Thursday, June 26, 2014

Trashumancia I

Well, I was trying to go for short on this one but I didn't want to leave too much out, so I've decided to split it into two chapters - one for the first day and another for the second one - and try to "stick to the facts" rather than going into my feelings.  Anyhow here's the intro - last weekend I flew to the Peninsula to go on a two-day trail ride with Gredos Ecuestre.  I've been on several long routes like this with Gaby (Gredos Ecuestre owner/operator) before and enjoyed them all thoroughly, and since it'd been a couple of years since I was last able to come along, I'd been looking forward to this one for months.  So here's the first half, I'll try to write and publish the second in a couple of days and if you want to see more photos you can check them out here.

Friday - After catching up in Madrid with some friends from previous routes who weren't able to make it to this one, we arrived in La Parra in time for a Ribera del Duero-feuled flamenco singalong.  Ill-advised gin and tonics in the town plaza before heading off to bed.

Saturday - Saddled up and rode off bright and early.  I was a little uneasy about them giving me a new horse, Dali, which I'd never ridden before (and who came with the caveat "he does fine as long as you know how to ride pretty well") but decided that at the worst, it would be a learning experience and a challenge.  Gaby's horses are always eager to get going so there was a little jigging at first, but a few checks of the rein to show him I was serious about walking, not trotting, as well as me relaxing my seat had us going smooth as silk in no time.  I recognized the first part of the ride as one I've ridden several times before, by a few farmhouses through a lovely pine forest and down a broom-bush covered mountainside.  But soon we were meandering along a mountain stream which was new to me and shortly thereafter we started to find the first tell-tale signs of the "Trashumancia" in the form of cow patties and cloven hoof prints.

Wikipedia defines transhumance as "the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures", and that definition pretty much works for me.  In the Sierra de Gredos, which still had a few snow-covered peaks in late June, shepherds and goatherds and cowmen move their herds from the southern side of of the mountains in early summer using the 1st century AD roman road which is still in excellent repair, to take advantage of the lusher pastures and more abundant streams and watering holes on the north face.

Around mid-morning we came up behind our first herd of about 60 cows, a mixed group of all ages, sexes and colors which hardly batted an eye as we rode past in single file so as to not spook them or inadvertently drive them in a different direction.  The cow herders were on foot and horseback, and there was a saddled but not bridled paint horse completely untied to anything at all, being herded along with the cows.  A while afterwards we got to a charming little village which we rode straight through, clip-clopping down the main street which was lined with charming little whitewashed houses, each with a wooden second story balcony and most adorned with roses and geraniums, and waving at little old ladies, children and housewives hanging out their laundry as we passed by.

On the way out of the village we took our first recognizable steps on the roman road (we had apparently been on it earlier but hadn't noticed) and stopped at a fountain for a snack (chorizo and salchichón mixed and cured by Gaby's wife washed down with wine we squirted into our mouths from a wineskin) while the horses took a drink and a well deserved breather.  The cows caught up with us here and we admired how well behaved they were - no straying away from the group, no visible piques between rival bovine factions and only the calves showing any tendency to playfulness.  Then back up the roman road, and up, and up... we passed a few more cattle herds on the way up, helped shoo a disoriented calf who had gotten left behind back to her mother, and had to stop for a few thrown horseshoes (Gaby is a licensed farrier and always carries extra shoes and nails so no problem), but mostly it was just climbing the mountain and admiring the views for the next couple of hours.  Then finally we got to the top, where a pretty sizeable crowd had gathered to witness and cheer on the Transhumancia, along with all the cows who were grazing in the meadow at the top of the mountain while their herders took a break.

Unsaddled the horses in a nearby wood and had lunch at the restaurant which is conveniently located on top of the mountain - "thrashed potatos" which are potatos mashed with garlic and paprika and garnished with fried pork skins, scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms, cream-and-spinach filled fried crepes and salad followed by a nice bloody steak from the cousins of the cows we could see grazing in the pasture.  After a long, relaxing "sobremesa" where we chatted and sipped at coffee and herb liqueurs we saddled our horses up and walked them to another fountain.  While the horses were drinking, a huge vulture (pretty sure it was a Griffon Vulture) landed just about 250 yards away from us.  Of course, I just had to see how close I could get, which wasn't much before it majestically spread its wings and flew off into the valley below.  Then we headed down the other, greener side of the mountain through lush meadows and mixed deciduous and pine forests to Barajas, the village we spent the night in.

Now if I had to choose a tiny little town smack in the middle of nowhere, Barajas is the one I'd choose.  The roman road runs through it, there's a lovely romanesque looking church as well as lots of more recent but still charming stone buildings, its mountain backdrop is stunning and best of all?  It's literally surrounded by horse pastures.  There are even pastures owned by the town hall which are subsidized so even if you don't have much money, you have somewhere to keep your horse.  And of course with the amount of lush green grass growing, you don't have to worry much about feed.  We separated the horses (there were 15 of them after all) into three different pastures - one for Gaby's horses, another for the horses owned by other people who live in Gaby's stable and the last one for two mares who had come with their owners from Alicante to do this route - and walked around the corner to our hotel, where each room instead of having a number had the name of a horse.  Ours was Faraón (Pharoah), a flashy white Iberian.

While showering, I realized that I had gotten pretty badly sunburned on my chest - I very cleverly brought a light cotton long-sleeved shirt to protect my arms and back form the sun but forgot that it was a little low-cut :S  Not sure if it was sun poisoning, dehydration, a slight hangover or a combination of the three, but I barely made it through the excellent dinner (Iberian ham, local aged sheep cheese, veggie terrine and fresh cod with a tomato sauce) before I had to turn in for the night.

Well, I think that's enough for the first chapter.  More another day :)  Needless to say it was fabulous, and I got along so well with my horse that riding him just came naturally.  No drama at all, which I think says a lot about my own personal development.

Oh, and if you're interested in going on an amazing trail ride like this one (anywhere from 1 1/2 hours to 7 days, very reasonable rates) with Gaby's fabulous horses through some of the most beautiful and authentic countryside in Spain, check out his website.

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