Introducing the highest village in Europe: Ushguli, in Georgia’s Svaneti region.
Mountainous Svaneti in Northern Georgia is home to some of the most picturesque villages in the entire Caucasus region, and nowhere moreso than Ushguli. On the Caucasian Challenge, we spend the night in Mestia, the largest settlement in Upper Svaneti, before driving to Ushguli. The drive can be tough, crossing streams and with steep climbs up dirt tracks, but the scenery is gorgeous and the vistas upon reaching Ushguli are absolutely stunning. Here is everything you need to know about the highest village in Europe.
Ushguli: The Highest Village in Europe
The term Ushguli actually refers to four separate but closely connected villages in Upper Svaneti. They all at the beginning of Enguri Gorge, sit near the foot of Shkhara, which rises over 5000m. The villages — Zhibiani, Chvibiani, Chazhashi, and Muqmeri — are all around 2100m above sea level. Though there is said to be one man elsewhere in Georgia who lives at a higher altitude, Ushguli is almost certainly the highest continuously inhabited village in Europe. That is to say, people live there all year round, despite the fact that the outside world is inaccessible for half the year, due to snow.
Living in Ushguli
The population of a couple of hundred is truly isolated, and thus the community retains an idiosyncratic character and ancient way of life. Even in the 1930s Ushguli was regarded as a mystical vestige of history, and thus was the setting for one of the world’s first ethnographic movies, Salt for Svanetia, which filmed locals going about their everyday lives. The silent movie is introduced with a quotation by Lenin, referring to the “far reaches of the Soviet Union where the patriarchal way of life persists along with remnants of the clan system“. The film’s depiction of a place “cut off from civilisation by mountains and glaciers” still rings true. The film has long been highly regarded by prominent directors, including the famous Andrei Tarkovsky, but upon the film’s release it pleased nobody. Locals claimed that scenes had been staged, while Soviet authorities were upset at the director, Mikhail Kalatozov, for the absence of any indication of modernisation.
The most recognisable feature of Ushguli, as with much of Svaneti, is the number of strange looking towers. These tall stone pillars are all seemingly identical, and range in age from twelve to two centuries old. Though many have collapsed, around a couple of hundred remain intact in Svaneti. These towers, and their unusual structure, were required for several reasons. They were used as watchtowers, where villagers could look out for an attack by another clan, or even an enemy from the same village. Fires would be lit in each tower when foes approached, alerting others to the danger. They protected inhabitants against attack, whilst also guarding against natural elements, like each year’s heavy snow.
The Sights of Ushguli
On the Caucasian Challenge, we usually just stay for lunch in Ushguli, before tackling the magnificent Zagar Pass. That leaves enough time to get a sense of the magisterial setting, eat some traditional Sventian kubdari, and perhaps drink some Chacha (if you’re not driving!). However, there’s more than enough to do if you wish to stay in Ushguli for longer. Besides the surrounding nature, and the many towers, there is a worthwhile ethnographic museum. You can also visit the Lamaria Church, pictured above, in the shadow of Shkhara, which is around a millennium old. There are also several castles, including “Tamar’s Castle”, which is said to have been the summer residence for Georgia’s beloved 12th Century monarch. The entire area is an UNESCO world heritage site, and understandably so.
The Nature of Ushguli
Of course, the wonders of Ushguli are not limited to architectural gems. The stunning location of the settlement is its greatest charm, set wonderfully amid the giant Caucasian mountains. The peak of Shkhara and icy glaciers contrast wonderfully with the rich greens of spring and summer. There are many potential hiking opportunities, particularly in the direction of the picturesque Zagar Pass. It is also possible to hike to Mestia, though it takes several days.