This summer, the bestselling travel author is deep in the Georgia Caucasus, with family in tow. This is part of a series.
For nearly two weeks, the mythical kingdom of Svaneti seemed intent on repelling us, just as it had bedevilled curious travellers and marauding armies for millennia.
Tucked into the obscure recesses of the High Caucasus, Svaneti is considered by Georgians to be both the most beautiful and resilient part of their country. While Georgia has been continuously ransacked – Tbilisi, the capital, has been destroyed by foreign armies 29 times in the past 1,500 years – the defiant Svans have never been tamed.
It was to these remote valleys, hidden beyond the deep and near-impassible gorges of the Inguri River, that Georgia's treasures were dragged whenever the country came under threat. And it is here that the traditions of honour, chivalry and hospitality remain most alive today. To modern-day Georgians, Svans embody an idealization of the national character, symbolic of a fierce independence that lowlanders fear they are losing.
Twelve days after leaving Canada, we crested a ridge, and the medieval watch towers of Mestia village swung into view. Nothing is more emblematic of Georgian mountain culture than these square defensive turrets, sprouting like mushrooms amid all Svan villages.
The foundations of the oldest towers date to the 1st century BC, although most were built in the period from the ninth to 13th centuries, originally a means of defence against the hostile northern tribes of Caucasus. Heavily provisioned with supplies (apart from the third floor, where the bones of every animal killed by past generations of the family are stored for luck), Svans could barricade themselves inside and wait out any invaders. There are 200 towers in Svaneti, all privately owned, having stayed in the family that built them. Each is 28 metres tall, built so the height equals the combined width of the four sides at the base.
After the exhausting effort of reaching Svaneti, we settled into a local home (homestays are the most common method of housing travellers). For three days, our boys enjoyed the attention of neighbours, local grandparents and children. Our house "mom," Roza, piled the table with homemade yogurt and jams. Every day, she baked 12 loaves of bread, and was already making fruit leather from the first summer harvests. At night, farmhands gathered around the large kitchen table, raising toast after toast to deceased relatives, to our children, to St. George (always the third, and most heartfelt toast). Roza translated the final toast of the night: "We drink to your safe journey, and may every person on your road greet you as a mother or a father."
My priority was to find a pack horse. Late one evening, a short, chestnut mare stepped through the gate. Roza negotiated a price, I handed over a small wad of bills, and suddenly we owned a horse along with the rough wood and metal saddle typical of the Russian military. The mare's name, given by a man whose mouth sounded full of gravel, sounded like "Bonne Cheetah," and that stuck.
The next day, we took Bonne Cheetah for a test drive. Everywhere we looked, we saw rugged, tanned men building new rock walls, hotels, guest houses and restaurants. The main street was torn up for a new sewer system. Muddy Soviet-era transport trucks lumbered by, laden with building supplies. Change is coming to these peaks: The Saakashvili government has earmarked the region as a foundation for the country's bold tourism plans.
Still, despite the modernization efforts and the Svans' legendary hospitality, an undertone of wildness lingers here, and stories of Svan banditry – as good-natured as it supposedly is – have led us to hire a local companion to travel with us. Tomorrow, if fate and Bonne Cheetah agree, we will march toward the highlands leading through the heart of Svaneti, and on into the Racha region.
Bruce Kirkby is a contributing editor to Explore magazine.
Special to The Globe and Mail