Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Italian Adventures - Part 1

Cue Music: O Babbino Mio Caro

Although we only began planning this trip a few months ago, the genesis of this trip happened over 10 years ago. 

Back in 2001 my mother had just received a copy of the now-defunct Cross Country International catalog and showed it to me.  Kevin and I were planning our honeymoon at the time, and this catalog was like the ultimate honeymoon wishbook.  It featured horseback riding trips all over the world.

Ever since I took up riding as a hobby I had dreamed of trips to places like Ireland and Scotland.  I knew that riding vacations were abundant in those countries as they were mentioned often in the horse magazines I read obsessively.  I imagined rides over windswept hills, rugged coastlines, and seemingly enchanted forests. 

The Cross Country International catalog had plenty of trips like that in the offering, but it also alerted me to trips in other countries.  The British Isles were not the only places to have horseback vacations.  I could ride in Spain, France, and, most dear to my heart, Italy.  Kevin and I both agreed that an Italian riding holiday would be the ultimate fantasy honeymoon. 

It didn't happen of course.  Planning our wedding and buying our home left us with little time or energy to plan any sort of elaborate honeymoon.  Riding trips would have to be put on hold for a while until we could be in the best place to plan one.

Eventually we took that trip to Ireland.  It was magical and was all I had dreamed of since childhood.  After it was over I still dreamed of Italy.  You see, I have always been something of an Italophile, having studied the language for many years in middle school and high school.  Then I took a tour in high school as well.  I put a lot of pressure on Kevin to take me there over the years.  Finally he said, "We will go for our 10th anniversary."  I told him I would hold him to that.  At the time it seemed our 10th anniversary was quite far away.  It came up faster than we expected though, and this year I held him to it.  We booked the trip.

When we first discovered Italian riding trips, we had looked at the catalog for only one tour company and that tour company only offered one trip.  After Cross Country International went out of business I spent more time checking out Equitours and Hidden Trails.  They had far more trips available and it was hard to choose which one we wanted.  We preferred stationary rides to progressive ones.  We wanted trips where the locations were accessible. We wanted them to be as inclusive as possible.  We wanted to know we would be seeing a good number of interesting sights.  The Chianti Country Ride and Wine Tasting Tour fit the bill for the most part.  We were a bit intimidated by the need for the plane and train transfers, but otherwise we felt the trip would mix riding with unmounted sightseeing, and, best of all, wine tasting!

The trip was booked.  The plane tickets bought.  We were ready to go. So Begins the adventure.

Day 1+

We arrived at the Alitalia terminal at JFK and checked in easily, but the security line was huge.  I hoped it wasn't a bad omen.  I kept thinking about the old joke that Alitalia is an acronym for Always Late In Takeoff, Always Late In Arrival.  All went smoothly though.  Once we got past the first checkpoint, the security line moved a bit faster. We made it to the gate in reasonable time and the flight was not delayed.

It was a rough flight because sleep evaded me.  I'm getting better at sleeping on planes than I used to be, but that night was just awful (even though wine is free on Alitalia).  By the time we arrived in Rome in the morning I was incredibly grumpy.  It did cheer me up a little bit to see Rome outside the window though.  Although it had been over 25 years since I was last there, something felt familiar to me. 

We had to get off the plane onto the Tarmac and then take a shuttle bus to the gate.  From there we had to walk forever through the terminal, have our passport checked (but not stamped- they didn't stamp till we left) before we finally arrived at the gate.  When it was time to board, we had to get back on a shuttle bus and drive to the plane, then board next one from the Tarmac yet again.  Then the plane sat there for an hour.  I managed to get a nap at that point.  I slept more while waiting for the plane to take off for Florence than I did during the entire flight to Rome.  The actual flight to Florence was shorter than the amount of time we sat sitting on the runway.

My mood improved a bit when we began our descent into Florence.  Just before the plane hit the ground I saw the iconic red dome of the Duomo of Santa Maria Dei Fiore and the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio.  We had arrived unmistakably.

The journey was far from over.  We had transfers galore to make.  First we had to go to the Santa Maria Novello train station. There were airport shuttle buses, but we had two giant, heavy suitcases and were rather exhausted, so we weren't feeling much in the mood to find the bus and then drag our bags around.  We opted to splurge on a taxi.  Once we arrived at the station, we still had two hours until the train we told our hosts we would be taking was set to depart.  Fortunately they have a left luggage office and we were able to pay to store our bags and take a walk.

We didn't have too much time to explore.  The duomo was nearby, so we walked around it.  We also found Dante's church and museum.  I had hoped to make it to the Piazza Signoria, but there was no time and I didn't have a map anyway (although if we just found the Palazzo Vecchio tower rising above the city and walked toward it, I'm sure we would have found it eventually if we had the time).  We headed back to the station, claimed our luggage, and boarded the train from Montevarchi.

The train ride was sort of disappointing.  I was expecting to see typical Tuscan countryside as soon as we left the city, but the area was kind of ugly.  The rolling hills were there, but there were many  industrial buildings around.  It wasn't terribly picturesque.  This went on for a while and I was beginning to wonder how close the farm was to this stuff.

We finally arrived in Montevarchi, a fairly nondescript town.  We had hoped our hosts would be there to greet us, but when we left the train, no one was there.  We watched for quite some time as cars pulled up to the station, but there was still no sign of our ride.  Finally an English woman approached us and asked if we were waiting for Sadio.  She said she was from another riding center (Rendola, a trip that was on our list of contenders for our vacation) and was there to pick up her guests.  She would let Sadio know we were waiting.  As it turns out, we were waiting on the wrong side of the tracks and he was looking for us!  We met up with our host Sadio as well as the one other guest staying at the farm that week, Miriam, a German woman currently living in Amsterdam.

It wasn't a long ride to the farm (and the countryside became more picturesque as we grew closer to it) and we were grateful when we arrived that the seemingly endless journey of planes, trains, and automobiles was finally over.

When we reached Centro Ippico Di Beradenga, Sadio took our luggage to our rooms and gave us a tour of the house.  Our rooms were all lovely and we felt we had reached paradise at this point. Then he took us out to view the barn and the grounds.  We met his wife Donatella along with some of the horses and the dogs.

After we had unpacked our stuff, we were restless and had a fair amount of time to kill before dinner, so we decided to take a walk up to Montalto, the castle that overlooks the farm.  The property of the riding center used to be part of the Montalto estate.  We had a beautiful view of the castle at sunset and took a few pictures then rushed back down the hill to get back to the farm before it was dark.

We ate a delicious dinner with Donatella and Sadio that night.  When I told Donatella that I spoke some Italian she became determined that week to help me speak it better.  It made for some interesting conversations.

Day 2

This was our first riding day.  I was very excited to meet my horse and start exploring the countryside.  We met Donatella and Sadio at 10 AM and they helped us mount up.  I rode a handsome chestnut named Ambrogio.  Kevin rode a sweet little white Dutch mare named Jup.  Miriam was on a large flea-bitten gelding named Dakot.  I nicknamed Ambrogio "Bro", which I said made me a "Bro Ho."

Within our first 30 minutes of riding I found out that this was definitely not a typical nose-to-tail, give-your-horse-a-loose-rein-and-let-him-follow trail ride.  You really had to ride your horses.  They would not automatically go on autopilot following the horses in front of them.  Right from the first trot I found Ambrogio liked to take the bit in his teeth, curl his neck, and threaten to buck, occasionally succeeding in doing so.  I really had to learn to ride him properly.  His canters were speedy.  Although we are told to stand up at the canter prior to the ride, Sadio told me to sit Bro and take more control of his stride.  By the end of the day I had figured him out and managed to control and enjoy our last bouts of cantering.

Our visit started with a ride to Montalto.  From there we rode by the vineyards of Monastero D'Ombrone, a former monastery with some of its structures dating back to the 8th century.  There were gorgeous views from here of the Val D'Orcia beyond the olive groves and grapevines.  In the very far distance we could even see Siena. 

We rode down into a valley, getting off and walking our horses part of the way (helpful for our poor, aching knees) and stopped for a picnic lunch that Donatella had driven to us.  We were quite warm when it started, but the temperatures dropped toward the end and the wind kicked up.  We were anxious to be back on our nice warm horses.

We rode back into the hills to the village of Rapale.  After exploring the village a bit we went back down the hill using the terraced landscape.  It felt a bit treacherous.  Ambrogio tended to spook and I was really begging him to stay calm on the way down because a spook could send us both over the edge. 

The final part of the ride was through tobacco fields.  I did not know they grew tobacco in Italy, but Sadio said they make a certain type of cigar in Italy.  He said his father used to smoke them and they are pretty foul. 

Exhausted we made it back to riding center and watched Donatella give a riding lesson (she's a tough cookie) to the local students until it grew too cold to stay outside.  We were grateful for the fireplace that night.

Day 3

We started with a very chilly morning that gradually grew warmer.  My horse for the day was a large bay mare named Cleo.  She had rather bumpy gaits, but she was a bit calmer than Ambrogio.  Today was only a half day ride.   Sadio took us to the village of Montebenichi.  There is a very nice hotel here.  We rode back to the farm after that and had lunch on their clubhouse patio.

After lunch they drove us to Siena.  We didn't have much time to really explore the sites in depth, but we were able to see the churches of San Domenico and the Duomo along with a few other charming churches.  Of course we also went to the Piazza Del Campo where they run Il Palio every year. 

On the drive there I spotted two women at the side of the road waving their arms.  Sadio said, "Those women are what you think they are."  At first I thought, "So people get away with hitchhiking around here?"  Then I realized what he meant.  Who knew there was that much business out in the country?

Since we didn't have time to wait on line for museums or to go inside the Duomo, we spent a fair amount of time shopping.  I was eager to start Christmas shopping.  Miriam, Sadio, and Donatella seemed rather surprised by that.  Is trying to get your Christmas shopping early an American thing, or is the obsession with Christmas shopping in general an American thing?  I did pick up a few gifts, although not as many as I had hoped.  I particularly wanted to find some interesting Italian gifts for the children, but the toy stores were all typical American-style toy stores.

We made sure to have some gelato of course.  Nocciola please!

Back to the farm in the evening and early to bed to rest of for another day-long ride. 

To be continued...

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