Deep in the Caucasus mountains, in the Georgian region of Svaneti, is Ushguli – at 2,100 metres above sea level it’s among the highest continuously inhabited villages in Europe. To get there, we climbed for three days on our tandem up a steep, rocky road. Finally, after crossing landslides and helping to free a 4×4 from deep mud, we arrived.
Snug between two steep hills of the deepest green, by a river of crystal-clear glacial meltwater, was a collection of mossy stone buildings topped with enormous slates. Children on horseback, chased by stray dogs, galloped along narrow muddy streets, and old women sat side by side milking their cows. It was a Grimm brothers dream and from the window of our guesthouse, we gazed on Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain, which soars to over 5,000 metres and was thick with snow even in August. It marks the Russian border.
Adding to the fairytale feeling are about 30 ancient stone towers, scattered around the village. Most were built between the 9th and 12th centuries by families seeking safety from an endless stream of medieval invaders who swept through the area. Villagers would retreat to the top with precious possessions and food, and wait for the enemy to move on.
We paid a lari (25p) to go up one with the help of a local rock climber – there are no stairs as such – who guided, pushed and pulled us up a rather precarious interior. We popped out of a hole in the roof to a postcard view of the village.
Despite its remote location, the village manages to offer tourist services without losing its distinct character. Many locals let rooms in their houses (we paid £7 a night), or “tent places” in their gardens, and there are a few small cafes serving Georgian wine, khachapuri (cheese-filled bread) and aromatic soup. There are even two small museums, the best being the “ethnographic” museum, which shows what the inside of a traditional Ushguli house would once have looked like.
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