Among Europe’s highest peaks lies a region wedged between Chechnya and Dagestan that tourism has not yet discovered.
Horses run wild through fields of irises in Tusheti, Georgia. Stars have an intensity unknown to city eyes, and the jingle of a sheep bell competes only with the rush of distant streams. Damp stone homes and rounds of home-brewed brandy welcome you at trail’s end.
The one treacherous dirt road here is lined with old Soviet electric towers stripped of their copper wire decades ago. Yet so desirable is this peaceful enclave of the Caucasus among the cognoscenti that a U.S. diplomat has a helicopter landing pad for his modest summer retreat.
Tusheti’s isolation makes it a wonder for the adventurous traveler. My husband and I took a two-week trip through Georgia last June that included a 700-year-old monastery, a vicious sheepdog and some surprisingly good wine. After our plans to hike the better-known Caucasus region of Svaneti were derailed, we tried Tusheti on the advice of some Israeli travelers. It turned out to be the highlight of the trip.
We first spent a few days exploring Tbilisi, Europe’s most eastern capital. Ornate wooden balconies of the old town are steps away from sleek wine shops. Designer stores include Ermenegildo Zegna. First Class Attire sells expensive remakes of traditional Georgian greatcoats, bullet pockets included. Betsy’s, a boutique hotel with antique rugs, overlooks the city and made a comfortable home base, for around $175 a night.
Georgian cuisine is a fusion of east and west refined for several centuries. At Dzveli Sakhli, or “old house,” we had chakapuli, a stew of lamb with tarragon and plums, and kinkali, a juicy lamb dumpling that resembles the large doughy manti of Central Asia and the momo of Tibet. Our meal for two, including a bottle of a great dry red, Mukuzani Teliani Valley 2006, was $50.
On our second day, bad weather stopped a planned flight to Svaneti, a mountainous region between Ossetia and Abkhazia whose slate towers and pristine peaks are the pride of Georgia. Luckily, two other travelers had also been thrown off plan, and we negotiated a $100, three-hour taxi drive for the four of us to Kazbegi’s 14th-century mountaintop monastery.
You’ll need at least one night’s stay to make the 9-hour round-trip hike to the monastery and the glacier beyond. Our welcoming but dingy homestay was a bargain at $15 a night. The hostess, Nazi (pronounced “nassee”) Chkareuli, cooked incredible kasha, meatballs and frothy scrambled eggs.
Be forewarned: Huge sheep dogs are common throughout Georgia. We lost one of our new travel companions halfway to the mountain when a dog bit his leg and he had to fly to Frankfurt for rabies shots. Get immunized before you go.
After a short return to Tbilisi, we arranged a three-day trek through a local specialist, Wild Georgia. From the capital, it takes at least eight hours to reach Tusheti, with a nerve-jangling five-hour finale over a glacial mountain pass.
The road into the mountains had just become passable that day, on June 15, and it’s not advisable to go before then. The pass was still washed away in places, and as we wound through six-foot-high corridors of glacier, twisted wire crosses marked many roadside deaths along the hairpin switchbacks.
Tusheti’s Shenako village is a fairy-land cluster of 20 slate homes in a valley so dense with buttercups that the yellow still stains my hiking boots. The air is thick with butterflies, and there’s not a power line or Soviet relic in sight. The homes, made with jigsaw slate stones and scale-like roofs, all have hand-carved wooden balconies.
The downside is no electricity and sometimes no showers or indoor toilets. Our homestay hosts provided a true Georgian feast, including 10 rounds of toasts with homemade wine and side-splitting anecdotes about Dagestanis and cows, translated by our guide, Irma Tchvritidz.
Enjoying the Georgian way of life would have been impossible without Irma, a 28-year old medical student who speaks fluent English and grew up in Shenako. A local contact is invaluable when encountering a mysterious jumble of stones that women are forbidden to approach. It was a khati, or pre-Christian shrine, Irma explained.
The next day we set out early on an all-day hike through subalpine forests and tall, slim slate defensive towers said to be about 600 years old. You could easily spend five days in Tusheti, hiking or horseback riding among villages, and when we reached Dartlo, we wished we had planned a longer trip.
Our dinner included satsivi, a delicate chicken in walnut sauce, chased with rounds of a local brandy called chacha. That, a solar-powered hot shower, beautiful mountain views and a comfortable bed would have made Dartlo the perfect base for other day hikes.
The next morning we made the five-hour descent from Tusheti and drove on to Tsinandali, in Georgia’s wine region where we got our first earthy, mineral taste of the area’s wine aged in kvevri, or clay vessels.
The nearby reconstructed Chavchavadze estate of Georgia’s old royal family is a must-see. Its lavish drawing rooms and ancient sumak rugs show the mix of western and eastern influence in Georgia’s culture. A stylish wine bar and new luxury hotel by the Silk Road Group are a sign of things to come.
An hour and a half away, Sighnaghi is a recently rebuilt hub for the Kakheti region, which archeologists believe to be the birthplace of wine, first cultivated 8,000 years ago. Its comfortable Hotel Carpets House has rooms for only $57 a night, and a tasting at Pheasant’s Tears winery, around $8, included a delicious smooth peppery Shavkapito. Red wines are often called black here, from the dark saperavi grape, and Sighnaghi, with its charming restaurants and handicrafts, may not be far behind Tuscan towns like Montalcino.
U.S. and European Union citizens and many others can stay in Georgia for as long as 360 days without a visa. Two disputed territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are no-go zones, but Georgia is otherwise safe and easy to navigate.
Flights to Tbilisi from the U.S. are available through LOT Polish Airlines via a stopover in Warsaw. Flights via Moscow through Aeroflot are also an option, but will require a Russian visa.
Three-day tours in Tusheti including a guide and transport through Wild Georgia are about $500 for two people; call Eka Chvritidze at 995-99-94-13-20 or see www.wildgeorgia.ge. It’s around $325 for two round-trip tickets to Svaneti, which can be bought at Tbilisi’s main airport.
(Tiffany Kary is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)