I'm reaching the end of my first day trekking through Georgia's Svaneti region when I see it. Walking over the last rise of the day, there on the wall of a crumbling ruin, sits a crown made from fresh wildflowers. An ancient village snakes through the tousled meadow below, a dozen of the region's emblematic defensive stone watchtowers, built during the middle ages to defend against invaders, reach up between the medieval houses like thick fingers. It's a scene so preposterously pretty it allows the illusion that some sort of Georgian leprechaun (rather than a creative fellow hiker) placed the crown there, just for me. Our local guide, a swarthy young man named Zura who has hands like bear paws, jerks his head down to the village. Leprechauns or no, it's time to go.
For a Europe-jaded traveller such as myself, Georgia is the perfect find. It is the quieter, lesser-known side of the continent, squished right on the edge of Asia, free of the cruise ships and package tours and over-development that has come to clog vast swathes of Italy, France and Croatia. Here in Georgia's remote mountainous Svaneti region, where I have been escorted by off-the-beaten-track travel experts Crooked Compass, we have hiked from dawn to dusk and met only a few other travellers. Admittedly, Georgia is changing quickly, thanks to a tourism renaissance, but for now Svaneti's difficult roads, geographical isolation (it is one of the only places in Georgia that has not been invaded), brutal six-month winter and Wild West-like reputation for banditry, mean it remains the country's most isolated region.
We hike down into the village, through thickets of yellow and purple wildflowers with butterflies balancing on their tips. By the time we arrive in Adishi, the sun is falling behind the fierce 5000-metre-plus peaks of the surrounding Caucasus mountains, the golden light catching in the coats of ambling cows. The stone watchtowers we saw from above, we're told, date back to between the ninth and 13th centuries, and once housed villagers during times of invasion and the revenge blood feuds that apparently still sometimes take place in Svaneti. In the golden twilight, though, they look anything but menacing. As I gaze at their rough, crumbling stone walls, and those of the medieval houses beside them, I daydream: of escape, a new life renovating one of the houses and running my own guest house, milking the cows in the mornings and hiking in the afternoons.
Who I would befriend in this fantasy life, however, I'm not sure. While the Svans – hardy, self-sufficient farmers mostly – are said to be famed for their hospitality, the local women I meet while settling into our simple guest house are actually rather gruff and, how shall I put it ... scant of smile?
Perhaps the hospitality focus is more on food than on manners because, goodness, the food is plentiful. Later in the evening, our dining table groans with plates of warm, oozing khachapuri (cheese bread), badrijan nigzit (roasted eggplant strips topped with walnut paste), tomato-based chakapuli meat stews, vegetable pkhali (a tasty cross between a salad and a dip) and jugs of surprisingly smooth house-made red and white wine. Here in Georgia, dinner guests are considered gifts from God, traditional feasts called suprascan last for days on end, and our guide tells us the Svans typically drink two litres of wine a day. When I fall into my single bed later in the evening, the sound of the river rushing through the valley below, the skin across my stomach is tight. Not that it matters, we have four more days of hiking ahead of us to work it off.
We set out the following morning, leaving Adishi in our wake as we walk through fields dotted with handsome wild horses, cows and friendly, fluffy-tailed mountain dogs. We cross a rushing river on horseback, pass the remains of another ancient village called Kalde, then push our sweaty bodies to the top of the challenging, 2720-metre Chkhutnieri Pass. It is worth the pain. This is sweep-you-off-your-feet beauty. The rumpled, snow-capped mountains we've been hiking past split open before us revealing a valley, the silver snake of the river splicing through its centre.
After dinner at our next guest house in a village named Iprari, we take a walk in the dying light. We wander through narrow laneways, passing a small cemetery, more dilapidated stone buildings, sagging wooden fences choked with weeds, and an abandoned Russian army truck. Nothing about this town feels in any way affluent or modern. Yet as we walk, we meet a young Swiss economist who is writing a book on the Svaneti region, and who tells us that the money his group of eight will spend in one night in their guest house, will equal the average monthly Svan salary. Whether it looks that way or not, tourism, it seems, has started to provide a useful income for the Svans.
A light rain is falling when we set off next day. The chilly air smells of sap and clean wood and the paths, burrowing through the forest and dropping down to the valley below, are slippery. The mighty Caucasus mountains have one of the richest alpine flora in the world. As we walk, I pick a posy of wildflowers, trying not to disturb the fat, fuzzy bumblebees hovering over them. Yellow daisies, buttercups and azaleas, purple cowslips and wild orchids, all bending their heads in the breeze. Every so often we pause for a snack – whole fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, boiled eggs, a hunk of khachapuri cheese bread baked fresh that morning – or to refill our water bottles from a mountain spring, while Zura smokes cigarettes.
Out there in the wilderness, it feels as if we're on the edge of the world. And it's only once we reach UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ushguli, which at 2200 metres is the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe, that we properly grasp the rapid growth the Svaneti region is experiencing. There are guest houses everywhere – some tastefully remodelled historic houses, others more crude, modern structures made from concrete blocks and aluminium sheeting – and construction sites aplenty.
Rain starts to pour soon after we arrive. We huddle around tables in the dining room of our wooden guesthouse, drinking tea and beer and trying to get less soggy as the windows mist up. I peer into the kitchen, where older local women dressed all in black sit and chat around a pot-belly stove, warming pails of fresh cow's milk and baking Georgian flatbread. Zura drinks too much chacha, the local moonshine, and breaks into a guttural folk song that fills the room.
Outside, the modern world may be slowly encroaching but in here, in the low light, it feels as though we are still in an ancient world.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN GEORGIA
TAKE A SULPHUR BATH
Visit the Georgian capital Tbilisi's famed Abanotubani sulphur baths, set within a historical complex topped with brick domes, and you can choose between shared or public bathing in sulphur-infused pools, sauna and massage.
Perched on a hilltop above Mtskheta, Georgia's religious centre, this UNESCO-listed Georgian Orthodox monastery dates back to the sixth century.
The 700-metre-long walkway that projects over the edge of this 100-metre-deep canyon is a nightmare for vertigo sufferers. Worth it, though, for stunning views over the lush ravine.
VISIT A GEORGIAN VINEYARD
Produced using the 8000-year-old, UNESCO-listed Georgian method called kvevri, in which wine is fermented underground in terracotta urns, the biodynamic wines at Iago in Chardakhi village can be found on the list of wines of the Ritz Hotel in London. See iago.ge
EXPLORE AN ANCIENT CAVE TOWN
The great Silk Road used to pass through Uplistsikhe, an abandoned first millennium BC cave town near Gori. Explore ancient tunnels, streets, wine cellars, bakeries, pharmacies and more, carved into the rocky mountainside in Gori, which is a 90-minute drive from Tbilisi.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Crooked Compass.
Qatar Airways flies to Tbilisi via Doha. See qatarairways.com
Crooked Compass's 11-day Discover Georgia itinerary, including five days hiking in the Svaneti region, costs from $4224 per person, twin share, international flights not included. The hiking season lasts from about early June to mid-October. See crooked-compass.com