Only a two-and-a-half-hours drive away from Tbilisi lies the small city of Lagodekhi at the foot of the Great Caucasian Mountains. After two weeks in the Georgian capital, I decided to leave the noisy and city plagued by congestion and enjoy a weekend in the countryside. For this, Lagodekhi next to the Azerbaijan border is definitely a perfect destination, as I found out.
Already the journey by taxi or Marshrutka – as the minibuses are called in Georgia – is a
rewarding experience. After passing the gentle rolling hills with their dry vegetation that surround Tbilisi, the taxi moved into a completely flat landscape. It is the Alazani Valley formed by the same-named river that eventually meets the Kura. There is a lot of agricultural production in the valley and locals sell all kinds of fruits and vegetables – kiwis, persimmons, cabbage, potatoes, carrots just to name a few – alongside the streets.
Banana trees are growing in the gardens of Lagodekhi and the surrounding villages, Photo courtesy: Martina Polek
The whole scenery is dominated by the Caucasian Mountains, which rise from the other side of the valley. The mountains are so high that it looks like a huge wall fencing off the valley from the north-eastern side. Lagodekhi itself is located at the foot of these mountains, but thanks to a couple of smaller hills that encompass the city from three sides, I didn’t have the feeling of being surrounded.
Young people leave the city
Lagodekhi has a population of 6,000 inhabitants. Like many other places in the peripheral areas of Georgia, the city suffers from rural exodus migration. Especially the young people leave the city in order to study in Tbilisi or abroad. Many of them don’t come back because of lacking job opportunities. But this could change in future.
Beautiful nature attracts nature and hiking enthusiasts, Photo courtesy: Martina Polek
The reason for optimism is Tourists. Their numbers have started to rise since 2010. Many want to experience the beautiful Lagodekhi Nature Reserve with its spectacular natural phenomena. Founded in 1912, it is the oldest protected area in Georgia. The authorities of the nature reserve registered around 55,000 visitors last year and this year even more came. As a consequence, more and more locals convert their homes to guesthouses. They host mainly hiking enthusiasts, but also families who just want to enjoy the beautiful forest and the fresh air.
The plant diversity is extraordinarily high thanks to a specific local climate, Photo courtesy: Martina Polek
There are several hiking tours starting from Lagodekhi lasting from several hours up to three days. From Lagodekhi, you can hike to the Black Rock Lake that is located high up in the mountains. For this, it’s advisable not to go too late during the year to Lagodekhi, as you depend on good weather conditions. But even if you don’t plan to go on a hiking tour, you can enjoy a walk in the forest with their old tree stands or enjoy the breathtaking scenery along the two rivers next to small city.
This is not the first wave of touristic activity in Lagodekhi. The area had previously been readily frequented during the Soviet era. Back then, the city was a popular halt for tourists travelling in coaches from Batumi on the Black Sea to Baku on the Caspian Sea. However, during the politically restless 1990s, visitors stayed away and tourism died out completely. The increasing numbers of tourists and infrastructure projects during the last years as well as the busy renovation works in the city center illustrate that times have changed for the better.
Already during the Soviet era, Lagodekhi has been a popular tourist spot, Photo courtesy: Martina Polek
It sounds contradictory, but Lagodekhi is a charming Soviet city thanks to the fact that there are no apartment blocks. Instead, people live in family houses. Although many of them are slightly rundown, all of them are surrounded by beautiful gardens, some even with persimmon orchards. Particularly now in autumn, the orange, sweetish fruits look like Christmas balls in the trees offering an enchanting sight.
However, what you mustn’t forget to take two items with you when you visit Lagodekhi: hiking shoes and very warm pyjamas, especially if you go there after the summer season. Many of the houses are barely insulated, so it can get pretty cold at night.
Author: Martina Polek, Swiss journalist