There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Friday, 22 August 2014

Mestia, Capital of the Upper Svaneti: Part 12 of from the Caspian to the Black Sea

The view of the snow-capped and inevitably cloudy mountains from our bedroom was spectacular.

The view from our bedroom balcony, Mestia.
 Mt Tetnuldo (4,858m 15,938ft)
The view from the restaurant balcony, though very different, was equally good. Mestia, population 2,800 and the capital of the Upper Svaneti, consists of ten separate communes though they are not very separate; from our hotel's slightly elevated position we could see the whole town. What makes Mestia remarkable is that almost every family has not only a house but a watchtower. We lost count somewhere in the high thirties.

Mestia from the restaurant balcony
We may have taken the photo from the balcony, but we did not eat there. After the heat of the plains the morning temperature at 1,400m felt decidedly fresh.
Our route across the Caucasus
Alex and Dinara arrived at 9.30 and transported us the short distance to the newly built Svaneti Museum. The region had a tradition of producing fine icons and frescoes, but the mountains were also a place where treasures were brought in times of national emergency. Some of them are still here.
 
Svaneti Museum, Mestia

Icons of St George slaying a dragon are to be expected, particularly in Georgia, but this was the first time we had seen St George killing not a dragon, but the Roman emperor Diocletian.

The tumbling mountain rivers of Svaneti were also the source of the gold that made Colchis rich. We had seen the fine work of the ancient goldsmiths in the National Museum in Tbilisi, and the same figures used as decorations around the fountain in Kutaisi, once the capital of Colchis. We were not surprised to find that some of the gold had remained in Svaneti. The metal was extracted not by panning but by a strategic arrangement of sheep’s fleeces in the fast flowing rivers. Fragments of gold adhered to the wool, thus creating the legend of the Golden Fleece.

Mestia, from the Svaneti Museum
The museum also had mock-up of a room in a local house as it would have been at any time from the medieval period until the middle of the last century. The heavy wooden furniture included several benches but only one chair - for the patriarch, naturally - and a wooden screen dividing the people's area from that of the animals whose presence indoors in the winter kept the room warm.

We also met Dinara's grandfather who was working locally and popped over to see his granddaughter and, as he had some responsibility for the finds and for the museum, to show some parts to us. A small man with a confident handshake he is some years older than Lynne and I and of an age where he does not have to work, but he has the energy and drive of someone much younger and as his interest in archaeology remains undimmed he continues to excavate.

The museum roof provided another view over Mestia. Dinara lamented the construction of the modern church, which may be in traditional Georgian style, at least for the lowlands, but is rather jarring here. It is not the only new building in Mestia, indeed much of the town centre is new, but it blends far better than the church stuck on its promontory like a sore thumb.

The new Church that caused Dinara's wrath, Mestia
Leaving the museum we headed into town to climb a watch tower. Distinctive features of Svan life, they were for warning and protection should the village be attacked - but why so many? Would not one for each of the ten communes be more than enough? The answer appears to be in two parts, firstly vendettas were not uncommon among mountain families, and sometimes you needed protection not from outsiders but from your neighbours, and secondly there was an element of keeping up with the vilis. If your neighbour Berishvili has a tower, and his neighbour Sutiashvili has a tower, then you needed a tower too. The Tuscan town of San Gimignano, now appropriately twined with Mestia also had an outbreak of tower building, but whereas San Gimignano is all urbane, Italianate elegance, Mestia’s charm is down-to-earth, medieval and rustic.

The two of us on the roof of the Svaneti Museum, Mestia
The majority of Gerogian surnames end in –vili or –dze, but not all, as we next went in search of the Margiani house. Finding someone’s house in such a small town should not have been a problem, but it was. Difficulties arose, (I think, though I could not really follow the conversation in Georgian) because Dinara had a fair idea where it was but Alex did not believe her and insisted on asking the way from several locals, some sitting on their tractors, others standing by the roadside.

I heard a marked contrast between the slow, measured tones of the countrymen and the sharp, urban voice of the young man asking directions from the driving seat of an expensive BMW. I probably imagined it, but I thought they sent the city boy round in a circle on purpose – and serve him right. After we re-encountered the original man-on-a-tractor, Alex reluctantly agreed to follow Dinara's directions and shortly afterwards we found two women sitting beside a table in the smallest imaginable village square. One was packing Svan Salt - sea salt flavoured with dried garlic, fenugreek, coriander and chilli (though recipes vary). We bought some; it has since added delightfully unexpected flavours to all sorts of things. The other woman was the guardian of the Margiani House which was next-door..­
The entrance to the Watch Tower, Margiani House, Mestia
She unlocked a gate and we climbed the external stairs to the entrance of the watch tower. Inside a series of rickety ladders took us up the four or five storeys. There was nothing in the tower, the walls were bare and the floors of less than totally secure planks. The building had never been used as anything other than a watch tower, and I cannot be sure if it had ever been used as that in any real sense.
Lynne ascends the watchtower, Margiani House, Mestia
Lynne declined to ascend the last and most precarious ladder, but I went up and stuck my head out the top. There was a small plastic Ukrainian flag sticking out of the roof, but the view was otherwise not remarkable, at least by the highly unusual standards of Mestia.

From the roof of the watchtower, Margiani House, Mestia
The descent was slightly trickier as descents often are, but we both arrived safely back on the ground....

Lynne makes the descent, watchtower, Margiani House, Mestia
....and followed the guardian into the house at the base.

The Margiani House, Mestia
The furniture was exactly as in the museum, but this was not a mock up, this was the real thing in its real place.

Inside the Margiani House, Mestia
The house dated from the twelfth century. It was impossible to say when the furniture was built (such furniture really is built, not made), but I would believe any date from then until a hundred years before the house ceased to be used in the 1920s. Stepping over the threshold was like stepping back in time, and it felt we were somewhere that had been undisturbed for hundreds of years.
I assume the patriarch's chair, Margiani House, Mestia
It was time for lunch and because of the dearth of good restaurants in Mestia, indeed of restaurants at all, we ate in Dinara and Alex's guesthouse.

Dinara, Alex and Lynne lunch at the guesthouse, Mestia
Nothing had been laid out when we arrived – Dinara was not impressed - but the table was quickly covered with the usual salads and cheese, aubergines with walnut and garlic sauce, and, new to us, a meat pie and fried corn bread. It was a standard Georgian feast, there is no great variety, but the food was simple, fresh, expertly prepared and the quantity was gargantuan.
 
Meat pie, Mestia
After lunch we strolled with Dinara through the town centre. Money has been pumped into Mestia in advance of its development as a tourist resort, and there has been much building including a new bus station, a police station, and a suite of brand new shops, but the tourists are lagging behind the development and most of the shops awaited tenants. In the main square, outside the empty shops, is a splendid statue of Queen Tamar. She ruled jointly with her father from 1178 until his death in 1184 and then in her own right until she died in 1213. Her reign was the high point of the medieval Georgian golden age and she ranks second only to David the Builder (r1089-1125) among Georgia’s monarchs. Mestia’s tiny airport (daily flights to Tbilisi) is named after her.
 
Lynne and Queen Tamar, Mestia

We gave Dinara the rest of the afternoon off and visited both the town’s souvenir shops. There was little to buy beyond the highly distinctive traditional local clothing, which might be ideal for hunting in the winter snow, but did not suit a warm August day and would have looked strange at home in any weather.

Later in the afternoon we found ourselves seated outside Mestia's one and only café-bar. It was busy and getting a beer required patience, but it came eventually (and so, a little later, did a second one). We relaxed in the pleasantly warm afternoon - a change from the aggressive heat of the lowlands - and watched the life of the small town drift past.

Having a beer, Mestia
Eventually we made the walk back over the rushing Mulkhra River and up the hill to our hotel. The evening buffet was better than yesterday, though still uninspired and 10 Lari (£3) for a glass of wine was well over the top by Georgian standards.

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