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Svaneti - A view from our expert author
Defensive towers are common across Svaneti © Yarygin, Shutterstock
Svaneti, the land of the Svans, hidden in obscure recesses of the High Caucasus, is an area to which much mystery attaches itself. It’s seen as more Georgian than Georgia proper, the repository of the country’s soul, due to having been the last refuge from the Mongols – the holiest icons and richest treasures were carried up beyond the Inguri gorges for safe keeping in times of crisis, and artistic and religious traditions are felt to have been better preserved here than elsewhere. At the same time the Svans are seen as strong but unsophisticated, speaking a 6th-century dialect of Georgian which is largely incomprehensible to the people of Kartli and Kakheti, and often disregarding the norms of law and order.
Until very recently, tourists were sometimes held up and robbed here but the situation has changed markedly in recent years as a result of an investment and clean-up campaign by President Saakashvili, and more and more independent backpackers are arriving. At the time of writing the Saakishvili administration was looking to develop tourism in Svaneti even further, turning the region into a ‘Switzerland in the Caucasus’, complete with reliable air access, ski slopes and modern hotels. The soundest advice is probably to get there as a soon as possible before the area becomes increasingly commercial.
Given the amazing beauty of the surrounding peaks, the clusters of defensive towers that dominate the villages, and the frescoes and icons of the churches, it is hardly surprising that these valleys are enticing an ever-increasing numbers of visitors.
The Svans’ fearsome reputation for brigandage is not wholly without foundation. During the civil war in Abkhazia, when refugees were fleeing from the Svan-populated upper reaches of the Kodori and Sakeni rivers, some were greeted by soup kitchens at the passes, but others were robbed by their fellow Svans. The typical Svan name ‘Kurdiani’ actually means ‘thief’, although the family has in fact produced many well-known Tbilisi architects and artists. However, the Svans are for the most part very hospitable and friendly, and will welcome you to the area with open arms.