Day 37. Monday, September 4. Sighnaghi to Lagodheki. 48km, with 350m of climbing.
We met our first cycling objective of the day in 5 minutes – reaching a café with good coffee and a terrific view over our route for the day. With the bonus of a curious kitten that fancied my bike handlebars.
We, and all our fellow riders, were in no hurry today. Lagodheki, famous for its National Park in the foothills of the South Caucasus mountains, was only 48km away. The first 8km or so were a speedy 500m descent from our overnight stay at Sighnaghi, followed by 35km or so across the plain, topped off by a gentle climb to our destination.
The short day was justified by the location and attractions of Lagodheki. It’s only 15km from the Russian border and 5km from the Azerbaijan border. The National Park of some 24,000ha was established by the Russian empire in 1912 to protect the diverse and unique local flora and fauna. Many riders are planning walks tomorrow to one or other of its famous falls.
While we have a fine view of the mountains from our hotel, we won’t see the most spectacular scenery, which is harder to reach. For example, this is Black Cliffs’ Lake at about 3,000m. Or its rare breed of wild goats.
The South Caucasus, and their neighbouring but higher North Caucasus, very much mark the border between Europe and Asia. A battleground down through history, the most recent major conflict was the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. The former was trying to prevent the latter forging an independent future tied into Europe.
In Georgia, after the Rose Revolution in 2004, the country, like the Baltic states, began integrating into Western Europe by opening up relations with NATO and the European Union. Georgia has NATO membership candidate status.
Meanwhile, neighbouring Armenia continues to foster relations with Russia while neighbouring Azerbaijan relies less on Russia, strategically partnering with Turkey and other NATO states.
EU membership is more problematic for the country, even though it is supported by some 85 percent of Georgians. While the country is working on EU-determined goals towards its candidate status, the EU has become more reluctant to confer it. One reason is its current government believes it can achieve some kind of rapprochement with Russia. The next few months will be crucial. The end of the year is the EU’s supposedly final deadline for granting candidate status.
Frivolous subjects, though, are the ones more likely to occupy one’s mind while concentrating on cycling. Hence, these lyrics popped into my head this morning: “The Danes in train flow smoothly ‘cross the plain.”
My subconscious must have worked hard on them since Soren burst into that song (with the right lyrics and an impeccable English accent) from My Fair Lady while we were cycling a few days ago. I hope the spirit of Alan Jay Lerner will forgive us.