Georgia's Tusheti Region Is One of Europe's Last Hidden Gems
Remote valleys, mountain villages with stone towers, ancient gods worshipped at shrines: Few places in Europe look quite as primal as Georgia's Tusheti region.
An exposed path leads from Dartlo down into the valley of the Pirikiti Alasani River.
(dpa) - Tinatin Ididze has a clear rule-of-thumb when it comes to travelling in her native Georgia: do Tusheti last. “Once you have been to Tusheti, nothing else will impress you.”
Admittedly, Tiko, as everyone calls her, isn't an objective source. For at least nine generations, her large family has been living in the remote valleys of Tusheti, a region close to the Russian border on the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus mountains.
Faithful companion: A shepherd dog follows Tinatin Ididze over the 2,428-metre Tutariki Pass.
But Tiko knows what she’s talking about. The 37-year-old spent three years in Andalusia and studied teaching in Georgia’s capital Tiflis. She is fluent in English and Spanish and recently founded her own travel agency.
Her rule-of-thumb is soon proven right, once you cross the Abano Pass, almost 3,000 metres high, on the only road leading to Tusheti.
The SUV struggles up the winding curves and sometimes has to stop to let a herd of sheep pass. Tiko still hopes that the street will never be tarred. “Otherwise, we’ll get mass tourism.”
First stop: Omalo
After five hours of adventure, we arrive in Omalo. Tusheti’s main settlement is reminiscent of a medieval epic, with houses built of layered stones and partially covered with slates. A dozen defence towers guard the town from a hill.
Before the pandemic, tourism boomed, with almost all of Omalo’s houses now converted into guesthouses. Between the renovated hostels, abandoned houses are turning into ruins.
Every evening, the hostel hosts serve up a rich dinner.
A visit to the national park centre will tell you more about the local culture. However, Nugzar Idoidze, who used to head the Tusheti department at Tiflis’ ethnographic museum in the 1980s, has some stories of his own to share.
Since he returned to the region 20 years ago, he has been recording the stories of the older generation.
Ethnographer Nugzar Idoidze knows the history and traditions of Tusheti well.
“Tusheti is the only region of Georgia that has preserved its ancient pastoral culture,” says Idoidze. So far, tourism hasn’t threatened the old traditions. He encouraged Tushetis to rediscover almost forgotten crafts, he says. Women are now knitting socks and slippers again, knotting colourful, patterned rugs and felting hats. Horseback riding tours helped preserve the local breed of horses.
From village to village on shepherds’ trails
The following morning, Tiko walks down the valley on an earthen road; in a pasture, she strokes her favourite horse. Rusty snow caterpillars from the Soviet-era line the road. In the gardens, flowers glow under gnarled apple trees, and sugared rocky peaks sit in the background.
Most of the mountains here lie on the border with Russia, Tiko explains. Their peaks are therefore off-limits. Hikers walk mainly in the valleys and halfway up the mountains, passing through many traditional villages on the way.
The village of Dano has an impressive location on a mountain ridge.
In Shenako, dried bunches of oregano, chamomile and St John's wort hang on the stone walls, next to knitted socks and slippers. An open-air souvenir sale.
Chigho village seems almost deserted. Only one family still lives among the ruins, having now converted their house into a lodge for hikers.
Dartlo, considered the most beautiful village of Tusheti, is another story. Hovering above a small canyon, its stone houses are neatly renovated, and the slender spires have pyramid roofs. Since 1986, Dartlo has been a museum village, and with the help of the World Bank, all corrugated iron roofs were replaced by traditional slate roofs.
In the open-air court of Dartlo, twelve judges from different clans adjudicated disputes until the 1850s.
Pre-Christian traditions in the area are still strong today, as shown by the shrines in every village. In Dano, ram skulls and horns lie on the little tower of stone slabs.
A female hiker stepping over the semicircle of loose stones in front of it is stopped by a shout from Tiko. She points to a sign showing a red, crossed-out skirt. The shrines are off-limits to women.
In other places, everyone, including men, is denied access. Tourists shouldn’t disobey these sacred rules in order not to anger the Tushs. Those who are respectful, on the other hand, may even be invited to high festivals.