Saturday April 26 2008
Back to northern Spain, where I was a guest of Fernando Uriartes and his wife and child, and where the Spanish Championships for 2008 were held in Figarol. I'll leave the details to the endurance.net link at the bottom, but I'll say here that winner was Jordi Arboix, and here's a few pictures from the scenic day.
For more photos or the ride story, see www.endurance.net/merri
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Monday, April 28, 2008
Monday April 21 2008
Portugal may have a total of only 50-60 endurance riders in the entire country, with only 6-7 consistently competing at the top level. Like anywhere, most people have other jobs, and the endurance riding is an extra that must be supported, by money and time. One endurance horse takes enough time on its own, and if you are hooked enough to have one endurance horse you probably have at least one more, and if you have more than one, well, try keeping them all in condition. Most of Portugal's endurance riders, and Arabian breeders, are concentrated in the Alentejo Province surrounding Lisbon - kind of like the Auburn, California area of the US.
Two sacred subjects that consistently come up in conversations around the world, when people hear I am from the US are, "I want to ride the Tevis Cup," and "Becky Hart and Rio." Vasco mentioned both of these. He'd like to ride the Tevis; and once he rode alongside Becky briefly in one of the World Championships and wanted to ask her for her autograph. Becky, you and Rio are still revered everywhere I go! : )
Vasco took more time away from his work and family to show me around the area, to visit some stunning horses and a long-time Arabian breeder.
First we went to see his anglo-Arab, Dancer - a distant (half) cousin to my Thoroughbred ex-racehorse, Stormy - getting a nice rest in some thick purple-flowered pastures just outside of Evora. Just 8 years old, Dancer is the apple of Vasco's equine eye, (one of them, anyway - I think really they all are), and he just completed a 120-km ride last month, after throwing first one front shoe, then another. They'd been in 9th place until the shoe turmoil. Vasco's eyes light up when he talks about Dancer's big effortless canter. His sire is Danddy - who we'd see next - the sire of a number of foals out of Vasco's special mares, and the sire of Sultana, the mare who just won the Catalon Championships in Cron, Spain, a month ago.
Just like you'd label many young girls 'horse-crazy,' I think you could slip Vasco (and his brother Eduardo) into this same category. Vasco first learned to ride some of the working horses on his grandfather's farm; his grandfather bought Vasco and Eduardo their own horses from a local fair when Vasco was about 7. He also took lessons, and his first competitions were in show jumping and dressage; and then he got into the smaller endurance rides. He remembers well his first 160 km ride in 1992, which took him 18 hours to complete. They pass a little more quickly now.
The next place we stopped was Olivierinha Farm (where we dropped off Trovador yesterday), the farm of Antonio's father, Joao Saldanha - one of Portugal's early pure Arabian breeders for at least 30 years. In one of the pastures is the 24-year-old Danddy, by Jaxar out of Urzela. Owned and competed by Antonio's brother, Danddy was one of the best endurance horses to come out of Portugal. He completed "7 or 8 160-km rides, several 2-day 200-km rides, and won the Eldric trophy," Vasco ticked off his accomplishments. Antonio's brother doesn't ride endurance so much anymore - he's living in Lisbon and has family commitments, and besides, what do you do after you've had a horse like that? Other than breed him and keep the line going. Danddy still looks fit and healthy, no sway in his back, still moves with a lightness and grace; he has a pasture of Vasco's mares to keep him occupied.
With a horse like Danddy, Vasco knew what he wanted to do: get some of the old foundation mare bloodlines and cross them with Danddy. Several years ago, he did just that: he selectively searched all over Portugal and Spain, and bought up some of the old mares, 24 years and up, taking some of the old Crabbet lines from the Portuguese National Stud, and Crabbet lines from the Duke of Veragua's Veragua Stud in Spain. And indeed, Vasco's mares and their foals are a sight; most of these are some of the get of these best-line mares and crossed with Danddy. Excellent balance and size and conformation - just made me want to get on them and ride off onto the trails right there. Sultana is a result of this cross, and Vasco has several siblings to her.
This is a great area to raise the horses - the rich Mediterranean climate and land produces the azinheira oaks (the Portuguese name for the tree that gives the acorns for the Iberian pig), olive trees, cork trees, grapes. The grass is thick and nutritious and natural - doesn't need planting - good for horses, and cattle and sheep alike. It's so green now, though I was warned that in summer, everything would be brown, no matter how much rain they were getting now. There are trails of old rail lines, the rails having been removed, that now provide excellent training trails.
From there we moved on to the farm of Caetano Oliveira Soares - "a cattle farm to pay for the horses," said Caetano. He's got 1000 head of cattle on 900 hectares (2200 acres), beautiful rich fields of purple flowers, thick grasses, cattle - and some stunning purebred Arabian horses. He bought some of the good mares from Vasco a while back (Vasco likes to sell to friends near by so he can come and see how his horses are doing, see that they are well taken care of - "but you can't keep them all"), and Caetano bred the three Crabbet stallions he took out of their stalls for me to see in the indoor arena. All of them, 7-year-old Uva ("Grape"), 7-year-old Ultra (his half brother) and 11-year-old Que Bom ("So Good") made me weak in the knees, especially when he showed all of them on the ground doing the piaffe and passage moves... and the stallions knew they were showing off. Caetano rides, but doesn't do endurance: "I am too old, I let my daughter ride." However he does ride, and trains all his horses to learn these moves: "I think it is important for them when they go 160 kilometers, to be able to round up and collect themselves, to be balanced." Caetano's daughter Margarida Soares rode Uva to a 24th place finish in the 160-km French Championships in St Galmier last year.
"I've only been in the endurance about 2 years now," said Caetano, "but I think there are many things that make a good horse, not just one thing. You have to train good, you have to have luck, you have to have the good care. Some people say it is most important that you take your time with the horses, but I think the most important thing is to ENJOY what you are doing. ENJOY riding. ENJOY training. Because if you enjoy it, you take better care of your horses." All his horses, and Vasco's, were kind, people horses - were curious and liked to visit with us, liked the hands-on attention.
After this we climbed in Caetano's pickup and drove around his fields, and stopped to look at a herd of more stunning horses, many of them by Danddy. I thought I might try fitting the gorgeous 3-year-old black-gray stud colt into my huge suitcase... All of these horses looked very strong and stout, I think it will be impossible for them to not make an impact on the endurance trail over the next few years.
Caetano took us to lunch in the village, which was, once again, a huuuuuge meal; I ate and ate and ate and the dish never got any smaller. I couldn't eat anymore, but of course did not complain when cafe mousse was forced upon me for dessert. Followed of course by the strong short black coffee to prevent the food coma from taking over.
We were joined at lunch by Pedro the vet, and once again, the three men all chattered fervently about horses! Pedro said to Vasco, "You must say it in English!" which made Vasco pause to take a breath, and shake his head to re-think his speech, and Caetano laughed. "I think these two only talk horses" - trying to blame the equine fervor on the younger guys. I said "Yea, I think you do too!" seeing as Pedro and Vasco could sometimes not get in a word sideways to Caetano's stories. Pedro was just as ardent - he talked of putting on a clinic for endurance riders: "I think it is important that they learn things. I am a veterinarian, I try to help teach what I can." We talked about some of the Natural Horsemanship training methods and 'showmen,' and some of the good points of each.
By then it was already afternoon, and Vasco had other commitments. I was leaving in the morning, so my only choice was to return to Portugal soon and see some more of the wonderful hidden equine treasures Portugal is producing. Portugal may be small in endurance, but they make an impact, and I think that will only grow over time, if the horses I've seen are any indication.
A great thanks to Vasco and his family, Antonio Saldanha, and Luis Almadas, for making my stay in Portugal so comfortable and enjoyable and horsey : )
For more on Portugal, see www.endurance.net/merri
Sunday April 20 2008
I went to Portugal for the 2008 Portuguese Endurance Championships... and afterwards was a guest in Evora, Portugal, of Vasco Lopez Avo and his family in their lovely little hotel, the Residencial Os Manueis, in the center of the old part of the city.
In the Alentejo Province of Portugal (the region south of the Tagus River - Rio Tejo), Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Much of the original old walls and buildings are preserved from Roman and Moorish times. The original fortress walls still surround nearly the entire inner town, and an aqueduct from the 16th century. The streets are cobblestones and narrow and lined with tall buildings; the newer buildings are often built into, over, or under the original buildings. The Templo Romano is a well-preserved Roman temple (Templo de Diana) from the end of the 2nd century, which sits in a plaza on a hill with a view over part of the city (it was the Raven's favorite); there are old arches, old churches and convents and cathedrals (one has a banner outside the doors, "Celebrating 900 years"), and a high aqueduct (which stretches for 8 km, and runs into the city) rectangular stone water tank from the 16th century.
It's also a university town with 8000 students; the University of Évora was formerly a Jesuit college built in 1559. The central square (which the hotel is a half block away from) was always a hive of activity - outdoor cafe seating, or, one day, a race for young boys through the streets of the town and into the square, and yet another day a big stage being set up for some event.
The Hotel Os Manueis was acquired by Vasco's family in 1952. It was remodeled just 3 years ago, and is an extremely comfortable, homey place, with a great view on the rooftop terrace. Start talking horses with Vasco or his father or his brother Eduardo, and you won't want to leave.
It gets up into the 40's here in the summer, but for now, the cool weather was perfect... even if you had to dodge the 15 minute rain showers throughout the day.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Wednesday April 9 2008
Kiwis Paul and Madonna have a place in a village outside of Vic (an hour from Barcelona) in Catalonia - a 1590 mill (that still runs on Sundays for show). Their Fisiocrem business is based here in Spain, and they are a sponsor of EnduranceEurope.com .
The mill is on a Route, the "Ruta dels molins," and the "Ruta del romanic," a maintained walk along a creek where many old mills and churches and ruins from the 16th and earlier centuries lie. These also connect with well-marked GR 2 trails that connect with other trails all across Europe, for bikers and hikers... and of course people use some of them for riding also.
I stayed with Paul and Madonna for a week to catch up on my sleep and my stories and pictures from Al-Andalus. Paco Maeso is their lawyer and spends time here also; he was here this week. We all worked and worked and worked... and then Saturday, we became tourists.
The Raven came along, and Paco was happy to show him the sights of Catalonia. Our first stop, Girona, is an old Roman town with much of the old part of the town still well-preserved and functional. We wandered along the winding cobblestone streets, along and around the fortress walls, and a Gothic cathedral with the real old bells that knock you off your feet when they ring, and Arab Baths, and the Rambla - the main walking street of shops. There were a curious number of shops with designer handbags and purses for sale. You could also buy an authentic coat of armor, if you so desired to look like or fight with a sword and shield and lance like a Roman; and, to weaken your enemy's knees, there were an abundance of chocolate shops! We couldn't resist going in one and came out with bags of chocolate, filled with liqueur, nuts, and coffee beans - enough to knock Paco and the Raven out in the car for a while. I rationed out the chocolate coffee beans and kept a buzz till Monday.
From there we drove to Besalu, an even smaller and more charming medieval town with an old stone bridge over a river providing a picturesque - and, in the old days, protected - entrance to the fortified village. We wandered the streets, and the Raven visited with various Birds of Art in some of the shops. We had lunch outdoors in the mild sunny weather, overlooking the river and old town.
We finished our tour in Ripoll, home of the Ripoll endurance ride, and visited with the organizer, Ignaci Casas. Ignaci showed us his horses on the hotel property that his family owns - some good looking Arabians and Arabian crosses here, including some English Crabbet lines, some of which came from the Spanish National Stud in Jerez. There they have pure Arab lines from around the world - Morocco, Syria, Jordan, pure Crabbet, pure Polish... but the Stud is run by the Army, and they really just are not into the horses so much, or seem to know the treasures they have. We spent some time walking around Ripoll, then Ignaci had us as guests at a huge dinner at his hotel.
The Ripoll ride this year will be June 14 or 21 - it's one of the best ones in Spain.
Monday April 14 2008
The day after Al-Andalus, Steph and the Raven and I caught a train to Madrid. Steph was flying out early the next morning to Malaysia, and the Raven and I would meet Paul and Madonna the next day, and catch the train with them to Barcelona, and onto their place outside of Vic.
The Raven and I had time to tour around Madrid, the capital of Spain, a bit. We saw the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), which was the principal royal residence from 1734 to 1931. We found a music store and picked up several of Jose Soto's music CDs to take home with us. The Raven enjoyed listening to an accordion player, and gave him some money, because I used to play the accordion when I was little. We strolled along the Gran Via - Madrid's main street, the Raven frolicked in tulips, and we stopped for a Starbucks. Of which there were many. There may be more Starbucks in Madrid than in Seattle. Europeans are not as obsessed with coffee as we are - or at least not in the same way. The to-go cup of coffee is a permanent attachment to the hands of most Americans. Here the Europeans take time to sit and enjoy the coffee and the company. Their version of to-go coffee is drinking it standing at a counter.
The shops here open at around 9-10 AM, then close around 1-3 PM, and re-open around 5PM, and close around 8 PM. Which makes it a bit confusing, if you pass a camera store at 1 PM, (which you need to bring your camera back to, to buy lens filters), and return a bit later with your camera, only to find you don't even know where the store is anymore, because the doors (like garage doors) have been brought down for the afternoon siesta.
We actually got lost several times in Madrid (which is not so bad), and the wandering around was really an excuse for wandering around looking for our hotel. The streets are at angles, many of the tall, old buildings look alike, there are lots of little plazas everywhere, and the buildings are tall enough that you can't use anything tall for a landmark. Finally we figured out that when we saw a big poster of George Clooney staring out of a poster on a certain wall, that was our plaza and our hotel was across from it.
When it rains in Europe, it can really RAIN - while sitting in a restaurant eating, the heavens opened up and it DUMPED rain - gulley washer in the cobblestoned streets. It was a thunderstorm, too, and you could see the lightning even at the bottom of the narrow street lined with tall buildings.
My hotel was a cozy little affair... and in fact I had to get a double room because my suitcase and I would not both fit in the single room!
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Saturday April 5 2008
The last day of Al-Andalus: Steph got to ride Arenal on the last day; I got a ride with Flemish-born Spanish photographer Kristian Fenaux. The riders officially left the starting line at 9 AM at the bottom of Alcala la Real (a half-hour drive from Granada), then headed up into the town to the La Mota Castle - dating back to 727 AD when the town was under Muslim rule - for a picturesque start. Kristian and I headed down the highway to search for the first Assistencia point in the mountains.
Some of the driving directions weren't quite on the mark, but having been here the last two years, Kristian knew where to go; it was a long uphill winding narrow road that would be slow going for the vans and cars pulling horse trailers. We arrived at the stop long before anybody else showed up, and found a good place to set up and wait.
I had plenty of time to think about all the circumstances that led me down the endurance trails to this beautiful mountain path (in short, sticking my toes in my first endurance saddle with Shelley in Texas, Shelley putting me in touch with Jackie in California, at Jackie's meeting Steph and John from Idaho, starting work for them beginning in New Zealand, Spanish Paco riding in New Zealand and inviting Steph to ride in Spain) ... and here I was now, sitting by a dirt road on a cool sunny morning, in the deep old Andalucían countryside, below an old ranchhouse, listening to belching Spanish goats and hooting birds, waiting for horses to ride by. Lucky or what?
The high rocky hills with sparse grass were ideal for herds of goats, and the encinas - oak trees - that produce acorns specific to the diet of the Black Iberian pig, the special breed that produces the exquisite Iberian ham from this region. It is said that the fat of the Iberian ham is good for you - the grease is good grease, being full of antioxidants, because of the pigs' acorn diet. If your doctor here in Spain tells you to go on a diet, he may very well tell you to eat plenty of Iberian ham. It's not only the pigs' diet that makes the ham taste so good, but the cut (or the cutter). It must be sliced very thin, and it's an art form to be able to do so. And you CAN taste the difference - it is an amazing delicacy. I don't think I can ever eat another slice of processed American ham on a sandwich - ick.
The riders seemed to be a long time coming, but there were no complaints from me! Finally the lead motorcycle and a 4-wheeler came by, followed by José Soto on his motorcycle, who stopped to visit. It turns out the riders were directed the wrong way from the castle by the policemen, and briefly got lost in the town. "How's the trail today?" I asked. José shook his head. "Very hard pass, up, up, steep downhill, many stones." "Did you ride your bike on it?" I asked. He laughed, "No, I ride in city." I guess he won't be off-road racing Inés or Alexis any time soon.
When the horses first came, they came in a herd, 7 or 8 in the first group. Steph was not far behind, middle of the 16-horse pack, thrilled again with the scenery and the technical trails - her favorite kind of ride. Today's ride was the highest altitude of all of the days; the horses climbed from 822 to 1340m (up to 4400'). Much of it was through - or above - olive orchards, which stretched as far and deep into the valleys as you could see, up to the very edge of cliffs. One figure I heard was that 40% of olive oil sold in Italy comes from this region of Spain. Easy to believe with the astounding number of olive trees we've seen in the last week.
The first vet gate and finish was at La Beata, a fantastic equestrian facility with a small hotel, sand arenas, a small track, perfectly manicured green fields with herds of horses tirelessly and flamboyantly galloping and bucking up and down the fields (for hours), as if they were choreographed for the audience. The firm arena is a moist sand mixed with recycled paper, and both the arenas and fields are electronically moisture controlled. Today the grounds had a summer festival air: a temporary restaurant under a big tent, and outdoor barbeque tapas; the Meta finish arch and sponsor banners lining the run-in, the Al-Andalus truck-cum-stage, the water-Aquarius-Coke-Cruzcampo-Kaliber stand, and a couple hundred people roaming around through the afternoon, horse people and non-horse people.
While the winner, and the following horses crossed the finish line, the biggest applause was for 12th horse and rider to crossed the line on this last day. Jose Baquerizo and Campanera finished today in second as Binomios - 1 horse, 1 rider team - and in first place overall of 2008 Tierras de Al-Andalus. I didn't know the man personally, didn't know the horse, but just seeing how happy he was and how proud he was of his horse - what a delight to be able to share the moment of such an accomplishment! And he did it by just riding steadily every day and taking good care of his horse. José was the man on top of the world in Andalucía today.
In the evening, at our hotel in Jaen, the party began. First came the awards presentations, then delicious tapas and more tapas, meat, cheese and desserts; beer, wine, champagne. If you shook your head at the trays of tapas continually passing in front of you, you were encouraged to take just one more. And how could you say no? The crowd mingled and imbibed; some said their goodbyes and gave farewell kisses, or instead of goodbyes, "El año siguiente" - next year... and then the party drifted across the street to the disco.
Now, I haven't been in a Disco since college (well, except for that one in Ireland a decade back...), but this was no disco like we know it. It was a dance room with a cracking flamenco band that got the Spaniards out on the floor showing off their moves. I think they all have a little of the toreador deep down in their bones, because those that did the "Sevilla dance" (which was most of them), did it so well and so gracefully: the elegant, playful, seductive moves like a bullfighter, the flicking of the fingers like the twirling of capes and the stamping of feet like the bulls in the ring. The flamenco and the bullfighting must be closely related. José Soto and his wife were quite the elegant dancers also!
Then when José joined the band on stage and sang a few songs - something many of us had been looking forward to all week! - the whole room joined in, dancing and singing with him, knowing most of the words to his songs. We kept cheering "Bravo!" "Mas!" after each song, and we would have kept him up there all night if he'd been willing. "Even after 8 days of constantly talking, yelling, the dust, the wind, he still sings beautifully!" said Alexis. Alberto Flores, a quiet pleasant working man by day, was the Dancer del Noche - captivating all by his moves on the dance floor, the center of a ring that everyone got pulled into with him at one time or another. A group of men hoisted José Baquerizo on their shoulders and danced with him around the room. The young riders made a train that danced through the middle of the crowd. And the flamenco music played on.
And so wound down, into the wee wee hours of the morning, the great experience that was 2008 III Raid Kaliber Tierras de Al Andalus. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be here, and I hope to return next year... perhaps on the back of a horse - with the Raven.
More stories at www.endurance.net/merri
Friday April 4 2008
Hard to believe it's almost over!
The start for today was in the middle of a town, Loja, along a main road - cars stopped by a police escort - over a highway, and finally out of town onto trails.
Today's route was fairly flat, much of it along the Genil River, on a few dirt roads, but challenging with a good amount of asphalto roads, and a great amount of rocky roads. The horses went past wheat fields, chopos - black-poplar trees with a silver bark and golden leaves, orchards, and asparagus fields. People were working in the asparagus fields, picking it from the ground and stacking it in enticing little teepees every few yards. It was a pleasant 21*C in the shade, and climbing to near 26*C in the sun, if you had no breeze.
The horses did have a little altitude to gain into some hills of olive orchards and golden flowers. We had a great view down onto the horses as they were little specks at the bottom.
Lunch was in the middle of a large village, Lachar, and from there it was a short 22 km fase to the finish in Granada, mostly along a canal framed by the chopos plantations, and over most of the baches, potholes, in Andalucia. The still-snowy Sierra Nevada mountains were the backdrop for the city that was last major Muslim stronghold until 1492 when it was conquered by the Christians. A lasting legacy of the Moorish reign in Iberia is the Alhambra palace and gardens, and the white-washed houses and the narrow winding streets of the Albaicín quarter. We of course wouldn't have time to visit, but it's always a goal for next time.
More stories and photos at www.endurance.net/merri
Thursday April 3 2008
Smooth sailing day - 19 riders on a trail that had a minimum of climbing throughout the day, mostly dirt tracks running along gentle rolling hills of wheat fields and olive groves. We passed men plowing their fields with small motorized hand plows, people harvesting olives, and one farmer stockpiling onions by the road - leaving a delicious aroma in the car long after we passed.
Picturesque finish line 60 km later, underneath a 1560 convent, overlooking a narrow valley of olive trees. Awaiting the humans inside the church, a concert cellist played, the beautiful classical music filling the nave and echoing throughout, a fine aural backdrop for another great meal of elaborate tapas, shrimp, beer, wine, and cold drinks. What a great idea, and what a treat. I sat closely on the old marble steps to listen.
In the evening was a special dinner at a golf club resort, and even the Raven dressed up and made an appearance.
After a quick rider briefing, we were served a fabulous 4-course and 3-glass dinner for over 200 guests: tapas, salmon mousse, divine duck (don't know I've ever had it, but it's one of the best things I've had) and melt-in-your-mouth potatoes and peas and zucchini, with creme something for dessert. (If it says 'creme' in the name, you know it will automatically be exceptional.) Each course was served so smoothly and efficiently, and the glasses kept filled, you didn't notice there must have been dozens of waiters and waitresses working the room.
José Soto - one of Spain's famous flamenco singers, and the creator of this Al-Andalus ride - stepped to our table and toasted to the Americans, Germans, Kiwis and Spanish sitting together, and then led a toast to the entire room of Al-Andalus friends. We responded with a standing toast and ovation, a salute in concert to the endurance ride that brought all of us, old and new friends from around the world, together here in Andalucía. It was a perfect follow-up after yesterday's chaos.
More stories and photos: www.endurance.net/merri