On 25th September 2011, Sue Maling and her husband Jon joined the Trail in the Camargue from our riding destination in Provence, France. This is a six night trail that takes you from the Provençal mountains of the Luberon, across Van Gogh’s hills “Les Alpilles”, and to the Mediterranean Sea. The trail will take you to the famous Camargue, the land of flamingoes, black bulls and white horses.
Thanks to Sue and Jon for sharing their thoughts and photos with us. Below is Sue’s report on the trail:
“Fresh back from Provence it’s hard to get back to the British way of life again, I’d just relaxed into French speed. We arrived in France to a heatwave of 28-30C which lasted the week and sunbathing on the 1st of October whilst waiting for the flight home helped take the edge off having to leave. Marseille is actually nowhere near as flat as I thought, the town is surrounded by hills, and we headed into the Luberon range to Didier’s farm. It’s not a long journey, just over an hour, but you go from the fast toll roads to tiny winding roads near the farm and it seemed so remote. We settled into our rooms in the woods and chatted by the horses’ fields before dinner, trying to guess who we would ride. I joked that I love black geldings and would likely get a grey mare as I have done on several rides….and I did!
The chef at Didier’s place is a real character and he entertained us all on the first and last night. We met our guide, Jean-Francois or J-F for short…which he pronounced ‘Jeff’ and that certainly stuck all week. He chatted to us about what type of horse we would like and I think he chose extremely well, people who wanted a steady horse had exactly that, not dull or flat but forward-going and rhythmic which is very helpful if someone has low confidence. We were a group comprising of seven Swedish ladies, two Brits and a German couple. Some had their own horses at home and had done many trail rides before whilst others were on their first trail, so JF’s job was cut out for him. I think everyone was happy the next day, including me with my lovely grey mare who was Arab-Barb cross Spanish – ‘Esperanze’ had a long, keen stride and gentle nature. I was a bit worried that my ‘Welsh Cob’ trained hands courtesy of my own horse would be too harsh for her, although it probably did me good to relearn a sensitive ride and she was without fault all week.
We rode out of the farm and in no time were following some narrow, rocky paths with some low branches and a few drops to our right… so within the first hour you had learned that your horse was really reliable with good footing and wouldn’t rush the important bits (cue a deep sigh of relief on my part!). Jon was happy with his horse too, a tough call as he’d like a fast horse but doesn’t have the experience. He had a strong guy with big strides who was happy to go all day (another sigh of relief!). The little rocky paths meant mainly walk on the first day – you had plenty to do by navigating the paths and the branches so you never felt you needed to go faster and it gave you a real chance to get to know your horse.
Over the following three days we made our way through the limestone Luberon and Alpille ranges, full of fossils and attractive rock landscapes. The tracks got a little wider and softer, bit by bit, allowing for more trots and canters. JF did a great job, being really relaxed, and we could all ride wherever we wanted in the group and change at will to walk and trot beside each other where the paths were wide enough. There was no big deal about starting and stopping trots and canter which was lovely because the horses were keen without racing each other so you could really enjoy the scenery. We stopped in the woods for lunch – one day it was a rather amazing salad with cheeses afterwards and of course wine and a siesta. The next day it was a huge platter of hot chicken and baby ‘roast/saute’ potatoes straight from the back of our support van (I started to call our helper Merlin!) with of course cheeses and wine. Another day it was paella….cheeses and wine, they did warn us we wouldn’t lose weight!
The first night of the trail we stayed at a B&B with a pool in the woods, the horses in a paddock next to us… except two people needed to sleep a five minute walk away and those two people were us. It was a very pleasant walk to dinner… and a really spooky one home when I nearly turned into an open field instead of the right driveway – it was good weather but I wasn’t planning on open air camping that night! The dinners were all beautiful, many started with a tart of some sort which had really delicate flavours. The main courses always had a vegetable dish too, usually in a creamy sauce, very moreish. We had guinea fowl and beef which absolutely fell apart. Then when we hit the Camargue there was Camargue rice and bull stew at a Camargue horse stud farm, run by Brenda who moved there from Hertfordshire 40 years ago… now there’s another character! She no longer likes to speak English and is very proud of her Camargue horses and way of life. It started to feel a bit like Spain with flamenco type dresses and bull fight festivals on posters… although the rules here don’t allow the bull to be a fatality which is a relief. Traditionally the local horses are used for cutting the cattle and especially the bulls, like Western horses. There is a special type of saddle used by the local riders… and there are quite a few of those. It’s the only place I’ve been to where you find places with a bull in the garden.
This is a such a balanced trail in pace and scenery. We climbed rock, crossed the river Durance, under the TGV viaduct, tied the horses up in a vineyard for wine tasting and reached the rice fields leading to the sea. The difference between the rocky Alpille, full of fossils, and the mudflats of the Carmargue is quite stark. We rode to the pretty tourist village of Baux where we had some free time… well an hour (it was quite a schedule fitting everything into the day!) and from there both riders and horses had a transfer across what is now a busy road section. Many of us took advantage of the time for a quick snooze and I think maybe the horses did too. When we left Brenda’s the next day the going was flat and sandy, perfect for canters which built up to a good pace when we reached the open mud flats – great fun! Where we stayed that night had a really Spanish feel and we ate at Casa Romana where one of the options was bull steak. The next day we rode along the Mediterranean beach, cantering then stopping to splash in the sea. Esperanze wasn’t that keen on the waves at first but we cantered through them eventually. The beach had its typically Mediterranean ‘revealing’ sections (the ‘moon’ was out on one bit!) and also a protected section where the flamingos nest. We rode back through the dunes and shallows of brackish water, seeing hundreds of these pink flamingos sleeping, eating and flying. They are so interesting to watch and we were quite close at this time. We returned to Brenda in the afternoon via the sandy drains, all pretty exhausted by the end.
That night we helped to unload the horses from their transfer back to Didier’s and gave them their big bale of hay. We retired for a great last night’s entertainment with Didier’s team and the horses were still eating that hay next morning at breakfast, all looking very relaxed. It’s always sad to leave a place you have enjoyed so much and I did try to make room for Esperanze in my case, JF really chose really well. He’s an interesting guy and a really professional guide, always putting everyone at ease. He made sure all the horses were cared for at every stage. The tack was well fitting and endurance/trail type – it wasn’t new by a long shot but comfortable and safe… I guess a few stitches in a saddle seat is nothing our four-legged friends would worry about if the underside is just what they need for long days. Most horses do have some tender spots after a week’s trail but Esperanze had none, and I don’t think my backside was to credit for that! I also have to say I wasn’t in the least bit sore or stiff at all – quite a surprise for my (un)fitness level these days.
What a lovely week – I hope every trail is that much fun!”
Read more about the ride here: Provence, France.