Sa­man­tha Wein­berg en­joys the gen­tle plea­sures of rid­ing in An­dalu­sia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

FOR a week, I swapped my hus­band for a horse named JB. It seemed like a fair trade: I can’t imag­ine Mark would have car­ried me across the sier­ras of south­ern Spain with­out (a) grum­bling, (b) de­mand­ing sig­nif­i­cant rec­om­pense or, most likely, (c) drop­ping down dead.

On the other hand, when we were first in­tro­duced 15 years ago, he didn’t re­spond with a sharp nip to my left boob, which was how JB (pro­nounced in Span­ish horta bey ) thought fit to stamp his author­ity. I may have been about to be his rider, but his mistress? Hell, no. With that bite he was telling me that he was go­ing to be the boss, look af­ter me, give me the ride of my life.

It was the morn­ing of our first rid­ing day. We had wo­ken up feel­ing sur­pris­ingly sprightly af­ter a long and de­li­cious din­ner the night be­fore at Finca El Moro, the idyllic farm in the hills north of Seville from where Nick and Hermione Tu­dor run their rid­ing, walk­ing or yoga hol­i­days.

There were six of us, con­nected through a string of friend­ships. All ex­cept me rode on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

For­tu­nately, we started slowly that first morn­ing, fol­low­ing our guide, Jetske, along the old mule tracks that criss­cross the hills and val­leys of the Sierra de Ara­cena. It gave me a chance to find my rid­ing feet and ad­just to the Span­ish style: heavy va­quero sad­dles, in which you sit tall, with deep seats and stir­rups worn long, reins in your left hand; no trot­ting, just walk­ing and can­ter­ing. I quickly ad­justed to JB’s rhythm un­til, on our third can­ter, I could have closed my eyes and been lulled to sleep by his rock­ing-chair cadence.

But clos­ing my eyes would have been a crime against na­ture. The coun­try­side we were rid­ing through was ex­tra­or­di­nary, beau­ti­ful be­yond any imag­in­ing. The hills and steep gorges of the sierra, where play­ful black piglets snuf­fled on acorns, gave way to rolling mead­ow­land with flow­er­ing sweet chest­nut trees, great ranches where black bulls are raised to fight in the bull­rings of Seville and Ronda. And wild flow­ers ev­ery­where.

In mid-May the cis­tus was in full bloom, del­i­cate white petals with deep yel­low yolks that blos­som for a sin­gle day yet seemed to be out in their hun­dreds of thou­sands.

There were glades of wild pe­onies, cobalt irises stand­ing tall in fields of yel­low mar­guerites, small pink gla­di­oli, scabi­ous, arum lilies and sweet peas, Jerusalem sage and French laven­der, all grow­ing wild in the fields and hedgerows. We found our­selves yelling out when­ever we saw a new species, like celebrity-spot­ters at Cannes.

The vil­lages were equally en­tic­ing. Af­ter a cou­ple of hours in the sad­dle, we’d clat­ter along cob­bled streets into a small, white­washed vil­lage — all pic­turesque, none touched by tourism — for our mid-morn­ing drinks stops: wa­ter at the stone trough for the horses and cold fino sherry in the plaza for the rid­ers.

A cou­ple more hours and we’d break for lunch: in a restau­rant one day, at a beau­ti­ful farm owned by friends of the Tu­dors on an­other, or pic­nick­ing by a lake, where tur­tles swam and king­fish­ers hov­ered, while our horses munched qui­etly on nose­bags.

We spent each night in a dif­fer­ent town, ar­riv­ing to find Luis wait­ing to un­tack our horses and bed them down for the night while we walked bow-legged back to the ho­tel or posada to find our bags wait­ing and a pre­bath fino on ice. In Al­monaster we ex­plored a Moor­ish mosque be­fore din­ner; the fol­low­ing evening we climbed up to see the shrine in Ala­jar, be­fore watch­ing a tele­vised bull­fight in a bar made en­tirely of cork.

At night I read Pene­lope Chet­wode’s Two Mid­dle-Aged Ladies in An­dalu­sia , about her epic ride across the nearby hills on a mare named La March­esa, and mar­velled at how lit­tle ap­peared to have changed in the half­cen­tury since she wrote it. Like her, I found horse­back to be the ideal mode of trans­port: you travel at the right speed to ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of the land, while cov­er­ing sig­nif­i­cant dis­tances; you’re at the per­fect height to see over the walls and across the val­leys.

But un­like her, I loved hav­ing my hu­man as well as equine com­pan­ions. On our horses, with ev­ery de­ci­sion made for us — what time to get up, where to go, what to eat for lunch — we shrugged off the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of our com­bined 17 chil­dren, our work and hus­bands, and we laughed and talked and oc­ca­sion­ally cried.

And JB never com­plained. I couldn’t help wish­ing, though, that Mark had been there to share the won­der of the trip (if noth­ing else, it would have helped me to ex­plain the strange love bite on my left breast). The Spec­ta­tor

www.fin­cael­ Susan Kuro­sawa’s col­umn re­turns next week.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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