Molise, Italy, Valley of the Bear Trail, 2010.
Holly Anthony, Far and Ride.
From 21st – 28th August 2010, I escorted a group of Far and Ride clients on The Valley of the Bear Trail in Molise, Italy. We run escorted trails to benefit clients who may feel uneasy about travelling alone, or simply those who are looking for extra company during their holiday. The trip was without doubt a success and this is my ‘holiday report’. I hope that you enjoy it!
Our Saturday arrival to the farmhouse of Astrid and Carmine, the hosts of this destination, was delayed by a few hours due to baggage claim taking longer than usual. As this was my first time escorting clients I admit that I was somewhat nervous about our late arrival, though I knew that Astrid and Carmine were easy going as Sue from Far and Ride has been there twice before. I needn’t have worried – we were greeted with smiles, hugs, kisses and drinks! It was the perfect welcome after a long day of travel. We threw down our luggage and made our acquaintance with the other guests before settling down to chilled glass of local wine or a refreshing beer. Dinner was next up and I was certainly not disappointed with the cooking which I had heard so much about – delicious pasta followed by perfectly cooked meat, bread and a refreshing salad (with melon in… an idea which I will try at home!). To round it off we enjoyed some fresh local peaches before heading to our various quarters for a good night of sleep. The farmhouse features a large bedroom which can accommodate six (and has screens for privacy), a double room available for couples and a ‘museum’ which is available for socialising and also has a single bed. The large room and museum are situated around the back of the house and have their own separate shower and toilet block. The double room in the main part of the house is next to the farmhouse shower room also available to guests.
On Sunday we took the morning to relax and meet the horses. Breakfast consisted of cereals, yoghurt, fruit, bread and jams, along with tea, coffee and juice. It was beautifully sunny and warm which turned out to be a theme for the week! In the afternoon Astrid showed us how to tack up western style and gave us some important pointers – we were all newcomers to western riding but it’s easy for an English style rider to convert. Then we took a short test ride to become accustomed to the style of riding and to try out our designated horses – I was assigned the unusually marked and beautiful Too Hot, a small paint horse who is bay with a white face and blue eyes. He was a smooth ride and easy to handle and control, though Carmine or Astrid always tack him up as he sometimes puts on a show due to a miserable time he had with other owners! Another night at the farmhouse was to follow and I appreciated this secluded getaway with its lawns of wildflowers and surrounding woods.
Monday was the first day of the trail so after breakfast we packed our bags and left them at the gate to be driven to our overnight spot. Each day we just took what we needed in the provided saddle bags – a bottle of water, camera, suncream etc. Dunup, a chunky Quarter Horse, was to be pack horse for the trip so he was packed up with the headcollars, spare horse shoes, lunch, fly spray and other useful items. The pack horse runs loose with the group, as do any spare horses if required. We spent the morning making our way through the trees and out into the open, following paths over a variety of terrain, before reaching a beautiful picnic spot – a sunny hay meadow with trees for shade and an all important water trough and tap. The horses were unsaddled and some were tied whilst others turned loose, they all enjoyed their well earned rest and we settled down for our first picnic style lunch. Crisp white wine accompanied… an omelette sandwich! The omelette was between pieces of delicious Italian style bread (which took in the flavours) and was complemented by local cheese and salami. It was very peaceful as we munched, chatted and enjoyed our surroundings and the company of the horses and dogs.
My horse Too Hot had felt a little stiff in the morning and it was decided that he would be swapped for the pack horse, Dunup, and then would be returned to the farmhouse by Carmine in the morning for a rest. Astrid and Carmine’s vet, Livia, was actually accompanying the trail and was great to see the care and attention each horse was given. Too Hot felt like a great match for me but I certainly didn’t mind trying a different horse for the afternoon, and of course it is useful for me to have tried more than one of the horses there to get a feel for what Far and Ride clients can experience. During the afternoon I realised that there are horses here to suit a variety of riders – Too Hot had been quite forward-going whilst Dunup was relaxed and comfy, a great option for less experienced riders or those who are perhaps a little nervous. I put absolute faith in him from the start and he didn’t let me down, always choosing the best route over rocky paths and managing steep slopes with care. Too Hot was returned to the farmhouse and Promise was brought out instead, thus he became my ride for most of the week and showed me a lovely time. Promise is a strong horse with a particularly pretty face and beautiful palomino colouring… though he is technically an Appaloosa and father to another of the horses called Pride. He is ridden in a bosal which is a type of noseband without a bit – it was a real pleasure to try something new and he was easy to control but happy to be up front or playing ‘wrangler’ at the back of the group.
Each day of the trail followed the same pattern with 2 – 3 hours of riding in the morning, a lunch stop and then a few more hours of riding to our overnight point. Sometimes we enjoyed picnics and other times we stopped at restaurants, sampling local wines and a variety of cold meats, cheeses, bread and the most juicy and sweet tomatoes imaginable. The rides were wonderful, the views throughout the Molise and Abruzzo regions of Italy are spectacular and the landscape is varied to allow for plenty of canters in between the climbing. This is not a fast paced trail as there is some steep terrain and rocky descents, terrain for which these horses are ideally trained, illustrating their sure-footedness and their calm attitudes. Occasionally we dismounted and led the horses on parts which were slippery or too steep… or just if we wished to stretch our legs! I relished the ease with which I could mount and dismount on the large Western saddles, it was far different to clambering on my horse at home with a mounting block or a leg up! We soon came to recognise the phrase “in sella!” meaning “in the saddle!” which was called by Carmine or Astrid when we were ready to begin again after a break. The group often paused after a particularly tricky climb or when the horses were having a drink, something they were able to do often throughout the days by stopping at troughs along the trail.
This trail led us to a height of 3600ft into the mountains, through the Magic Forest, across flat, green valleys and even to meet some of the horses and cattle which roam wild across the lands. These ‘wild’ horses live free but many wear bells, a sound we soon came to recognise as we wound our way between them on the slopes, stopping to take photos. Dunup simply loves these wild herds and when he is the spare horse he sneaks his way between them hoping to get left behind with new friends! Often we followed cattle roads over 2000 years old, known as ‘tratturo’, and we encountered many dogs which were left in charge of the sheep throughout the countryside – I was amazed by how they could be left there without their owner but they knew their job so well. There were sometimes as many as six dogs for one group of sheep, perhaps a reflection on the fact that there are still wolves and bears occasionally roaming the area. Astrid and Carmine’s dogs, Luna and Leo, accompanied the whole trail and often trotted along behind me at the back making sure everything was in order. When some of us slept on the terrace at the rustic mountain lodge the dogs slept out too and guarded us… in fact Leo even tried to get in some of the sleeping bags! The mountain lodge is a wonderful place where two nights are spent during this trail. There is no electricity but water for the showers is heated by a fire. The candlelight and the fact that the lodge is so tucked away make it a very special place, one where the horses can graze around you and you can enjoy the company of new friends.
A lot is to be said for Astrid and Carmine themselves as there is nothing so important as the hosts during a trail like this. Astrid’s warmth and vivacity is clear from the moment you meet her and her special care for her guests and horses brings the perfect touch. You can’t help but feel that these horses are truly loved as Astrid whispers to them in her native Dutch, a sound which they appear to find soothing. She was diligent in checking the horses over for injuries, applying fly repellant and checking the tack before we mounted. She also spent many hours with the guests making them feel at home – she is multilingual and appeared to switch between languages with ease. She does much of the cooking and her tiramisu was totally divine! Carmine is a real Italian cowboy who trains his horses well and quietly goes about his work, including shoeing the horses himself most of the time. He is also a fantastic cook and a welcoming host with great knowledge of the land and the trails. He is not a big talker but you’ll realise his few words are enough – he turned to me during one afternoon as we were riding high on the slopes and said “Holly, have you ever seen such countryside?” with his trademark broad smile, what more needed to be said? Between them, Astrid and Carmine bring a special something to this destination which is hard to beat.
I thoroughly enjoyed this week for both new experiences and new friends. The area was beautiful and is apparently even more so in Springtime when wild flowers cover the ground and water still rests in the valleys. This was my first trail ride and I now understand how travelling point to point becomes a real adventure, more so because you are sharing it with a select group of people and because you have an aim to each day. I would highly recommend it as an enjoyable and relaxed trail for riders who are happy at walk, trot and canter but who do not necessarily ride regularly. You must be confident enough to groom and tack up your own horse (having been shown how and of course, help is offered) and capable of mounting and dismounting unaided and standing in the stirrups when your horse is climbing. Excellent scenery, horses, food and hosts, the perfect relaxed adventure!
Read more about the ride here: Molise, Italy.