Trail of the unexpected: Georgian drama
Celia Topping captures a fairy tale autumn world on her journey through the remote region of Svaneti
Saturday 05 November 2011
Just a few kilometres from the northern Georgian/Russian border, we happened upon some border guards who were scrutinising the mountainsides through binoculars with such still, rapt intensity I thought they must be looking for marauding Russian invaders or escaped Soviet spies. "No," laughed our genial guide, Richard, "they're keeping their eyes on a Caucasian tur [a type of goat antelope found only in this region of Svaneti]; they're keen naturalists".
Relieved, or perhaps slightly disappointed, I looked around, and not for the first time on our hike, was overwhelmed by the astonishing blaze of autumnal colour radiating from the hillsides. Burnished reds, oranges, yellows and greens seemed to shimmer and glow, illuminating every leaf as if lit from within. It was hard to tear my eyes away and continue my walk up to the border post: a simple, unassuming log cabin, hidden in the trees.
It is only in the last seven years, however, since Mikheil Saakashvili came to power as Georgia's president, that this isolated, yet beautiful region of Svaneti has become safe. Previously, brutal gangs dominated the area, robbing locals and tourists alike. But now it is once more a tranquil state.
A new road has been built from the capital, Tbilisi, and both the Svans and the government are looking to tourism to bring cash into the region. Ski resorts are being constructed, flights connect Tbilisi to the Svan townlet of Mestia, and hotels and guesthouses are starting to open.
In 2010, Grand Hotel Ushba opened, sitting snugly at the foot of the "jewel" of the Caucasus, Mount Ushba. It is the creation of Richard Baerug, a man with an infectious energy.
"Grand" is perhaps over-stating things, when you consider the hotel has only seven rooms. Indeed, it has such a rustic feel that any grandness consists solely in the excellence of the homemade food and warm hospitality offered by Richard and his team. The hotel treats its guests as if they are family, encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, skiing and cultural excursions.
I was tempted by the prospect of a trip to the highest village in Europe that maintains a year-round population: Ushguli, standing at 2,100 metres. Its ancient towers, dating back as far as the ninth century, earned it a place as a Unesco world heritage site.
After four hours along unpaved roads in a minibus, through unseasonal hail and snow, I began to wonder if it would be worth the effort. Yet when I first saw the village, complete with mist swirling around the stone towers, I was enchanted. Walking along the winding pathways, I met yoked oxen, wild pigs and hardy looking locals in traditional clothing. It was almost as if this magical place shouldn't exist, except within the pages of a fairytale.
Travel essentials: Georgia
* The writer travelled with Air Baltic (00 371 6700 6006; airbaltic.com), which flies from Gatwick to Tbilisi via Riga, with single fares starting at €167.
* BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.co.uk) flies from Heathrow via Baku.
* From Tbilisi to Mestia, the options are Pegasus Airlines (00 995 32 400 400; flypgs.com) for 75 GEL (Georgian Lari/£28) one-way; a marshrutka (shared taxi) from 25 GEL (£9) one-way; or a minibus from 25 GEL (£9) one-way. The Grand Hotel Ushba can also arrange transfers.
* Grand Hotel Ushba, Tvebishi, Mestias rajoni, Svaneti (00 995 7901 19192; grandhotelushba.com/EN). Doubles start at €54. The best room is the Ushba suite, which overlooks the mountain and starts at €74.
Excursions and activities are available from 25 GEL per person (£9).
* Tbilisi Tourism: 00 995 32 243 6767
* Georgia Tourist Board: georgia.travel
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