September 21-22, 2014: Our route today would take us 224 kilometres from the fortified town of Sighnaghi to the fortress village of Shatili, located very near the Chechnyan border.
Not unlike the day before, we put our trust in Google Maps to see us through on a variety of secondary roads. I got a little worried when I cross referenced our route against a tourist map of the region, which showed part of the road as a simple track, but we made it through. Road conditions varied greatly. Some were newly paved, nearly paved or possibly paved a long time ago. There were slippery construction zone mud bogs, large ponds to splash through and more than one potholed obstacle course. Dirt roads in reasonable repair felt like a luxury in some areas. Huge flocks of sheep blocked our way in others as shepherds were bringing them home after a summer spent in the highlands. We inched along switch backed narrow paths precariously perched on the sides of steep mountains and crisscrossed with rivers that were eroding the roadway. Sharp bits of shale from recent slides littered our way in many spots, a nightmare for the well-worn tires we spotted on many vehicles (including our little Pajero). Not that we saw many other vehicles en route.
In normal road conditions, we would have expected to cover that distance in about three to four hours. Not so! Instead, we left Sighnaghi at 9:30 in the morning and arrived in Shatili at 5:00 pm with only minor stops for fuel and snacks. Seven and a half hours. That’s averaging less than 30 km/h. Often much less.
But the drive was beautiful and the destination is one of my new favourites.
Georgian tourism brochures tout Shatili as one of the most brilliant masterpieces of Georgian architecture. I’d have to agree. The village, located in the Arghuni Gorge, is comprised of approximately 60 closely built tall watch tower houses with flat terraced roofs. Shatili was built up beginning in the 8th Century so the residents could protect themselves from invading hordes crossing the northern passes leading through the Caucasus mountains into Georgia. The flat roofs helped to ward off fiery arrows. The clustered construction effectively turned the entire village into a single fortress.
Attacks were not limited to medieval times. As recently as the 18th Century, Chechens and Dagestan warriors lay siege to the village. Villagers would simply hole up inside their towers, complete with their livestock and food stocks. Ladders and bridges linked the towers together, so there was no need to go outside, and the village was reported to have a large water supply to outlast the attack.
Apparently, the independent nature of the residents of Shatili was not appreciated by the Soviet regime. In the 1950s, the villagers were eventually persuaded to resettle elsewhere. Now partially restored and a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site, some residents have opted to return. Most live in newly constructed homes in nearby New Shatili.
The village is generally only accessible between June and September, so we were cutting it pretty close to the end of the tourist season. There was already fresh snow on the neighbouring mountain tops. We hadn’t really packed enough warm clothing for autumn conditions in the mountains. I think I wore pretty much everything in my bag and desperately wished for an extra sweater, a toque and mitts.
Poking around the village was fun. At least until it started raining. There weren’t many other people around until one tour group arrived but they passed through quickly and were on their way again. It felt like we had the place to ourselves.
There are a couple of guesthouses in town and at least one hotel set up inside one of the towers. This was where we decided to stay. For 50 Lari each (about $30), including dinner and breakfast, we were given a small windowless room that only had a curtain for a door. I think we were located on what would have originally been the chicken level, one floor up from the livestock. It didn’t make for a good sleep but it certainly was a memorable experience. And the mountain food was exceptional. More on that later.
Not to disappoint, the next morning dawned bright and sunny. We decided over breakfast to make the 22 kilometre round trip to Musto, another smaller fortified village located further up the road in the Musto-Ardoti gorge. The site, currently undergoing restoration, is perched high on a rocky cliff with incredible views up the river valley to the north. We made the steep climb to the lowest of the vertical terraces before halting at the edge of the construction zone. Restoration is expected to continue through 2018.
On our way back to Shatili, we stopped at a spot where several small stone vaults had been built. Each had a single window to the inside, where skeletal remains could be seen. I read later that this was a place where plague victims of the Middle Ages would go to die, away from the village.
With the sun now high overhead on our return to Shatili, we scurried around town taking last minute photos before heading the 100 kilometres back to the main road at Zhinvali and the start of the Georgian Military Highway. That’s coming up next.