Catalonia Trails, Spain, 2013.
Holly Anthony, Far and Ride.
From 15 – 22 September 2013 I joined the Mountain to Sea Trail at our Catalonia Trails destination in Spain. I accompanied two clients, both single female travellers, and we were joined by a variety of others from Austria, Sweden, Germany and Holland. A Dutch lady on this trail was visiting this riding set up for the 14th time and goes twice a year! The trail starts and ends at the farmhouse of Can Muni in the small village of Pins and takes you on a wonderful adventure to the beach, fascinating medieval towns, up into the mountains and back again. It is a great ride for the practiced rider, capable of riding at all paces and over difficult terrain, and I would like to share my thoughts on it with you. Forgive me for the length but I didn’t want to miss anything out!
On the departure Sunday I started reasonably early and took a lift to London Luton airport for my flight to Barcelona. These riding holidays have set time group transfers and so I was to be collected at 6pm from Barcelona airport, along with many of the other riders. The meeting point at the airport was easy to find and the driver held a sign for us, ticking off our names from his list to ensure everyone was there. From here we made our way to Can Muni travelling via Girona airport to collect some other riders. After a little over two hours we were safely delivered to Can Muni and shown to our rooms. The farmhouse is owned and run by Juan and Isabel who speak very limited English but were always willing to help us, dashing around to carry bags and make sure everyone was OK. The real part of hostess is played by Birgit who is an experienced horsewoman and former guide (she still guides occasionally but has mostly retired due to injury) – she made sure that everyone knew what time to meet for drinks and dinner and that we all found our rooms. The rooms here are rustic and simple but clean and comfortable, each with their own bathroom. The buildings are in the traditional stone style of the area and there are some communal areas such as the dining room, sitting area and the covered terrace where we sometimes ate. There is also a magnificent pool and the stable yard is just a few metres from the farmhouse buildings, perfect for those who just can’t keep away from the horses!
After a chat about the horse and rider pairings over a welcome drink of cava it was time for our first dinner, a great chance to make new friends and settle into our surroundings. We started with salad and bread, followed by chicken with roasted peppers and then a creme caramel, all washed down with water and their good local red wine. Red wine is served at every lunch and dinner, including the picnics, and their local produce is very smooth and drinkable… though we can’t guarantee you’ll always have a bottle opener at the picnic stops (we soon discovered that it’s perfectly possible to open a bottle of wine with a stick)! After the meal it was time for bed and to get a good sleep before the trail began.
I slept well at Can Muni and in the morning was awoken by the sound of horses being shod in preparation for the trail. After a continental-style breakfast we were introduced to our guides for the week – my group would be riding with Petra, a German lady who has lived in Spain for many years… she speaks fluent English, Spanish and Catalan (and German of course) and is a great horsewoman, teaching lessons at a local riding school when not guiding the trails. Petra talked us through the riding route, indicating each part of the route on a map for us so that we could see exactly where we would be headed. She also spent a while explaining to us that the horses are all ridden with a loose rein and that riders here are expected to rise to the trot and stand in the stirrups for canters in order to reduce impact to the horses’ backs.
Down at the stables I met my noble yet slightly grumpy steed for the week, Al-Hattal. He is a handsome boy, one of the few pure Andalusians of our riding group and fine in stature with a beautiful dark mane. Petra explained that he was a fairly straight-forward ride but that he sometimes (OK… often) takes offense to other horses being close behind him. Other horses ranged from smaller Hispano-Arabs to Templo, a Percheron/Andalusian cross and a real chunky boy! I have to admit I wasn’t expecting him to be so fit and agile but he turned out to be more than capable of keeping up, both at speed and over the difficult ground. Each rider is given a large pair of saddle-bags and carries spare shoes specific to their horse, a brush, a hoof pick and sometimes the picnic lunch (could be the horse or the people picnic!), in addition to any personal items required for the day. Once tacked up and ready to go we led the horses for the first few minutes before getting on board – generally speaking you will always walk a short distance at the start and the end of the day and are usually expected to mount and dismount without help.
The first day of riding (Monday) was easygoing to allow us all to become accustomed to the horses. Petra indicated any changes of pace and the message was passed down the line, just as we had been instructed to do, to ensure that all riders knew what was going to happen next. It’s true that riding a trail like this really involves some teamwork and this encourages communication between riders, creating a sort of ‘trail family’ which for me is one of the highlights of such a ride. After reaching our first great view point and admiring the sight of the coast, which we would reach on horseback the next day, it was time to head into the woods for our first picnic. This consisted of bread, cheese, tomatoes, pizza, biscuits, dried fruit and oranges. Simple fare but filling and energising, perfect when washed down with a good glass of wine. At each lunch the horses were all untacked and tied to trees where they had a small feed of grain. They were watered regularly during the riding days, whenever we came to a stream, and I always felt happy knowing that they got a good rest and feed at lunchtime to power them for the afternoon.
We saddled the horses back up and headed onwards to our beach hotel which was the most simple accommodation we encountered during the week, but chosen for its wonderful location and delicious paella. We left the horses in nearby paddocks which are individually marked out with electric fencing so that there is a private space for each horse. On arrival we were met by Miguel in the support vehicle and every horse already had water, a bucket feed and hay laid out for them and this continued on through the week. The horses were understandably quite hungry so we let them tuck in whilst we removed their tack, then Miguel went round and sponged off every horse, checking them over and ensuring that their shoes were still firmly attached. Once that was done he produced a big cooler filled with water, cava and some soft drinks, all nicely chilled and well appreciated! We enjoyed these cool refreshments, said goodnight to our horses and started the walk to the hotel about five minutes away.
Our luggage was waiting for us and we were quickly designated rooms and keys. The rooms here are relatively sparse in terms of facilities but they were clean and had everything we needed. After a good wash, I soon discovered that the hotel bar serves exceedingly strong sangria for €3.50… I stopped at one to keep myself as sensible as possible (and to leave some space for a glass of wine!). A salad bar was followed by seafood paella and dessert, everyone chatting away and getting to know each better. We went to bed quite soon after dinner as Tuesday would be the earliest start of the trail to get on the beach whilst it’s relatively empty of people. The fewer people there are, the more uninterrupted cantering you can enjoy! We rose early and met in the lobby for a quick coffee or juice, then walked down to the paddocks that we had left the horses in the night before. We tacked up and then tucked into some quick sandwiches, all anxious to mount up and head to the sea. I remembered to get myself a little stick from the bushes as Al-Hattal apparently enjoys a quick lie-down in the sand and I didn’t really fancy being rolled on, but as it happened he behaved impeccably. It was a short ride to reach the beach and due to the early start and relatively high winds there were not many people to be seen on the sands, apart from one rather unhelpful windsurfer and a few dog walkers. We enjoyed long fast canters in the edge of the water where the sand is firm and has good footing for the horses. It was a great experience to feel the wind and hear the splashing of the water and all the horses were very willing, needing no encouragement to go faster, but equally they were all easy to slow up and stop when needed.
The long stretch of beach riding was followed by some posing for photos and then a ride into town to stop for a coffee and pastries. We rode onwards through apple and pear plantations, making our way to Castellon d’Empuries with stork nests high in the trees and small green parrots flitting to and fro. Due to the early start the Tuesday of this trail is a shorter day and we arrived at the horse paddocks in time for lunch. Our faithful steeds tucked into their lunch and we sat down to a feast which Miguel had set up for us. Salad, ripe tomatoes, goats cheese and the most delicious Serrano ham were just some of the things on offer. With a free afternoon ahead of us we took our time before checking in to the hotel in the centre of this lovely town. The afternoon was whiled away sunbathing by the hotel pool which lies within the walls of a former nunnery! The evening’s dinner was a choice from a set menu and I chose the onion soup, pork cheek and the traditional local dessert of Creme Catalan. We sat out together and enjoyed a drink courtesy of Ramon who owns the horses and had decided to come and meet us.
Wednesday’s breakfast was a treat in itself, eaten on the roof terrace of the hotel and overlooking the town in all directions, the stone buildings lit beautifully by the morning sun. Today would be a long riding day of around 50km so I was sure to fill up on pastries, fruit and yoghurt (I’ll be honest, I tend to ‘fill up’ at every meal!) before we walked down to the horses. This riding day was on country tracks, through cork oak forests and across some open fields, the smell of wild mint, rosemary and fennel scenting the air. Before lunch we had a fabulous blast across the open field with everyone spread out which brought a smile to all our faces, then we walked and cooled the horses down before reaching our lunch stop in the pine trees. Miguel had set up a table for us and provided water to wash our hands before eating and this time there was even strong local brandy to go in your post-lunch coffee if you wished! The afternoon was, as Petra had informed us, slower going with more hilly and rocky paths to be navigated. We rode amongst bamboo which was significantly taller than us and our horses, creating a jungle, and we admired an impressive lake and watered the horses before beginning a long, slow walk to the spa hotel. This walk is the only part of the ride which became a little tedious, though it is unavoidable in order to reach the hotel where the horses have permanent wooden stalls waiting for them. We took our boots and chaps off outside the hotel entrance and were each provided with a pair of slippers to wear to our rooms. We were soon in the jacuzzi, unwinding before dinner, and we slept well. The only downside here would be the frosted glass doors to the bathrooms which don’t hide much – my roommate and I soon came to an agreement to look the other way!
Thursday was to be a long day and the slowest of the week. We did have to cover some long stretches of road during the morning but there were very few cars and nice scenery and buildings to be seen. After the first few hours of riding we stopped for a picnic lunch by the river at St Llorenc de la Muga, a beautiful little town with lovely stone bridges. We sat on the saddle blankets and tucked into our lunch, sipping wine and talking about the area, before rinsing hands in the crystal clear water of the river and walking into town for a better look. The streets were spotlessly clean with all the buildings, fountains and the church incredibly well maintained. It was a lovely place to sit and enjoy a drink at a café before strolling back to our horses for an afternoon of climbing.
Before we mounted up Petra briefed us on the afternoon as there would be a point where we needed to dismount and lead the horses down a steep slope, across some rocky riverbed and then up a step of rock about two feet high. Petra gave clear instructions as to how to tie the reins up safely to ensure the horses did not get tangled and when the time came, the horses were wonderful and hopped up the step with ease… except mine of course. Al-Hattal is younger than most of the other horses and prefers to take his time on tough ground, so we waited at the back and took it slowly. Upon reaching the step he decided he wasn’t 100% sure whether he really wanted to jump up and I could hear the others calling for me, wondering whether my horse and I had disappeared into the Catalan wilderness forever… “Holly? Are you there? Are you OK?!”. But with some encouragement and a bit of scrambling around, legs akimbo (mine and his), we were soon up on good ground again and marching on to meet the others. We were soon back on board to ride some tough mountain paths, including riding down a short but very steep dip which would send the heart of a nervous rider into palpitations. The horses took it all in their stride and were extremely sure-footed, their energy never ceasing to amaze me as we climbed on and on. Just as I thought they should be getting weary Petra gave the signal for a canter and off we went, cantering up the steep slope as if the horses were fresh out of their paddock! I couldn’t believe how they bounded up the mountain path so willingly and how they covered the rough ground without issue. After this exhilarating uphill blast we slowed up and headed for the overnight paddocks, not realising that a traditional Catalan music group would be waiting to greet us, playing instruments which sounded very similar to a Scottish bagpipe! Al-Hattal was completely baffled as to why we were being serenaded but he soon lost interest when he spotted his dinner waiting for him. It transpired that we were staying on the land of one of the musicians and it just happened to be his turn to host their group practice that evening! It was a pleasure to hear them play for us as we fed and cared for our horses.
Tonight we would be staying about a twenty minute drive away from the horses in an incredible place called ‘La Calma da Rita’. I have never seen anything like it! This traditional house has been transformed into what seems like a museum or its own work of art… beautiful furniture and decoration adorns every room and each bedroom has magical touches which make it an extremely special place to visit. The large terrace overlooks the river, the banks of which were rich with bright yellow flowers, and we would dine outside tonight near to the pool. The meal was my favourite of the week and began with an abundance of delicious salad of spinach, tomatoes and cheese with a balsamic glaze. I had at least four helpings which is pushing the boundaries even for me! Then we were on to sausages with a traditional local dish of small white beans cooked with bacon lardons, followed by locally made yoghurt with a fruit compote. Full and happy we made our way to our beds and dreamed the night away, not realising the sensational breakfast which would be awaiting us come the morning.
As I rolled out of bed on Friday and performed the dance that every rider knows, the ‘jodhpur wriggle’, I felt quite sad to know I would be leaving this fascinating guesthouse. There was so much to see and I felt as though I could have spent days there, but the trail goes ever onwards and I was excited to know what came next! Breakfast this morning was sensational and the homemade pastries were some of the best I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten quite a lot). A variety of meats, cheese, breads, jams and pastries went alongside the tea, coffee and a big jug of warm milk which one of the riders loves to drink. It was the perfect way to start our day and soon we were back in the van for the drive to the horses who had already been tended to by Miguel. We offered them a final drink of water before tacking up and starting off on what was perhaps my favourite day of the trail. The morning was slow-going to start with as we had to spend some time on the country roads, but we crossed fields and passed by some wonderful buildings as the route went on. By lunchtime we reached what is probably the most beautiful town I have ever seen, the medieval citadel of Besalu. We watered the horses in the clear waters of the river Fluvia as we gazed up at the breathtaking 12th century Romanesque bridge, the entrance to a maze of arcade streets and pretty squares, not to mention the sensational ice cream shop! The riverbanks were a sea of rich greenery and yellow flowers whilst enormous trout could be seen sunbathing nearby. We led the horses into some woods a few minutes away where they could tuck into their lunch as we enjoyed a Mexican feast of fajitas. I couldn’t wait to go exploring and several of us headed off into town after a little digestion time. Crossing the bridge you feel as if you’ve gone back in time and we wandered the streets admiring the architecture and the more touristy aspects too, such as the toy swords and shields you could buy to transform yourself into a Besalu knight! Having heard wonders about the ice cream we each chose our flavours and enjoyed this refreshing treat in the sunshine, stopping for some photos overlooking the Fluvia.
Soon it was time to leave this remarkable place and saddle up our four-legged friends. The afternoon was of a more lively pace and I particularly enjoyed riding a trail between tall flowers and crossing a broad stream with crystal waters. The horses’ home tonight was well shaded and just a few minutes down the path from our beautiful hotel. The rooms here were spacious and modern, though the shower rooms are separate to the bedrooms (each room has its own). The sangria was the best of the week, so good in fact that one of my trail buddies and I felt the need to have a few helpings. A good drink, a hot shower and a delicious dinner is everything you could want after a long day in the saddle and we stayed up later tonight, chatting away happily until bedtime. The morning would bring another tasty buffet breakfast and also the chance to pinch apples for the horses. We also took a final look at the map of the trail as this would be our last day of riding – Petra wanted to show us the route we had covered so far and the way this last day would take us in order to return to Can Muni.
After their sweet treat the horses were ready to go and were still forward-going and energetic despite their hard work during the week. Of course they also knew they were headed for home! We rode out from the hotel grounds on tracks alongside the trees and through some small towns. The riding day today was shorter and we would be back to the farmhouse for lunch. As we reached a long track Petra looked back at us and we realised it was time for a final gallop for home… with dust flying we flew between the fields, the sight of Can Muni ahead in the distance. As we pulled the horses up for the last time and settled them back to walk to cool down we all looked out over the land and thought of the great expedition we had completed. The horses were soon untacked, well fed and hosed off and we headed back to the house for a celebratory cava and tasty lunch of a Catalan style paella, Spanish tortillas and salad. We made a toast to Petra, who had worked so hard to ensure we had a wonderful riding experience, and said farewell as she left for home. For us riders there was still a free afternoon to relax by the pool in the warmth and it was the perfect way to unwind and a chance to enjoy the sunshine free of boots and hat! Before dinner myself and a few others took a walk to the horse paddocks to wave a final farewell to Al-Hattal and his herd who were munching happily on forage laid out for them. We walked back to the house for a final dinner and a last sleep before transferring to the airport on the Sunday morning to make our way home.
In summary this is a fantastic trail ride for those who enjoy varied landscapes and who would like a chance to experience real Catalonia. The overwhelming feeling in the region is that Catalonia is not Spain but really its own country with a different language and culture. From the magnificent scenery and towns to the sure-footed horses and delicious fare, I found this to be a wonderful horseback adventure with plenty of hours both in the saddle and the sunshine.
Read more about this ride here: Catalonia Trails, Spain.