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(Why KING Tamar? Wasn’t she a queen? Yes, but the great-granddaughter of King David the Builder was such a great monarch, Georgia’s first woman as full ruler, that we call her King.)

Rumours abound as to visits made by Georgia’s greatest queen to Svaneti. Rumours indeed are fitting to her - she lived long enough ago for them to spring up, from the mid-12th to early 13th centuries, and even her burial place is not certain, a number of candidate locations existing. She is supposed to have visited Svaneti annually during her reign, and to have ordered the building of quite a few of its village churches - the main one in Etseri, for example.

Two places strongly connected with Tamar are Ushguli’s fortress complexes named after her, the Winter and Summer Fortresses of Tamar Mepe (the King). The former, in the hamlet of Chazhashi, originally had four towers, which can still be seen in Vittorio Sella’s photographs of the late 19th century; but now there are only two left, one partial and one complete. The Summer Fortress - perhaps named because it is much more easily reached in summer than in winter? - presides magnificently over Ushguli from far above, and does indeed require considerably more effort to reach it than its winter companion.

It has been my pleasure to visit the Summer Fortress a number of times in different seasons. There are two approaches to it. The shorter and steeper of these (45 minutes or so) takes you from Chazhashi across the Enguri and on a stream-cut path through some nicely shading trees. Once you stumble up through that lot, your reward is a view of the Fortress from a level position, and a leisurely few minutes’ stroll takes you to it. The other way is from closer to Murqmeli hamlet, and while not as steep, is also unshaded. So, given the choice, I prefer the first way for a fast ascent and sometimes the second for a slower descent with different views.

The Summer Fortress also has only two remaining towers, again one full and one partially ruined, at opposite ends of its structure. (Both fortresses’ towers are all different enough in construction from the typical Svan ones indeed to have been built as special items.) Halfway between these guarding behemoths is a smaller construction, inside which one may climb briefly a chimney to emerge for a fantastic view of most of Ushguli and, if the clouds are kind, Mt. Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain. It is one of the grandest views of Georgia and, I dare say, of the Caucasus, combining the glorious natural features with ancient man-made ones.

My first visit to the Summer Fortress was in the guidance of – you guessed it if you know me - Nodar Aprasidze. He, his two children and some local youngsters accompanied me up the Murqmeli way on a hot summer day, and were all suitably awed by the views. I took many photographs, using my old film camera as I hadn’t yet switched to digital. Down the steeper way.

At the bottom I suffered one of my rare lapses in photographic procedure and opened my camera back before having wound the 35mm film back into its canister. My cry of horror at having exposed all my precious shots to light and ruined them, followed by throwing myself back on the ground in resignation, was sufficient to cause Nodar to ask if I’d been bitten by a snake or what, and was I alright?

There was nothing for it but to return to the Summer Fortress as the sun moved closer to setting and re-shoot. I ran up the steep way this time, Nodar’s son Lasha following me, made it on my adrenaline in record time I suspect, and took a new set of photos. Back down again... and the next morning, realizing that the scramble up wasn’t a killer, up a third time for more shots in the different light. Later, I realized that far fewer of my original frames had been ruined by sunlight than I deserved - a bonus.

I have since visited the Summer Fortress in autumn (with my fiancee at the time, who only laughed when it began to rain, demonstrating a delightful strength of character); many more times in summer, often guiding friends up; and even in late winter, the Murqmeli ascent needing much longer in thigh-deep snow with a laughably quick descent, the same snow buoying me up and allowing nearly ten-league steps. There is also a far longer walk, so high above the fortress that you almost lose it, to the place from which you regain 360-degree Caucasus views, Lentekhis Svaneti on one side, Ushba and Tetnuldi and Shkhara on the other.

Views worth every step of the effort. If the great King Tamar did visit here, I can see why she would.

Georgia Today

M.B

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