Saturday, June 28, 2014
NB: The first half of this series is here if you missed it.
Sunday - After a long night of too-hot-too-cold sheet wrestling, I woke up ready to get back in the saddle. We had a lovely breakfast at the hotel with freshly baked madaleines and home-grown cherries (Gredos is a cherry-harvest hotspot) and then walked over to saddle up our horses who were calm and refreshed after their night of rest - not so much jigging this morning. We hand-walked them into the middle of town to give them a drink at the fountain and to give them a little warmup before mounting up and starting our route back to La Parra. On the way out of town we rode through some poplar trees, which I'm highly allergic to when they're snowing down that fluffy shit so my allergies started acting up and didn't stop until I got back to Mallorca two days later.
I went through four packs of kleenex and in the end had to resort to furtive sleeve wiping and donated wet wipes to blow my nose into. By the end of the day I was pretty miserable and starting to wish people would stop talking to me, and even now the skin on my nose is chapped from blowing it so often. What with the sinus blockage, the dust, dehydration, the endless slight hangover and the sun poisoning from the day before, I got a horrific headache at lunch and thought about giving up and asking for a (car) ride down the mountain until the ibuprophen kicked in. After a few hours my knees were aching, since I had shortened my stirrups for more security over the more rugged terrain I knew was to come. And I had to wrap the shirt I wore the day before around my neck like a pakistani prayer shawl to cover my poor burned cleavage. Even so, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
Just on the other side of Barajas we went back through the same forest as the day before where we overtook cows grazing along a stream and passed areas marked for wild mushroom gathering, then started our slow ascent to the Puerto del Arenal mountain pass (the day before we had crossed the Puerto del Pico mountain pass) over moor-like cow and horse pastures. The terrain was completely different from the day before, much more loamy and nearly swampy in some areas, littered with holes and streams which spread out in different tiny tributaries and meandered across fields and down hillsides. Then we headed up a rocky hillside lined with broom bushes and rosemary till we reached more meadows, littered here and there with broom bushes and boulders. We let our horses drink at a crystal clear stream, then tied them up to rest while we enjoyed a mid-morning snack of serrano ham, manchego cheese, homemade morcilla (cured blood sausage) and more wine from the wineskin.
On the other side of the stream we noticed a herd of horses running together way on the other side of the meadow from us and steered clear of them so as not to get in the middle of a stampede. We picked our way through a rocky and treacherous streambed, slowly climbing higher and higher, until we came up on another meadow with horses grazing, and a few at the far end running and playing. Some of the braver members of our group which also happened to have their own horses with them rode up to the herd to see them up close, but the rest of us stayed at a distance. This is the one regret I have (aside from getting sunburned) - that I didn't ride up to this herd of horses. It was a magical moment and I watched from afar with envy and admiration.
We noticed the vegetation getting sparser and the boulders getting more frequent and then suddenly saw the whole Tietar river valley spread out before us as we reached the top of the mountain pass. And suddenly, right against the horizon, we saw an ibex run from one group of boulders to the next. As we were lamenting the fact that none of us had our cameras out, another one followed him. And another, and another... they just kept coming! There must have been 30 or so of them - at any rate it was enough time to dig my camera out of my saddlebags and take a video (sorry for the shaky hands) of them. Gaby's quip: "Most of what you pay for these rides goes to bribes for this kind of thing".
We were reminded of the fact that this was goat territory when we saw the path we'd be using to go down the mountain. Less than a yard wide, steep, stony, in some spots downright invisible and with lots of switchbacks, it was a little menacing (not to mention the fact that two of the folks who had ridden with us the day before had gotten someone else to ride their horses on the second day in order to avoid this descent). Gaby's son Álvaro saw the look on my face and said to me "just let Dali have his head and you'll be fine" and I listened to him. Apart from a few checks on the rein when we got to an easy bit to keep him from ending up on top of the mare in front of us, I pretty much just tried to relax my seat, kept a loose hold on the reins and put my life in his hands (hooves). And Álvaro was right - Dali's a pro. He picked his way downhill with the agility and balance of a mustang, regaining his foothold easily when a loose stone slipped and even hopping over a very dangerously placed stream with grace and confidence. When we got to a decent resting place where we could all dismount (which happened to be a state-run refuge for hikers and cattle and goat herders with a smallish cattle pen made of huge boulders pushed together) and give our horses a few minutes rest, I gave him a big rub and told him repeatedly what a fantastic horse he was.
Then down the hill to a pine wood where Gaby's wife had prepared a fabulous picnic lunch - more "thrashed potatos", a cold cream of zucchini soup, a tuna and veggie terrine, braised turkey cutlets and her fabulous lemon mousse for dessert. My horse had thrown a shoe on the way down, so while I held him and metabolized the ibuprophen Gaby shoed him. The way down was beautiful but tiring - we were now far enough down the mountain for it to be hot, and as we were back on the south face the terrain was much dryer and with 15 horses, a lot of dust was kicked up. But the views were amazing - it was great to see the mountain pass we had come over, and the little towns way down in the valley with their white wall, red tile roof houses and stone churches and even a castle or two. Down and down we went along dusty roads, with a few more hair-raising descents (steeper, but not so rocky or vertiginous) before we finally walked through a fairy tale-like fern grove before entering the forest that Gaby's ranch is just on the other side of. The land has obviously been recently parcelled off and sold, because there were a fair number of newly built cabins and some still under construction. Then we arrived to the olive groves interspersed with vinyards and fruit (quince, fig, pomegranate, almond and cherry) trees which mark the entrance to Gaby's ranch, and with a mix of regret at having ended our adventure and relief at being able to rest dismounted, unsaddled the horses and returned them to their paddocks for their well-deserved dinner and rest.
We ended the day with crusty loaves of bread, more home-cured chorizo and salchichón along with fresh local cheeses eaten with homemade quince jelly on top, a selection of locally made herb and fruit liqueurs with homegrown cherries for dessert. Another, short-lived singalong accompanied the inevitable hugs and kisses as we said goodbye until the next time. Hopefully it'll be soon.
Once again, if this sounds like something you'd be interested in doing, please look up Gredos Ecuestre and tell Gaby I sent you, or drop me a line and I can give you more details. He organizes very reasonably priced routes from 1 1/2 hours to 7 days long over a range of different terrains and parts of Spain (Gredos, Castilla Leon, Andalucía and Galicia so far with more to come) with some of the best horses (they've got spirit and initiative but are very well behaved and not phased by anything) I've ever ridden. Oh yeah and the food is fabulous ;)