Ushguli is the highest continuously inhabited village in Europe, picturesquely perched in the Caucasus mountains at the altitude of about 2100 meters (6900 ft) in Svaneti, Georgia. That alone is not too impressive, although it is a party bonmot for which many a traveler are willing to measure the winding way to the hardly accessible village. Fortunately, along with being able to say that –
“Oh, we´ve been to the highest village in Europe!”
– it is also true that Ushguli is particularly beautiful, located under the Shkhara glacier and surrounded by green hills (in the summer, that is!) where horses roam almost freely and cows graze happily, quite like in an ad for a Swiss chocolate.
In this guide, I will cover the following Ushguli FAQ:
- Is it worth visiting Ushguli? (hell yes!)
- Legends of Ushguli
- What is the purpose of the towers in Svaneti?
- The legend of Queen Tamar
- Getting to Ushguli
- Accommodation options in Ushguli (free and paid)
- Guesthouses, campgrounds etc.
- Workaway in Ushguli
- Sightseeing and points of interest in Ushguli
- Exploring the village and Queen Tamar´s castles
- Lamaria church & St. George chapel
- Hiking to the Shkhara glacier
- How are the locals of Ushguli?
- Svan villages beyond Ushguli
Why visit Ushguli?
Nature alone would be a valid reason to visit, however, the ancient architecture is truly what makes the bumpy road worthwhile. Strange towers overlook the valley, standing in between of solid houses made completely of the local flat dark stone, including the roof. Most of these building are abandoned as of now and there are only a handful of towers one can climb – the local children will charge you a few lari to use their ladder.
As the Georgian government is building a road to connect Ushguli to the notably more touristy village of Mestia, the prospects of money flowing into their pockets make the locals get enthusiast about their old properties. While (in 2017) the UNESCO is in the process of reconstructing the oldest part of the village, trucks bring long logs of wood meant for restaurants and guesthouses.
Legends of Ushguli
The mountain region of Svaneti with its particular architecture ignites the imagination of every dreamer. There are several stories and legends I´ve heard that might be of interest to other travelers – you! – as well. Here are the ones from Ushguli:
What is the purpose of the towers in Svaneti?
The mysterious towers of Ushguli and their meaning is a question asked by every traveler in Svaneti. There are several theories and apparently, nobody is really that sure about which one is correct.
Some say that the families in this region had long-lasting conflicts between themselves and therefore needed to defend themselves in smaller fortresses when the enemy families attacked. However, in a community so small and in such harsh natural conditions it seems rather improbable to me.
Another story is that this region was always an important strategic point and there was a lot of tension from the northern, Russian side.
Read more: A slow travel guide to Kutaisi, Georgia
The village has two castles though – it would be better for the community to defend itself by joining forces instead of letting the enemy burn down one tower turned chimney after another.
My favorite theory has to do with the weather. Svaneti gets at least two meters of snow every year, with snowing at times starting as early as September. Ushguli, a small settlement up in the mountains, is hard to reach during the cold months – one has to ask why anyone would choose to live here instead of the lower regions where it is possible to farm some fruits and vegetables to vary the potato-and-dairy based diet.
The locals say that in winter, their ancestors would retreat to the towers with all the food they could gather. With the snow storms being more than common, the possibilities of an avalanche were high and staying in a tall tower would make sure that they could get out in case this happened, instead of getting stuck under the snow in the regular houses.
The legend of Queen Tamar
This famous Georgian queen is said to be so powerful that she was often referred to as “king Tamar”. (Hello, sexism! How about role models for little Georgian girls?)
Supposedly, the Svaneti region was her favorite and she came to Ushguli several times. The name of Chazhashi, the oldest part of Ushguli, actually means “a place to tie the horse” and it is said that she tied her horse there herself upon one of her visits.
The summer and winter castles in and near the village are supposedly her fortresses where she resided in respective seasons, but there is also another story that says that when Queen Tamar died, her people didn´t want to disclose the secret of her grave to the enemies. That is why they have built seven castles and made a crypt in all of them so that her real place of burial remains hidden. The architects and constructors of these castles supposedly committed suicide after finishing their noble project to avoid accidentally or forcefully confiding the information to the wrong ears.
How to get to Ushguli?
Several private cars and marshrutkas daily go up and down the dirt road to bring (m)any adventuresome tourists into Ushguli.
A bus ticket from Mestia costs about 30 lari and a private car between 150 – 200 GEL. However, probably the most scenic option is to take the hiking trail. Both of these offer great views of the Ushba mountain with its two summits.
It is definitely possible to hitchhike to Ushguli during the summer season. Some drivers will offer you a car for hire, but with a bit of patience, you will be able to get a ride.
Where to stay in Ushguli?
Of those living in the village, many stay only for the summer season and there is no tourism during the winter, unlike in Mestia – there is no ski center and the village is hard to access. There are quite a few guesthouses run by people from Tbilisi who come here for work.
Guesthouses, hotels and hostels…actually, mostly guesthouses
The local guesthouses mostly have a campground that usually costs 10 lari per person. In summer 2017, there is a young German woman named Karina running a Workaway project who visible from the Mestia road. The place is called Kayana (pronounce Kah – jah – nah with “a” as in “father”) which means “Crazy” in Georgian. It is possible that she stays in the village for several years (or not) – they might know about that at the tourist info point in Mestia. (Apparently, the guy who works there is really tired of the hordes of tourists asking the same stuff, so it´s nice that you are here doing your research!) Other than that, there are not many other spots to get local tips on hiking or sightseeing possibilities.
There are several flat spots near the village fit for wild camping if you don´t mind the lack of a bathroom (or bushes, for that matter).
The places to stay are usually guesthouses although some bear a fancy “hotel” in their name. You can find a room costing as little as 20 lari per person, which is the same as many hostels in Kutaisi.
My recommendation would be to stay in the Chazhashi guesthouse placed right next to the Queen Tamar´s winter castle (which consists of two towers on a small hill) – it is owned by locals who have their own cow, chicken and sheep and so you can enjoy not only the traditional setting of a Svan house but also homemade cheese, matsoni (yoghurt), and fresh milk.
The rooms have a great view of the mountains, towers and green hills that change the shade depending on the time of the day. Plus the guesthouse is located right next to the oldest house of Ushguli (as determined by an Italian specialist) that, surprisingly, has five corners. FYI, I am unashamedly biased because I worked with them and like the family. So stop complaining and stay there.
Workaway in Ushguli
I came to Ushguli in search of a work exchange and a nice place to stay for summer. We were lucky enough to find a good spot in the local Chazhashi guesthouse (that I recommended you in the previous section) where we worked in the kitchen, cleaned and generally helped out in exchange for a place to stay and food.
I grew fond of the guesthouse mainly because of the girl we worked with, Eto, who was kind, smart and spoke great English. Later on, we formed a good relationship with the rest of the family too although they didn´t speak any language that we speak. As a guest, it is a great place to stay because it is located in one of the old houses and you can even sleep in the typical Svan watchtower, but also witness a daily life of a real family, with their fiery temperament and all that.
If you get a chance, Ushguli, or Svaneti in general, is an awesome place to do a work exchange – the nature is beautiful and the unheard of history is interesting to discover when the locals open up.
I will write more about my first Workaway experience in a separate article though. (Coming soon!)
What to see in Ushguli
There is plenty! Start by taking a walk across the three parts of the village – Murkmeli (the lower one), Chazhashi (middle and oldest one at once) and Chvibiani and Zhvibiani (who are connected in the upper part)(sincerely hope I spelled that right).
Exploring the village and Queen Tamar´s castles
Chazhashi, the oldest part of the village, is being declared as the UNESCO heritage and is being reconstructed. Climb to the Queen Tamar´s Winter castle to get a beautiful view of the village and the layers of mountains on the horizon. The name of this castle in Svan language is Supar which means “gathering place”: all the problems of the community and war decisions were discussed here. The castle originally had four towers connected by a wall, but it was destroyed in the 1930s during the Soviet regime. The stones were used to build farms and other buildings. You can see a photograph of the castle from the end of the 19th century while it was still complete in the Chazhashi guesthouse next to it.
To see the oldest house in Ushguli, look down towards the south – you can actually spot its fifth corner from the hill. The house currently hosts the family´s cows although UNESCO is starting the preparations for a proper reconstruction, as the owners told us.
Hiking to the Summer Castle of Queen Tamar
You can see the Summer Castle of the legendary Queen Tamar from her Winter Castle – look to the south. You can hike up there in an hour (even I was able to make it) although the way is steep. The shorter, steeper way goes from Chazhashi and you have to open a small wooden gate, leading to the hill. Take the trail up and when you come to a “cross-section”, keep to the right. Then you only need to go straight and you will see the ruins of the castle until you enter the forest. When you get to the top, you can take to the left to go to a little stream, a beautiful place covered in flowers, or right to get to the ruins. This hike is worth it because of the stunning view of the mountains, Shkhara glacier and the village in the valley. There are two towers and a church left of the fortress.
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The second way up to the Summer castle (which is a great way to go down as it is less steep, albeit a bit longer) starts from the Murkmeli bridge (in the lower part of Ushguli). It follows the river basically until you reach the top and we were able to see a piece of the tunnel shaped glacier still there, glowing white on the hill. The castle is visible from the trail.
I think the best way to do this hike is to go up the steep way which is rather slippery and sometimes muddy. After reaching the castle, you can hang out at the ruins, enjoy the view and go down the river way which is significantly less steep.
I hiked the way up within one hour, stayed up perhaps an hour more and hiked down to the village in less than two hours. I thought it was quite a beautiful round of the hill overlooking the village and worth taking for those staying here for longer, or looking for a less crowded spot. You should note that there are no signs on the trail to guide your way and only the river way is visible in the Maps.me app. (The Google maps are useless here.) The trail is not too hard to find though if you simply head in the right direction – towards the castle.
Hiking to the glacier – beyond the Summer castle
You can also hike to the glacier (unless it´s already melted) we saw from the castle or also further to the top of the hill – the trail is not too steep, there is a good wild camping spot available and the meadows are full of wild flowers. This hill offers a wonderful view of the surrounding mountain range, the Summer castle with the Shkhara glacier background and a fresher temperature since it is slightly higher. The glacier itself is like a natural fridge.
To get there, follow the trail starting at the bridge in Murkmeli, hike along the river, but instead of turning left and up to the castle, take to the right, cross the river and hike up along the water until you reach the ice. The trail goes on to the peak of the hill if you wish. (My husband hiked up and says it is very much worth it, however, I didn´t as I am taking it slow thanks to my back.)
There is an “ethnographic museum” in the upper village but you won´t miss out much if you skip it – the contents are basically a couple of stuffed animals. The people who own it will invite you in and trick you into looking at their stuff, then try to charge you 5 lari upon leaving. There is another museum with a tower you can climb in the middle part, Chazhashi. It has a barred entrance by which you will recognize it. They have old objects showcasing the village life, but the main attraction is obviously the tower.
There is another tower possible to climb for three lari in the upper part of the village. It is quite hard to miss.
The Lamaria (sometimes spelled as La Maria) church from the 12th century is located on a small hill at the eastern end of the village. It differs from the other buildings by its tower located in the middle of the structure and also connected to it. The church contains some icons and is free to enter – the area, that is, because the actual chapel is usually locked. There are many beehives around so you might want to skip it if you are scared of /allergic to a bee sting. The local bees are not aggressive though so you don´t have to sweat it too much.
There is a story about this church that became the place of execution of a lord who wanted to rule the local people. The whole village gathered to meet him here and pulled the trigger of a gun by a string held by all at once – this way they avoided the bloody vengeance of the lords family.
The cult of Virgin Mary is said to have included an older cult of a Svan goddess – she was the patron of grains, cattle and needlework. The holy days of this deity were in early spring and coincided with New Year celebrations.
The Lamaria church is encircled with old stone walls and has a small cemetery near to it.
St. George chapel (Jgraag)
The cult of St. George apparently replaced the older cult of the Moon; in the pagan times, this was the most important deity. Even nowadays, St. George is the most popular saint in Georgia.
The church is interesting for its intricately carved door and it was closed and locked when I visited.
Hiking to the Shkhara glacier
If you are spending more than a couple of hours in the village, you can do several beautiful hikes. The most popular one is towards the Shkhara glacier. You can hire a guide to accompany you, but it isn´t that necessary. Some people bring mountain bikes from Tbilisi (there is currently no place to rent a bike in Ushguli), rent a horse (plenty of options) or hire a jeep to take them closer to the glacier itself so that they can hike more up. (Taking a jeep is discouraged by some for environmentalist reasons, but many still do it.)
Due to my broken back, I didn´t get all the way to the line of snow (about 10 km from the village), but even if you just take a shorter hike along the Enguri river, you will be rewarded by stunning sights of rivers running down the steep hills, colorful flowers covering the meadows and the ever-changing clouds over Shkhara flowing as a loose veil around the tips of this 5000 meters tall mountain range.
My husband and co. hiked further than I – if you want to get to the ice, you simply need to follow the Enguri River. About halfway through, there is a small café (in a UN relief tent) where you can get something to eat and drink (but not accommodation).
Read more: Hiking from Trapani to Erice
Later on, there is a tricky divide – it seems as if the road turns to the left but there is also a narrow grass trail to the right which is the one you should take. When in doubt, follow the river – going far enough, you will reach the spring of Enguri.
This hike takes about 6 – 7 hours (there and back) and you should bring a waterproof jacket. When it´s sunny, you can walk on the snow in a t-shirt, but an unexpected rain is not uncommon either. Do I have to mention that applying a sunscreen is a great idea?
There are two lakes in the vicinity of Ushguli. One of them is rather close while the other one is 12 km far, perhaps a good idea for a horse trip. The further one is at the Laptari pass and has a great view of the Shkhara summits. I hope to go there at some point and give you some more information.
How are the locals of Ushguli?
You should take this part with a grain of salt because no two persons are the same. However, I would still like to share my impressions of the locals and their culture.
The Svan people were known for centuries as fierce warriors and perhaps some of it still remains in their behavior today. At times, they seem a bit unfriendly at first, as if they didn´t trust you much. (Because they probably don´t. Also not many speak English so it´s a bit hard to communicate.)
I felt that you had to win their trust and friendship through how you behave – we worked hard with them, but we also chose well who to work with; if we felt they weren´t treating us fairly from the start, we simply declined to further help them, without generating a conflict. To make friends in Georgia it is usually imperative to drink with the people – I would like to illustrate this with an anecdote.
There was this guy who looked very angry at first and wasn´t very friendly. At some point, we got drunk together (with his cousin and a bunch of Polish tourists) and after that, he was always greeting me loudly, asking how I´m doing and even kissing me on the cheeks.
The local people are not farmers (there are very few gardens and greenhouses up here), but they are also just starting to figure out how to deal with tourism. Mostly they haven´t traveled too much (for financial reasons I´d think – but they also start a family pretty early!) and so their idea about what do the travelers like or want is a little unclear. This is nice in a way (like they usually don´t charge you double just because you are a foreigner) but also it means that sometimes they will simply ask you what you´d like them to cook for you instead of letting you choose from a menu. (Actually, I thought that was really cute, although a bit confusing for the people used to some sort of a system.)
People in Georgia have impressed me with their kindness, hospitality, and sense of humor, and if the people of Svaneti are tougher to make friends with, they are equally brotherly when they accept you as a friend, if not more.
Some of the people in the village I didn´t like were actually not locals – there are some who only come for the business in the summer and I felt they were rather selfish, making you work a lot but not wanting to even give you a good meal although they certainly weren´t lacking the means.
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The region of Svaneti is known for never being conquered or subdued. Some say that to achieve this, the locals have become particularly aggressive and skilled fighters. Looking at the stern faces watching you as you pass, one feels as if they haven´t changed that much to this day.
Young people are obviously more modern, speak better English (rather than Russian) and behave in a more polished, friendlier way. Working with them still came with a bit of a challenge, but as a traveler, you are not likely to have a problem with either old or young Svans – they usually keep their screaming for each other.
After a few days of working with the local family, the owner of the guesthouse would be always asking for my husband, declaring him as his new brother. With his wife, they quickly included us in the family.
Svan villages beyond Ushguli
Many people (who have a bit of time to spare) choose to continue further up the dirt road towards settlements that are even more secluded than Ushguli.
I hope to be able to bring you a post on hiking from Mestia to Ushguli in the future (if I manage to do it), but here I´d just like to list a few suggestions on more places to visit once you are in this area.
Adichi is a tiny village on the hike from Mestia and the hikers have been praising it for its location in a narrow valley. Other travelers chose to continue to Chvelphi, or Ambrolauri which is already outside the National Park and on a normal road which later connects to the road to Kutaisi or Tbilisi.
I hope to expand this section when I get more information on possible hiking routes.
Things to do in Ushguli: the highest settlement of Europe
Ushguli, a small village of about 200 people, is divided into three parts ranging between 2050 – 2200 m of altitude. Famous for its ancient Svan towers, it is inscribed into the UNESCO world heritage of Upper Svaneti.
Ushguli is a good starting point for several hikes, including a short one to the Summer castle of Queen Tamar, or a full day hike to the Shkhara glacier, the highest mountain in Georgia at more than 5000 m.
I hope my guide gave you an insight into the culture and history of this fascinating place and helped you get a better idea of what to expect in the Svaneti region.
Do you have more tips or experiences from Svaneti? Have you heard stories and legends not included here? Let me know in the comment section below!
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Stray story seeker. Hungry hitchhiker. Wannabe polyglot. Aspiring travel writer. Currently bumming around in Georgia.
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