THE REIN IN SPAIN
Samantha Weinberg enjoys the gentle pleasures of riding in Andalusia
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.fincaelmoro.com Susan Kurosawa’s column returns next week.