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Following the Footsteps of Vittorio Sella. 10-day Tour of Svaneti, Georgia

Georgia

Group: 2-8 persons

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“Mt. Ushba, the mountain of rain. At dusk this soaring peak is sublime in the elegance of its indomitable forms.
If at first glance it is surprising, upon closer observation its fantastic lines simply fascinate one.”
Vittorio Sella

This is a journey through Upper Svaneti, one of Georgia’s finest regions. The route traces the footsteps of Vittorio Sella, a famous Italian scientist and photographer, and an honorary member of numerous European mountaineering clubs and geographic societies. At the end of the 19th century, he brought three expeditions to the Caucasus Mountains, and astounded his contemporaries both with painstaking descriptions of the little-known mountains, as well as with the beauty and expressiveness of his photographs. The peaks, rivers and gorges of Svaneti, its ancient towers, villages and local way of life, were reflected in Sella’s “Svan Album.” Today his photographs are exhibited in the Mestia Museum: Ushba, Herdsmen in the Gorge of Tviberi, Village Elders, Young Women, Adishi—they are a true ode to the mountains. It’s no surprise that one of Mestia’s streets is named in memory of the legendary mountaineer.

You’ll be amazed to discover that Svaneti has changed very little in the course of the last century. Here, time seems to have stopped in its tracks. The same towers and mountains stand stoically, and the people tend the land and cattle in the same way that their forefathers did. We’ll have plenty of chances to replicate the frames of the great Italian photographer and to produce our own masterpieces. Each day will bring adventures into alpine meadows, deep forests, ancient glaciers and austere mountains. Each night will be filled with the cordiality and hospitality of local residents who abide by the ancient Svanetian proverb: “A guest is a messenger from God.”

The expedition will last 10 days. For its first half, our mainstay will be Mestia, the administrative center of Upper Svaneti. We will walk its ancient streets, visit its modern museums, and adventure out to see the neighbouring mountain slopes and crossings. In the evenings, we’ll meet local residents and enjoy traditional restaurants. For the second part of our journey we’ll hike mountain trails and visit the villages that Vittorio Sella saw over a century ago. This route will take 5 days with passages lasting several hours each, but we’ll travel lightly. You won’t have to carry anything except for your personal things, such as a jacket, a flask or camera. The rest of your luggage will get to the overnight stop by car. We’ll finish our journey in Kutaisi, and from there you can continue to the sea shore and relax for a few days.

Tour Schedule

Day 1. Gamarjobat!

Arrival by plane to Kutaisi. Check-in at the hotel. A walk around the Old City and dinner in a cozy restaurant where you’ll meet the expedition’s other participants.

Day 2. Road to Svaneti

A three-hour drive to Mestia with stops along the way. The first stop in Mestia is at the Ethnographic Museum that recently underwent renovation. In addition to an extraordinary collection of Svan antiquities—unique icons, coins, jewellery and household items of the mountain people—the museum stores and exhibits Sella’s photographs. After visiting the museum we’ll walk around the old streets of the historical Lanchvali district and have lunch in a cozy cafe with breathtaking views. We’ll also visit an old house with a full recreation of traditional Svan life. We’ll finish our day on the roof of the Margiani ancestral tower, and take a look at Mestia and the surrounding mountains as the sun sets.

Day 3. Hike around Mestia

On this day we’ll take a beautiful stroll through the mountains, meticulously tracing Sella’s route. If the weather permits, we’ll be able to see (and take pictures of) South Ushba’s profile, right from the spot where Sella took his photographs, and compare the terrain to the way it was at the end of the 19th century.

Day 4. Along the walls of Ushba

The two-horned Ushba, one of the Caucasus Mountains’ finest peaks, stands apart from the Greater Caucasus Range and is fully situated in the territory of Georgia. We’ll follow a route which is laid almost under its upright walls that were used by the peak’s first climbers. The trail runs through alpine meadows, past a small mountain lake called Koruldi—from there we’ll go back to Mestia.

Day 5. A hike along the Zuruldi Ridge

The day will begin with a breakfast at Zuruldi, Georgia’s highest-altitude restaurant overlooking Mt. Ushba, followed by a folk art performance. Afterwards, we’ll take off for a pleasant walk across alpine meadows where we’ll see the valley and the villages that cling to the wooded mountain slopes. We’ll descend to the village of Tsvirmi with its 11th century frescoed church. The day will end with a traditional Svan feast in the house of our friends, which stands at the entrance to the Tviberi and Tsaneri gorges that lead across the mountains to Russia. We’ll spend the night at the guest house.

Day 6. Visiting Svan villages

The walk that will seem to take us two hundred years back will begin at the village of Lakhiri, one of Upper Svaneti’s finest. The small patch of land is densely filled with houses, above which rise the ancient ancestral towers. Here, you feel the time flow steadily as if to remove from life everything that is superficial, mundane and impermanent. We’ll stop for lunch at the neighbouring village of Zhabeshi, and then will take a slow stroll to the final destination for the day, the remote village of Adishi. In the winters, it’s populated by no more than ten families, and should an avalanche block the only road, the local residents remain cut off from the rest of the world for as long as a few months. We’ll dine and spend the night in the local guesthouse.

Day 7. Across the mountains to Khalde

This day brings a rather difficult hike with significant climbing. In favourable weather conditions, we’ll be rewarded at the Chkhutnieri crossing with stunning views of the Shkhara mountain group: mounts Jangi-Tau, Shota Rustaveli, Gestola and Tetnuldi, as well as Adishi, a massive icefall with giant cracks. After descending from the mountain crossing we’ll come to Khalde, a village with a dramatic backstory. At the end of the 19th century, the Czarist army decided to subdue the village’s residents and force them to pay taxes. The mountain people resisted to the last, but the army gunned the village down with artillery, destroying all of its ancestral towers. Khalde is the only village in Upper Svaneti without ancestral towers. At the end of the day, expect a feast of traditional khachapuri cheese pies and kubdari, a filled bread dish, at the home of a Svan family where we’ll spend the night.

Day 8. From Iprali to Ushguli

We’ll start the day by visiting the ancient church of St. Kvirike and St. Ivlita, which stands on a cliff in the village of Iprali. From there we’ll go to Ushguli, the highest-altitude village of Upper Svaneti. Its medieval towers rise up against the backdrop of the Shkhar mountain group, whose peaks demarcate the border between Georgia and Russia. One of the village’s four districts, Chazhashi, is a unique monument, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Towards evening we’ll visit the Monastery of Church Fathers and Lamaria Church. We’ll have dinner and spend the night at a local guesthouse.

Day 9. Hike of Lamaria Ridge

In the morning we’ll go to a service at Lamaria Church. Afterwards, we’ll travel up the ridge for a picnic, and then walk the trail towards Shkhara, enjoying the views of the Greater Caucasus Mountain range. In the evening we’ll return to Ushguli for our last meal of simple but nutritious and delicious Svan cuisine. We’ll spend another night in the guesthouse.

Day 10. Return to Kutaisi

In the morning we’ll ride from Ushguli to Kutaisi. The drive will be 4 hours, so we’ll come to the capital of Imereti by lunch time, in the early afternoon.

Some stages of this tour demand excellent athletic form, as we’ll be walking 10 to 15 km a day, sometimes with a significant climb (over 1,000 m). If you are unsure of your readiness, you can stay back at Mestia or one of the villages on the road and join the main group later. But if you want to change the tour program ahead of time and enjoy it at your own tempo, you can request an individual tour.

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