WARNING: this post is extremely long and loaded with pictures. I wanted to write the full story in one post and sooner rather than later before all the details become too muddled. I hope you enjoy it too!
Dusty and I had differing opinions on the honeymoon. I wanted to go someplace like the Poconos, but he wanted to make it a trip of a lifetime. He won. I am so glad he did! We decided to book a week long horseback riding trip in Provence, France from the Alps to the Mediterranean. It really was the trip of a lifetime. All pictures were taken on our 35 mm camera with actual, real film.
Sunday October 24, 2004
Two young loves heading off to Paris for an adventure. What could be better? We boarded the plane in Pittsburgh, PA both excited and nervous. Dusty had never travelled internationally before and we settled into a long overnight flight that would take us first to Paris and then to Marseilles to meet the car which would take us to the ranch.
We arrived in Marseilles a bit battered from the long flight, but excited to be done with the plane travel. Unfortunately, our bags had taken a detour and were not there for us. We had packed all of our riding clothes in there, a rookie mistake for sure, and worried if the luggage would find us before we left on horseback.
As we piled into the car and headed into the countryside, all our worries just faded away. We would ride naked the next 5 days if need be. We would not be missing out on this trip! Fortunately for everyone else on the ride, our luggage arrived after dinner.
Before dinner, we walked around the grounds a little to stretch our legs. The ranch was swaddled on all sides by a mountain range covered in small trees and scrub brush.
We spied the paddocks and gazed at the horses wondering who we would be riding the next few days. The brochure had proclaimed French bred sport horses with top of the line tack and we were excited to see what that actually meant in reality. Most of the horses looked like TB crosses and all were pretty fit. We both picked out our favorites and then headed to dinner.
During dinner, the guide wandered around asking questions to get to know us. Little did we know that our answers would seal our horse fate for the week. The Brits loudly proclaimed their need for speed (their horse riding experience was all at a local livery yard where they showed up, selected an already tacked horse, galloped for an hour, then returned and handed the tacked up horse to a groom before leaving). The CA lady announced that she had complained loudly after her last trip about the poor tack and horse selection when in Portugal and was guaranteed the best of the best for this trip. Then there was us. When asked, we answered honestly that we wanted to be able to ride together and to see the scenery. We were not afraid of riding fast, but saw no point in traveling to France to have the world whizz by us in a blur. Ah..if we only knew....
I have no clue what we ate for dinner, but I do remember the wine. It was a blush made on site and we all joked that it was made in an old horse trough from horse spit. Whatever it was made of, it went down smooth and I distinctly remember Dusty downing an entire bottle on his own trying to keep up with the Brits.
Monday October 25, 2004
After breakfast, we walked to the paddocks to meet our partners. The guide called out our names and then the horse name and description/paddock number. One by one people got called out and given a horse which they would go claim. The CA lady came back with the most gorgeous black beast on the property and the Brits with matching sleek horses that looked like they came from the track. They were gorgeous and just like the brochure.
Then my name was called. My horse was named Joy and when he pointed out my ride, my heart sank. There stood a pregnant looking quarter pony who looked like she would barely be able to go the entire time. Dusty laughed as I walked past with a glare.
His turn was next and he got Leonidas, a draft cross who would quickly earn the name Eeoyre. While he wasn't a French bred sport horse either at least he looked interested in the proceedings. Unfortunately for Dusty, the only saddle that fit Eeoyre was an old, half rotted split tree saddle with the padding long gone and most of the leather following suit. He sat on pure wood for days and miles on end and has a scar on his buttocks to prove it.
We all tacked up and mounted to begin our journey which wove between the vineyards and out a gravel road.
The trail soon dove into the woods and I laughed as Dusty's horse was obviously too wide for the trail and he had to be extremely careful to keep his knees intact. The Brits were up front, right behind the guide, and would stay that way for 95% of the ride with the CA woman right on their heels and the others bouncing around and finding a home as the days wore on. Dusty and I were at the very back partly to avoid a crowd, but also because that's how fast Joy and Eeoyre could go. They continuously fell far behind and at the beginning of the ride we grew anxious we would get lost or yelled at for lagging. We didn't want to break any rules by trotting while the rest were walking and so we began the ride a bit anxious.
I don't recall much of excitement from this first day. The guide kept the pace pretty calm to allow everyone time to settle in and the trail wove around the mountains and in their style of a National Park.
The scenery was breathtaking and there was no room for any complaints or being sour over our mounts. We were thrilled to be there. About 3 hours later we stopped for lunch and the cook met us by van with food. It was all homemade from the ranch and since this area was known for growing mustard, which was in season, we ate mustard flavored everything. I think it was a quiche and I know there was Crown Royal (which I did not partake in) and chocolate which would be two staples found at every meal.
After lunch, we continued through the forest mainly staying on the gravel path and picked up the pace a bit with some intermittent trotting. We traveled for another 3-4 hours and eventually came to a farm house that would be putting us up for the night.
Dinner was cooked by the farmhouse owners and I believe it was mustard coated pork and absolutely delicious. We slept very well that night.
Tuesday October 26, 2004
The next morning ruined me for life. I've always been a fan of hot chocolate, but what they had for breakfast was simply sublime. They had a tea pot full of molten chocolate lava. I poured a cup and settled into bliss and have never been able to tolerate the chocolate flavored powder that we call hot chocolate in the US ever since. Dusty enjoyed dipping breakfast chocolates into his morning coffee and we mounted up for day two in good spirits.
The guide had told us the night before that we could do as we pleased since we were self sufficient. If we wanted to trot to keep up, we could or we could lag behind as long as we kept everyone in sight. This eased up any remaining stress and we settled into our last place position happily where we remained the rest of the week.
Day two saw us weaving through the mountains heading toward a small town. We moved at a much quicker pace this day to lay down some tracks and the scenery continued to astound us.
We came upon the town at lunch time and tied the horses in an olive grove while we went to explore and eat. The guide warned us that this was private property and to tie the horses in a way to avoid damage to the trees. I don't think we were actually allowed to use the grove.
Well, we walked around and ate and when we wandered back to the horses we noticed the Eeoyre was missing from his tree. He was over next to Joy munching on the sparse grass and trailing half of the olive tree he had previously been tied to along with him. The guide stared bug eyed for a moment the told Dusty to hide the evidence, get on and we high tailed it out of there laughing.
One of my all time favorite riding experiences remains riding through the middle of that small town as we continued to make our way closer to the sea.
The second half of the ride began to leave the mountains behind us and head into the rolling, green country side. The trip is supposed to highlight the numerous lavender fields that blanket the region, but this late in the year it had all been harvested. The fields were still pretty to see and made for great footing. Having spent a day and a half becoming acquainted with everyone's abilities, the guide used the fields to open up into a long canter and we covered the ground quickly.
That night we stayed at a hotel and ate more mustard flavored food in an attached restaurant. While we loved the food in general by this point we were very tired of mustard. We crawled off to bed that night glad we were too tired to care about the accommodations as they were small and pretty grungy. Then again so were we after two days on the trail and honestly all we did was fall right to sleep so it didn't matter.
Wednesday October 27, 2004
Wednesday was equally as amazing as the two previous days. We tacked up again and headed out. Joy's girth had the annoying habit of randomly loosening and I remember getting off many times to fix my tack this day. She also threw a shoe which the guide was able to replace at the lunch stop.
The lunch stop was one of my favorite parts of the entire week. We stopped at a dam and had more time than previously. This gave Dusty and I time to hike up the hill a bit and get a good view. I don't handle heights that well so I stayed closer to the ground and watched Dusty climb all the way up.
|This is one of my favorite pictures ever taken of the two of us|
From there we headed out of the mountains and back to the countryside. Along the way we passed by some old Roman ruins and we got some nice pictures of those.
Our stop for the night was at a small equestrian center just outside of a town. The clouds had rolled through ahead of us and dropped a fair amount of rain that soaked the ground. We were told to tie to the fence of the arena and Eeoyre proved to not like that any better than the olive tree and proceeded to snap the fence in two.
Dinner Wednesday night was the best of the entire trip. The couple who owned the place consisted of an Italian man and his French wife. She cooked cheese lasagna with his mother's recipe from Italy and using local French cheeses. Dusty could have ate the entire pan and I even asked for seconds for the first time all trip.
Thursday October 28, 2004
Thursday was really interesting as we started back into the mountains that felt like cliffs. The winds were howling from the storm that was blowing in and I was scared I would get blown right off Joy and into the abyss below. The poor pony had not put a foot wrong the entire trip and had given me her all. When the others walked, we trotted to keep up. When they began to trot, we cantered and when they cantered we hand galloped. She was always a gait ahead of the rest, but was game and willing and never lacked an interest in moving forward. She lost a bit of weight on the ride and toned up quite a bit and I slowly fell in love with her. Eeoyre won Dusty over quickly with his incredibly goofy personality. At one point Dusty learned that he adored bamboo and grabbed a long branch which he hung in front of his nose to get him moving bit faster than his typical shuffling gait. He was a goof ball and even though his gaits were uncomfortable, Dusty wouldn't have traded him for any other horse on that trip.
The rain caught up to us pretty good on Thursday and we wound around those cliffs with Joy working over time to move forward against the gale.
We stopped at an old French castle, but it was raining and we left our cameras safely tucked away, so no pictures. You can see it in the background of the above picture and we enjoyed a couple of hours reprieve from the saddle to walk around the castle. We had no money on us and no way to transport anything even if we could buy it, so we just window shopped in the store there and walked around in awe.
Lunch was a hurried affair in the rain and we all just wanted to get done with the day. As we left the mountains behind us the ground became flat and we ended up in the most amazing town. I really wish I could remember the sea town name because the entire town was set up for horses. Everyone had a horse and the roads were marked for riders and there were hitching posts outside of every store. In fact, they people thought you were odd if you didn't ride and drove instead.
I also wish I had pictures of the second part of this day, but the rain was too heavy. As we neared the end of the day we started to cross what can best be described as mud flats. Great big, wide open, perfectly flat stretches of pure mud with a solid base underneath. Once we hit those, the guide yelled back to hang on and off we went at a full on racing gallop. Joy dug in, pricked her ears in the most interest she had shown all week and took off. The mud was flying in all directions and I swung her far right to avoid the splatter. Dusty saw this and thought it was a good idea and swung to my right and then blew past me. This absolutely coated me in thick, slippery, clingy wet mud. As Joy pounded underneath me, I fully opened her up and we passed them all. Yep, my pokey little quarter pony had more in her than the fanciest sport horse in the group. I will never forget how ticked those Brits and CA women were as we blew them all away with Dusty on his draft close on my heels!
Thankfully, we ended up at the night at a hotel soon after with the promise of riding on the beach the next day. We had arrived at the Mediterranean near Spain!!!! Dusty and I grabbed a quick shower because dinner was in town at a really nice restaurant that night. We dined on locally raised beef steak that was mouth watering and huge buckets of fresh mussels. I think each one weighed as much as my head and we all had our own.
Friday October 29, 2004
Unfortunately, the rain continued all night and killed our plans for the following day. The plan was to take the horses on a ferry to a private island with wild horses. We had seen a ton of wildlife on the trip including flamingos which I had never seen in the wild, numerous birds we couldn't identify and small mammals. The wild horses would have been the icing on the cake, but the sea was too choppy and the ferry wasn't running.
Instead we toured the town on horseback which ended up being great in its own right. The town was adorable and even with the bad weather, the ground remained firm enough for a gallop on the beach. Joy wanted nothing to do with the waves, but Eeyore was game and Dusty enjoyed running through the surf as we stayed on the firmer sand.
I know the guide was feeling bad that we were unable to take the ferry. We stopped for lunch at a small ranch just outside of town and he began to talk about what our options for the afternoon were: do we want to ride again around the town or do something on foot? Just then an old French cowboy entered and grabbed his guitar. He began to serenade us all with French songs that nobody but the guide knew the words to. Nobody cared though and we all began to hum along. Our fearless guide told the cowboy that we were on our honeymoon and he proceeded to sing his favorite love song to us and we just sat there with our faces split in a big grin and took it all in.
In the above picture, our guide is in the white shirt off to the right. And below that is him with the cook behind him and the Canadian behind him.
The group emptied an entire brand new bottle of Crown Royal during that extended lunch and we all laughed and agreed that this was better than any ferry ride. After that, the guide relaxed and enjoyed himself a lot more.
Sadly, the cowboy reached his limit and went to get some food and we all headed back to the horses. The Brits had a very difficult time getting on and the one even got up just to fall back off the other side. We managed to get everyone back to the hotel safely for an afternoon nap and called an end to our riding for the week. I went out and gave Joy a big hug and a thank you for dragging me around France and told her that I really appreciated it all.
The next morning we all loaded up into the vans and headed back to the ranch. While it took us 5 days of riding 5-6 hours a day to reach the sea, the van ride back took two. Dusty made some comment about that, but if you drove you would miss all the wonderful things we got to see by doing it the way we had.
Saturday October 30, 2004
In the morning we said our sad farewells to everyone and headed back to Marseilles where we had booked a hotel room to spend an extra day before heading back to the States.
We wandered around Marseilles the entire day missing being on the horses and out in the open. Neither of us are city people and having spent 5 days out in the fresh air, the city felt even more oppressive.
The next day we flew to Paris and then back to the states. It was honestly a trip of a lifetime. We made so many memories that I didn't even list, have some great inside jokes that aren't really blog appropriate and have never stopped even 11 years later, and laughed so much my stomach hurt. Our guide was experienced, funny, a great tour guide and knew exactly what he was doing when he gave us the horses he did. Yes, they were not what was advertised, but they stuck together, were slow which gave us privacy on a large group trip and never, ever put a foot wrong or gave us trouble. He did his best to make it as intimate as possible and even left a bottle of champagne in our room one night. These are the times that I will always cherish and be thankful that I was lucky enough to get to experience.