Welcome to Svaneti
Beautiful, wild and mysterious, Svaneti is an ancient land locked in the Caucasus, so remote that it was never tamed by any ruler. Uniquely picturesque villages and snow-covered, 4000m-plus peaks rising above flower-strewn alpine meadows provide a superb backdrop to the many walking trails. Svaneti’s emblem is the koshki (defensive stone tower), designed to house villagers at times of invasion and local strife (until recently Svaneti was renowned for its murderous blood feuds). Around 175 koshkebi, most originally built between the 9th and 13th centuries, survive here today.
Not so long ago Svaneti was still pretty well off the beaten track, but tourism development since the mid-2000s has brought new ski stations, flights from Tbilisi, a major improvement of the road up from Zugdidi, a huge increase in accommodation options and many more visitors, to the point where Svaneti's only town, Mestia, can get pretty busy in summer. Svaneti's mystique and beauty, however, are in no danger of wearing thin.
During the many invasions of Georgia over the centuries, icons and other religious valuables were brought to this isolated region for safekeeping, and a significant number remain in private homes today. Svaneti also has a rich church-art heritage of its own, and many tiny village churches boast frescoes 1000 years old. This mountain retreat, with its own unwritten language, largely unintelligible to other Georgians, is regarded as a bastion of Georgian traditions, as can be witnessed at the numerous Svan festivals of which probably the most famous is Kvirikoba.
Svaneti is divided into Upper (Zemo) and Lower (Kvemo) Svaneti. Green and beautiful Upper Svaneti offers the best walking and climbing as well as the strongest traditions. The walking season lasts from about early June to mid-October, though some routes can be waterlogged early or late in that period.
The remarkable cave city of Vardzia is a cultural symbol with a special place in Georgian hearts. King Giorgi III built a fortification here in the 12th century, and his daughter, Queen Tamar, established a cave monastery that grew into a holy city housing perhaps 2000 monks, renowned as a spiritual bastion of Georgia and of Christendom’s eastern frontier. Its inhabitants lived in rock-hewn dwellings ranging over 13 floors. Altogether there are over 400 rooms, 13 churches and 25 wine cellars, and more are still being discovered.
A major earthquake in 1283 shook away the outer walls of many caves. In 1551 the Georgians were defeated by the Persians in a battle in the caves themselves, and Vardzia was looted. Since the end of Soviet rule Vardzia has again become a working monastery, with some caves inhabited by monks (and cordoned off to protect their privacy).
Guides, available at the ticket office, don’t speak English but they have keys to some passages and caves that you can’t otherwise enter.
At the heart of the cave complex is the Church of the Assumption, with its two-arched, bell-hung portico. The church's facade has gone, but the inside is beautiful. Frescoes painted at the time of its construction (1184–86) portray many New Testament scenes and, on the north wall, Giorgi III and Tamar before she married (shown by the fact that she is not wearing a wimple). To be allowed in the church, women must wear long skirts and head covering, and men must wear long trousers. The door to the left of the church door leads into a long tunnel (perhaps 150m), which climbs steps up inside the rock and emerges well above the church.
Welcome to Stepantsminda
This is most people’s destination on the Georgian Military Hwy: a valley town with the famous hilltop silhouette of Tsminda Sameba Church and the towering snowy cone of Mt Kazbek looking down from the west. Now officially named Stepantsminda, but still commonly known as Kazbegi, it's a base for some wonderful walking and mountain-biking.
The highway brings you straight into the main square, Kazbegis moedani. From here Kazbegis qucha forks to the right, while the main road leads down to a bridge over the Tergi River then continues 15km north to the Russian border in the Dariali Gorge. Immediately after the Tergi bridge a side road turns up to Gergeti village on the west side of the valley, almost a suburb of Kazbegi.
Welcome to Batumi
With a backdrop of mist-wrapped hills, Georgia’s summer holiday capital has sprouted new hotels and attractions like mushrooms in recent years, but it still owes some of its charm to the belle époque elegance of its original boom time a century ago.
Batumi developed in the late 19th century as the western terminus of a railway from Baku that then carried one-fifth of the world’s oil production. A pipeline and refinery built by Ludwig Nobel, brother of Swedish dynamite inventor Alfred, soon followed. Batumi gained free-port status and became a fashionable resort at the southern tip of the Russian empire. In Soviet times the border with Turkey was closed, making Batumi a bit of a backwater, but it has since bounced back as a hub of commerce as well as tourism.
One of the first decisions of the post-Abashidze administration in 2004 was to make Batumi an attractive place to visit, a project that has notably succeeded. The seaside Boulevard park and the Old Town inland from it have been tastefully renovated, new architecture including a small forest of eye-catching tower buildings has sprung up, and Batumi has developed into one of the Black Sea's top resort magnets, with a great party scene in summer.
Welcome to Tusheti
Tucked away in the Caucasus in Georgia’s far northeast corner, Tusheti is an ever more popular summer hiking and horse-trekking area and weekend getaway for lowland Georgians, but remains one of the country’s most picturesque, fascinating and pristine high-mountain regions. The single road to Tusheti, over the nerve-jangling 2900m Abano Pass from Kakheti, is 4WD-only and only passable from about late May to mid-October. Centuries-old koshkebi (stone defence and refuge towers) still stand in many villages, and evidence of Tusheti’s old animist religion is plentiful in the form of stone shrines called khatebi (singular: khati) decked with the horns of sacrificed goats or sheep. Women, including visitors, are not permitted to approach khatebi.
Today most Tusheti folk only go up to Tusheti in summer, to graze their flocks, participate in festivals, cater for tourists and generally reconnect with their roots. Many have winter homes around Akhmeta and Alvani in Kakheti.
Tusheti has two main river valleys – the Pirikiti Alazani and the more southerly Gomtsari (Tushetis) Alazani – which meet below Omalo, the biggest village, then flow east into Dagestan (Russia). The scenery everywhere is a spectacular mix of snow-covered rocky peaks, deep gorges, tower-dotted villages and steep, grassy hillsides where distant flocks of sheep appear as slowly shifting patterns of white specks. The whole area is under environmental protection as the Tusheti Protected Areas (1137 sq km).
Welcome to Kakheti
The eastern region of Kakheti (კახეთი) is Georgia’s premier wine-producing area. Almost everywhere you go, you’ll be invited to drink a glass of wine and it’s easy to find yourself wandering around in a semipermanent mellow haze. Kakheti is also rich in history: here you’ll find the incredible monastery complex of Davit Gareja, the picturesque hilltop town of Sighnaghi, and many beautiful churches, castles and mansions around the main town, Telavi.