The idea of journeying from the Black Sea to the Caspian, through the lands of the South Caucasus, first gripped my imagination early in 2014. The majestic landscape and the turbulent history of this region, caught between Russia to the north and Muslim Turkey and Iran to the south, seemed to provide the stuff of an absorbing adventure.
Now, a year and a bit later, it is time to set out, with the chief aims of capturing the spirit of the South Caucasus and its people and simply experiencing a part of the world wholly new to me.
Preparation for the journey has been fun. I am flexible about modes of transport in the Caucasus, but slow surely is good when exploring an unfamiliar region. So the preparation has included horse-riding, to see whether I still have any of the equestrian skills acquired in my youth.
With an old friend I flew to the Azores, out there on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, for a week’s riding.
Rodrigo, from Braga in mainland Portugal, assessed our riding ability in a “picadeiro”, an indoor riding arena.
Evidently we passed muster. In guided groups we went out on horseback on six consecutive days, riding through the hills and vales of São Miguel, the main Azorean island. I rode a different horse every day, climbing into the saddle on Zoria, Capitão, Universo, Cabana, Zarita and Flor.
The jewel in the crown was our ride on the last day, not far from the western tip of São Miguel. We set off on a 25-kilometre ride in bright sunshine. “When angels travel the sun always shines,” said one of my fellow riders, Monika from Aachen, as she helped to adjust my saddle.
We began the ride with a ridge of steep wooded hill ahead of us at right angles to our path. We turned to our right at a tarmac road and then left onto a dirt track. “It is a little steep on the left,” advised Rodrigo, our guide for the day, referring to an incline at that point hidden from view.
But it soon became clear that we were starting to ride along the rim of an ancient volcano, with a crater down on our left. At the bottom two glorious lakes gradually came into view, Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul.
To complete the picture, on our right, past a patchwork quilt of fields, conifer woodlands and villages with red-tiled roofs, was the Atlantic Ocean, less than four kilometres away. It all built up to a sensation of the world as scenic idyll.
We led our horses down a steep track to the crater bottom and after a ride through farmland with cows grazing, we picnicked on the bank of the smaller lake, Lagoa Verde. After lunch we enjoyed several canters, on tracks skirting both of the lakes.
A great week. And the learning? The trip reminded me that travelling by horse through beautiful countryside is one of life’s great experiences. I learned that I can still ride, though having a big back-up team helps if you are travelling in unknown lands! A horse or a mule could be an option for part of the Caucasus odyssey.
The next two weeks will consist of a very different kind of preparation.