Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is a remarkable place to explore. Many visitors ind more than enough distractions in the jumbled Old Town and in the studied formality of the New Town. But the city's inhabitants like to escape from Tbilisi and a favourite Sunday excursion is up to the hills overlooking the western suburb of Vake. It is a stiff climb up through Victory Park to Kus Tba (Turtle Lake), a spot for ice-cream, paddling and fine views down over the sedate villas where once the communist élite lived. Perched on a little hillock above the lake is a strange tower. It looks curiously out of place. It is called the Svan tower - and evidently it was transported stone by stone from the Svaneti region in the mountains of northern Georgia. Everyone in Tbilisi knows the Svan tower, but few have ever visited Svaneti. Karlos Zurutuza, a regular contributor to hidden europe, reports on a visit to a Svaneti mountain valley with the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe.
The man standing by Tbilisi's Svan tower strikes a dour note. "There are two roads to Mestia," he says. "The bad road is the one in which your car plunges into the Inguri river never to be found again." This didn't seem very promising so I probed a little. "Ah, yes, the good one. That's the road from which your car plunges into the river and your body is eventually recovered."
The truth is that only one road connects Zugdidi with Mestia, which is the principal village in the Svaneti region. To call it a road is perhaps hyperbole. It is a rutted and muddy route, worn concrete on the better sections, a bonejolting apology of a track elsewhere. This one hundred and fifteen kilometre long nightmare has a reputation for being the most dangerous drive in Georgia. Perhaps even in the whole of the Caucasus region.
Zugdidi is the jumping off point for the Svaneti highlands, where a scatter of mountain villages around the headwaters of the Inguri river are home to the endangered Svan culture. Zugdidi isn't much to talk about, but it does have a fake Svan tower, a sort of reminder that however awful that road up into the hills, it will all be worth it in the end. The road to Svaneti heads north out of town, an old railway line on the right, and the Inguri river on the left. It is not long before the citrus groves and palm trees of the Mingrelian plain are well behind us.
This is still Georgia, but only just. The Inguri river marks the border with the secessionist territory of Abkhazia, and a military checkpoint on the road, manned by Russian peacekeeping troops, is a sharp reminder that there is no love lost between the Tbilisi government and the self-styled Republic of Abkhazia. A massive Soviet-era hydroelectric power plant straddles the Inguri river. In a rare instance of working together, Georgia and Abkhazia share the energy generated at the plant.