Jul 5, 2018
Once considered remote and impregnable, the Svaneti region of Georgia’s far northwest is very much on the tourist radar these days. This year with the introduction of a host of budget flights on Wizzair from a variety of European cities, the tiny town of Mestia is bursting at the seams. Virtually every house is a guesthouse regardless of amenities, and cafes line the single road that runs through the town. Getting off a marshrutka guarantees besiegement by touts for horse-riding and paragliding among other activities. But persistence has not yet gained a firm foothold and it is easy to focus on the beauty of the surrounds.
Tucked in between the folds of green mountains on one side and the rushing waters of the Enguri on the other, this area was once ten separate hamlets. But so profuse are the houses now, they form a more or less continuous chain, the town collectively called Mestia. Among the tin roofs and pre-fab construction are tall stone towers. They are the unique signature of Svaneti and found nowhere else in Georgia.
They poke up between rooftops in any cluster of buildings. Each hamlet or village has several, many in dilapidated states but most renovated. Some are incorporated as part of a house, some serve as storage bins and yet others appear to be used as stables and sties. But they have a pragmatic origin in Georgia’s checkered history. Built mostly between the 9th and 13th centuries, they served not only as watch towers, but also refuges for the villagers in times of strife. And strife, there was plenty. Enemies from across the borders vied with those in neighboring villages. Feuding was a way of life in these villages.
There are a couple of towers in Mestia where one can climb up to the roof. Three or four platforms are connected via ladders, none uniform in height. The area, no more than twenty-five square meters at the base, lessens as the tower tapers. It is difficult to imagine the efficiency of these towers are refuges. But to climb is to be rewarded with a view that stretches across the rooftops along the valley. How many tourists the weathered wood boards of the roof can support though, is yet to be determined.