filled bread). Once tried you are will surely be a convert!
Paul v Walters is the author of several best selling novels and when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he also scribbles for several international travel and vox pop journals.His latest offering ASSET is due for release in 2018