Go­ing to the dogs in Europe

Not to men­tion the horses, sheep and fal­cons

The Delhi News-Record - - TRAVEL - RICK STEVES

De­spite a life­time of Euro­pean travel, there is a world of firsts still out there for me. Re­cently, for ex­am­ple, I had my first ex­pe­ri­ence with fal­conry.

It was at Ire­land’s School of Fal­conry ( just out­side of Cong, north of Gal­way), where a great guide took our tour group on a “hawk walk.”

For about an hour, we wan­dered through the en­chant­ing grounds of Ash­ford Cas­tle with our guide sport­ing a Har­ris hawk on his fore­arm.

Af­ter learn­ing about fal­conry, each per­son in our group got an op­por­tu­nity to toss and catch a bird on his or her arm.

With each toss, the glove was ro­tated to the next per­son and the guide tucked a lit­tle chicken meat in the padded palm — and the hawk knew just where to re­turn. The ex­pe­ri­ence was both in­ti­mate and in­tense.

Through­out Europe, you can find vivid and mem­o­rable an­i­mal demon­stra­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences. They run the gamut, from fa­mous fes­ti­vals (Spain’s Run­ning of the Bulls or Siena’s Palio horse race) to rou­tine rit­u­als (sheep shear­ing or dog feed­ing).

Whether big and rau­cous or small and in­ti­mate, I al­ways find these ex­pe­ri­ences fas­ci­nat­ing.

The vis­count who still lives in Château de Chev­erny, in France’s Loire Val­ley, is an ac­tive hunter, and keeps about 70 hounds on-site.

The ken­nel is the scene of a unique feed­ing frenzy each day at 11:30 a.m. — a fun spec­ta­cle that shows off the dogs’ strict train­ing.

As feed­ing time nears, the hounds — half English fox­hound and half French Poitevin — get worked up know­ing that red meat is on the way.

The trainer cor­rals the dogs and spreads out the feast. They’re fed just once a day, so the ex­cite­ment is pal­pa­ble.

The trainer then opens the gate and main­tains dis­ci­pline as the dogs, who can only eat when the trainer gives the go ahead, gather en­thu­si­as­ti­cally around the food.

It’s an ex­er­cise in con­trol. Fi­nally he gives the sig­nal and it’s chow time.

In Vi­enna, a cul­tural high­light is see­ing the Lip­iz­zaner stal­lions per­form at the mag­nif­i­cent Span­ish Rid­ing School.

These re­gal white horses are a cre­ation of Hab­s­burg Arch­duke Charles, who im­ported An­dalu­sian horses from Hab­s­burg-ruled Spain and then mated them with a lo­cal line. They’re known for their noble gait and Baroque pro­file.

One Sun­day morn­ing, I de­cided to drop in on one of their per­for­mances in the chan­de­liered Baroque rid­ing hall in the heart of the city, ad­ja­cent to the grand im­pe­rial Hof­burg palace.

I paid about 25 eu­ros for a stand­ing-room spot (seats cost much more — too much, to my mind) to see the much-loved stal­lions prance through their chore­ographed moves to jaunty Vi­en­nese clas­si­cal mu­sic.

Equally im­pres­sive is the horse show at the Royal An­dalu­sian School of Eques­trian Art in Jerez, Spain.

Here, horses — both pure­bred Span­ish horses and larger mixed breeds — per­form an eques­trian bal­let with chore­og­ra­phy, purely Span­ish mu­sic and cos­tumes from the 19th cen­tury.

The stern rid­ers com­mand their tal­ented, obe­di­ent steeds to prance, jump, hop on their hind legs, and do-si-do in time to the mu­sic.

While I ap­pre­ci­ate the ele­gance and grandeur of a horse show, I also love the rus­tic sim­plic­ity and in­ti­macy of a sheep­dog demon­stra­tion.

At Kis­sane Sheep Farm, a 1,000-hectare (2,500-acre) farm perched on a scenic slope above Ire­land’s Black Val­ley ( near Kil­lar­ney), John Kis­sane’s fam­ily has been rais­ing sheep for five gen­er­a­tions.

Vis­i­tors get to chat with the fam­ily and learn about their liveli­hood, and then watch highly strung sheep­dogs race around ac­cord­ing to John’s call.

On my most re­cent visit, one of the brothers ex­plained to me — while ef­fort­lessly shear­ing a sheep — that, since the Ir­ish wool in­dus­try is so bad these days, their farm sur­vives only thanks to the money gen­er­ated by show­ing off the tra­di­tion to visit­ing tourists.

While they nor­mally do demon­stra­tions just for tour groups, in­de­pen­dent trav­ellers are wel­come to join a sched­uled demo — just call ahead for times.

And at Leault Work­ing Sheep­dogs near In­ver­ness, Scot­land, a dozen joy­ous bor­der col­lies seem to thrill to show off their skills to vis­i­tors.

The shep­herd here be­gins with a short talk on the back­ground of keep­ing sheep, then demon­strates how he com­mands his ea­ger col­lies.

Watch­ing each dog re­spond with pre­ci­sion to in­di­vid­ual com­mands of whis­tles and shouts is im­pres­sive. On this farm, it was very clear: Sheep­dogs are smart — and sheep are id­iots.

The best an­i­mal shows are not only in­ter­est­ing and ed­u­ca­tional, but also vividly real and cul­tur­ally broad­en­ing — giv­ing in­sights into gen­er­a­tions-old tra­di­tions and dif­fer­ent ways of life.

Rick Steves (www.rick­steves. com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at rick@rick­steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI PHOTO

At Leault Work­ing Sheep­dogs, in the Scot­tish High­lands, you can see a demon­stra­tion of the dogs’ im­pres­sive skills.

DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI PHOTO

A per­for­mance of the Royal An­dalu­sian School of Eques­trian Art in Jerez is art like you’ve never seen.

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