Valley of the Bear Trail programme, Molise Ride, Spring 2007
Is it relaxing? To go hurtling forwards at a fast pace on a quadruped? The apprehension before hand, being a self-conscious, self-taught rider made for a tense beginning. What on earth was I doing here? How was I going to stay on? On second thoughts I was lucky to have caught the only evening train to Isernia at all. The platform alteration announcement in Italian meant I had to really run and only just caught the train. I’d forgotten to stamp my ticket in the machine which usually warrants a penalty fare €60 but the guard took pity on my beetroot face. No fine this time.
The green, lush, rolling hills and sparsely populated countryside was refreshing scenery on the way to the Colle Dell’Orso. Even if I couldn’t stay on the horse, the views were promising.
A warm welcome awaited me both at Isernia station and at Carovilli. Sitting down with a glass of wine and enough snacks to give me a salt hit, I admired the nearby horses, all looking forward to their own evening meal.
My initial impression was how restful everything felt. Carmine and Astrid’s own phrase ‘hurry slowly’ seems to settle over their inviting farmhouse and the paddock. The evening was spent being introduced to fellow riders – four of whom had spent a week at Carovilli the previous year, a very good sign I thought. Katya and myself were the two fresh faces and Katya had done more riding than me so I happily soaked up tips and reassurance.
What could be more reassuring than Astrid giving me her own horse, Fulmine for the week? I felt undeserving – but relieved! My nerves were only slightly jangled when she explained that, in Italian, Fulmine meant ‘lightning’. How fast was I going to go??
Apprehension, as always, is worse than the reality. The Western tack was different but we were shown what to do the next day and encouraged to ask for help if we needed it – which I did. And then we were off across fields to Castiglione, a nearby village with about 200 inhabitants.
After that first ride I knew I was in extremely safe hands. All the horses were forward going individuals who obeyed the rule: ‘Do not pass Billy’, Carmine’s horse. Fulmine was friendly and when I felt lightning strike, I held on and closed my eyes, only briefly though – Fulmine looked after me.
Have I mentioned the food yet? Fresh, delicious and tasty, every evening. In between eating I picked up local information: this region is famous for its cheese but as people have left the area the number of cows has dwindled to the extent that milk now has to be imported in order to continue the cheese-making tradition. We were reminded of this later in the week when we stopped at the shepherd’s hut to see the mozzarella being made using methods which haven’t changed for the last 100 years or more.
Our week of walking through sunlit glades and cantering across buttercup meadows at the foot of glorious mountains was punctuated with simple and satisfying picnics, followed by a short nap in my case, and leisurely evening meals, accompanied by plentiful wine. I was unable to curb my appetite and returned larger than I’d left! Carmine excelled himself in the kitchen, all with apparent ease. His culinary skill was exceeded only once by Carlotta and Vittorio’s sumptious meal, a five – or was it 6? – course banquet. Delectable. The horses similarly feasted that evening on lush grass – there wasn’t a blade left the following morning. Vittorio’s parting gift was a jar of sweet honey from his own bees.
In perfect weather, sunny with a light breeze, we followed the path of II Tratturo, the highway across the mountains which still weaves its way to the SE coast of Italy. Animals used to be herded along this route, the white stones remain, marking the track, reportedly the width of 60 Neopolitan men.
The picturesque villages we occasionally rode through such as Pescolanciano always caused a stir, particularly amongst the children. Away from the villages on the mountain side or in the valley, the paths are remote, on occasions Carmine produced his hunter’s knife to cut through the thick vegetation. The horses were strong and sure-footed and as we sat out of the saddle, they craned forwards and upwards to make our ascent. Our gentle pace through the forest at the summit gave us time to appreciate the sun twinkling through the trees illuminating ‘The Cathedral’ a huge rock, invisible from the mountain side, surrounded by tall trees.
We came upon the mountain hut suddenly, our home for the next two nights. Activity once dismounted was instant; the paddock had to be marked out with iron rods and electrified ribbon, wood to be gathered for the fire to provide hot water but first, water for the horses who are fed and watered according to their hierarchy; Billy first. That night the horses found a way through the electric ribbon. In the bunk upstairs I heard them prancing around the hut and in the morning their heads popped through the hut windows to say ‘buongiorno’!
We grew to recognize the sound of the wild horses from their bells, like cow bells around their neck. We saw them galloping at close quarters which was exciting, even though we didn’t quite manage a ’round up’. A scarier moment was when our horses stood stock still as a rogue, wild stallion, approached us looking for trouble. We bade a careful retreat.
This can only give a flavour of a really wonderful week. The generous hospitality and easy temperament of the horses induced a holiday mood. Cantering through carpets of pale yellow and purple violets with the scent of wild oregano in the air created the perfect riding atmosphere and yes, it was relaxing! I’m still savouring the memories of the trip.
Read more about this ride here: Molise Ride