homing carloads swing
Past us down the crisping lanes,
and your dazzling headlights fling,
snow white roses on our reins,
would you choose your sheltered flight,
would we take your cushioned ease,
for the wide and scented night
and the horse between our knees?
back to diary contents
France saved its worst driver until the very end, just a few hundred metres from the Italian border. Sitting just inches behind us and too impatient to wait one minute until the road widened, he drove into Audin and 'bumped' him out of the way. Audin jumped, luckily unhurt, but the red mist descended and made me swing my right boot into the car's rear door as it passed, leaving a nice little dent. The man leapt from his car and charged up to me, arms waving, shouting. Our limited vocabulary of French insults was soon exhausted so we had to resort to English. The air was blue and multilingual. Having her precious Audin driven into by a car had caused Lisa to undergo a transformation not unlike that in the film 'The Exorcist', but with more swearing and slightly scarier. Luckily for me, this was just a bit too disturbing for Monsieur Angry and he obeyed Lisa's instructions to “just $%&£%$% get back in your $%%&$%& car and &%£& $%%, you %&$%$£$ &%$%%& %&$£!!!!”.
At the Italian border we were disappointed to find that all the customs and police buildings had been closed due to lack of interest. There were cobwebs around the door and nobody to check our proudly held veterinary health certificate. So we pressed on into Italy, stopping for a while in Claviere to buy a slice of focaccia and some maps. We only needed a few hours of riding in the afternoon to discover just how bad the maps were. Maybe we had just been spoiled in France. After a few days of frustrating backtracking, paths that didn't exist and roads in the wrong place, we compiled a list to amuse ourselves:
Top Ten Uses for Italian Maps:- 1. Toilet paper 2. Wallpaper 3. Poster for bedroom wall 4. Paper aeroplanes 5. Papier maché 6. Origami 7. Wrapping presents 8. Drying wet boots 9. Lining kitchen drawers 10. Starting fires
This made us feel a lot happier and we soon discovered that it was much better to ask for directions as often as possible. Often this meant stopping for quarter of an hour to answer all the questions about where we we from, where were we going, why do we have three horses etc etc. But it's these kind of encounters that make a trip with horses so different to other traveling and we were always sent on with a 'buon viaggio” or a “buona fortuna”.
We followed a series of valleys (Chisone, Susa, Viu) and crossed the passes between them (Sestriere ~2000m, Orsiera~2500m, Colombardo~1900m). The views of alpine peaks from the passes were magnificent: south west to Monte Viso, north west to the Vanoise, north to the Gran Paradiso. We continued to bivouac most nights but a couple of times, camping at 2000m we woke to find the water buckets frozen and we had to give the horses more grazing time in the day to compensate for poorer grass at night.
The Valle di Chisone was experiencing a lot of development for the Torino 2006 winter Olympics. It was a hideous sight to see stands of silver birch torn up to be replaced by concrete, and Hannah was more than a little interested in a helicopter ferrying loads of concrete up to a new ski jump site. In the Valle di Susa we spent ages getting lost trying to find paths on the valley side to avoid the motorways, railway lines and towns crowded together at the bottom. We were convinced that some of the paths shown on our map were last used by a runaway slave in 55 BC. We escaped from the Valle di Susa over the Colle di Colombardo but the steep and narrow path leading up from the valley did not have an ideal surface for a horse wearing metal shoes; it was polished marble. At the bottom of a short flight of stone steps, Sealeah paused to ask me if I really meant it. Yes, I do mean it, we have no choice. As always, she followed me up. After the col, we descended to the Valle di Viu. This was soon to become known to us as the Valley of Death, not because of any actual loss of life, just the high potential for it. Here we had three choices: Option 1 – the main road with sharp bends and cars driven by Italians; Option 2 – the tiny rocky overgrown path traversing the 60° valley side above the river, last used several centuries ago by a small boy out looking for chestnuts, or; Option 3 – sit down, eat all our remaining chocolate and start crying. Option 3 was eliminated after I found out Lisa had already secretly scoffed the last of the chocolate, allegedly on medical grounds. Option 1 was rejected after trying it for ten frightening minutes so we selected Option 2 and just prayed that the paths wouldn't get any worse.
With good paths and accurate maps, the Alps in France had been a joy. But after a week in the mountains on this side of the border, all the bushwhacking and backtracking was getting to us a bit. Perhaps we'd just been unlucky, but to follow the mountains all around Italy would take forever at this rate. The cattle that had been grazing alpine meadows in summer had all been taken down for the winter and with no stock about, it wouldn't be easy to find food for the horses. So after the Valle di Viu, we escaped down onto the 'pianora' (plain) to attempt a more direct route across Italy.
During our first few days on the plain, we suffered painful withdrawal symptoms. We'd been in the mountains for three months. Now we had to deal with roads and bridges; bypasses and underpasses; big lorries and fast cars; noise, air and water pollution. It was a sharp contrast but we received warm welcomes wherever we stayed and were often given good help to find the best routes. Unlike Britain, agricultural land is nearly all unfenced and we could often find good going on 'prati' (grassland) beside the roads or tracks. Maize was being harvested everywhere and this meant we could also ride on stubble in many places. All kinds of food was being grown in this area and the predominant crop seemed to change every couple of days: maize, vines, kiwifruit, and rice. Yes, rice. This was a bit of a surprise to us. Paddy fields for two days as we skirted around Vercelli – apparently the largest rice growing area in Europe.
At Lago di Viverone, we stopped for a two day rest with Enzo, his wife Patti and their daughter Valeria. They were unbelievably kind and did everything they could to help us. Our bumbling Italian was getting a bit better by this stage and this helped us with conversation as we ate our way through mountains of spaghetti and downed several cups of super strong coffee. We had asked for some horseshoes to be sent out to Enzo's address but they didn't arrive so we left some money for him to post them on later. A week later, we gave him an address and, star that he is, he turned up the next day with the package having driven 200km so we wouldn't have to wait a few days for the post. Thank you Enzo! Mille grazie!
We arrived in one town during this period and asked if there was a 'Maneggio' or a 'Centro Ippico' (riding centre). There was, but we arrived to find a big show jumping event in full swing. Spotless white jodhpurs everywhere, spectators mobile phones going off, fashion victims all around. When I walked in, it was clear that I was the dirtiest and scruffiest person they'd ever seen. After asking about staying the night, I was directed to the secretary's caravan. Straight away she asked me where I was from. “I've ridden from Wales”, I said. “And you want to enter the competition?”, she asked whilst looking me up and down. No, funnily enough, I didn't. It was a bad time to arrive so we had to carry on...to another bivouac near some woods, thankfully with tonnes of grass.
At another place, we experienced more contrasts between our life with our horses and that of our hosts. It was a huge farm building with a small jumping arena outside and one small paddock. Every other bit of land around was used for growing rice, right up to the edge of the buildings. Inside, there were forty horses living in boxes. We asked if our horses could be outside for the night. “Of course, no problem, you can put them in the paddock. But will they be warm enough? What if it rains?” As we watched the sun go down, still wearing t-shirts because it was so warm, two women in the courtyard discussed whether or not to close the top door on a stabled horse wearing a padded rug. They closed the door. We sensed here, and at a few other places in Italy, that some people thought we were being hard on our horses, keeping them outside, but at least they had space, company & fresh air and are rugged up if needs be.
Through the Long Riders' Guild we had made contact with Antonietta Spizzo and Dario Masarotti, who live just a few kilometres from the Italian border with Slovenia and have made several long trips with horses all over Europe. They advised us to follow the mighty River Po which flows from Monte Viso in the Alps, roughly west to east right across northern Italy to the Adriatic. It turned out to be excellent advice and we made good progress eastwards.
To protect the surrounding land from flooding, there were 'argine' (flood embankments) virtually all along the river on both sides. These were fairly small in the west, usually with a dirt road along the top, but further downriver they became bigger and bigger. For more than a week at the end, we cantered along ten metre wide grassy berms of perfect going – an autostrada for horses. In places there would be three levels of grassy berms and a road along the fourth (top) level. Hannah, Audin and Sealeah could have a level each. Unfortunately, Hannah nearly always favoured the highest level and we had to keep going to fetch her back down to the better going lower down. The berms also provided lush grass for grazing stops, lunchtimes and a few bivouacs using our electric fence kit.
Early on along the Po, where the 'argine' were less continuous, we found ourselves getting lost in hunting reserves on a couple of occasions. One evening we were overtaken by darkness and were forced to bivvy inside a reserve. The following morning, just as we were packing up, a car bounced towards us along a rough field track and out popped Mr Comedy Italian General. He came complete with huge peaked hat (with shiny badge at the front), a generous handlebar moustache and full khaki clothing. He'd been sent to eject us so the shooters could get on with slaughtering small birds but when he found out we'd ridden from Wales he was all smiles and was soon having a cuddle with Hannah and helping us load her up. Like many Italians we met, he was completely incapable of being anything other than friendly and helpful. His mobile phone rang, impatient hunters at the other end asking him if he'd got rid of us yet. To buy a bit more time, he told them we only spoke 'inglese' and that we just couldn't understand his instructions. Then he carried on chatting with us, gave us advice about the route ahead, showed us his dog and went to unlock a gate that would allow us out of the reserve.
A bit later on, completely lost, we were rescued again by a couple of big khaki men in a small Fiat. After the first thirty seconds of telling us off for being in the private reserve, they were soon laughing, telling us where the best paths were, how to avoid a tricky river crossing, how to get to their mate's cafe for lunch etc etc. This was becoming a useful navigational method, definitely more useful than the 1:200,000 scale road map, the best we'd been able to find. There are military maps available but in this area they were small sheets at 1:25,000 – we would have needed another packhorse to carry enough for just a couple of weeks.
We were treated to outstanding hospitality at our nights' stops. The men were always called something ending in 'o': Georgio, Enzo, Claudio, Marco, Emilio, Mauro, Piero, Artemio etc. We always offered to pay but were rarely allowed to. And the meals! So many big evening meals, often with a few relatives invited round, lots of talking, some shouting so people could be heard above all the talking, and always lots of vino. I think the food sequence in peoples' homes along the Po went pizza, pasta, pasta, pasta, pizza, spaghetti (complete with eating lesson for me), pasta, pasta, pasta. The horses ate well too. We found good hay and good hard feed nearly everywhere. This, together with the good grass along the 'argine' meant that the horses put on weight and were well fuelled for some good canters along the river banks.
Near Piacenza, we had a great couple of rest days at the 'Ponderosa Ranch', with Claudio, Marco and many other cowboys and cowgirls. They were all having a good time and country music blared out across the yard at all times. Their enthusiasm for western riding, and everything connected with it, was almost infectious. If we'd stayed much longer we may well have started line dancing across the yard or wearing big hats.
At the end, we were sad to leave our friend the Po. It had been comforting to know that there was always water, always somewhere to bivouac if we couldn't find a horse place. But we'd followed it as far east as we could. A few day's ride from the Adriatic, the river began to turn south east but we had to north towards Slovenia. So we said “arriverderci” and struck out across Italy's 'nordest'.
Between the Po and Slovenia, we had to find a way through the heavily industrialised 'nordest'. We'd encountered factories along the Po, but had cruised past from the safety of the flood banks. Now, we had to get right in amongst all the 'zona industriale's. The worst feature of this area, which has been completely transformed over the past thirty years or so, was the number of big lorries on even the smallest roads. We had some scary moments, to put it mildly. It was particularly hard for Lisa, leading Hannah. Although by now completely accustomed to traffic, a big wagon overtaking you at speed with a foot to spare is not a pleasant experience. In the worst sections, and especially on bridges, I walked behind to give some protection. Unless I blocked the whole carriageway, the drivers would try and overtake regardless of what was coming the other way or how much space there was. Everyone in a hurry, trying to make more money, building more factories, more shops, more houses. One of the aims in the race for upward mobility appeared to be to have a bigger house, with bigger railings around, bigger gateposts and bigger lion/eagle/dog statues on top of the gateposts. Was this worth all traffic, pollution and noise we wondered?
They paved paradise
On the subject of dogs, the Italian ones win first prize in the loudness contest. Through every village we were deafened by dogs flinging themselves desperately at railings. From the tiniest rat-type creature to the most enormous Alsatian, they constantly competed with their dog mates next-door to try and be the loudest. The only thing louder than all this barking was the owners shouting “Basta!” (enough). Inside people's homes the same dogs were transformed miraculously into friendly cuddly pets.
After a few days of droning traffic noise, polluted air and constant orange glow in the night sky, we were desperate to get back into the hills again. Our task was aided by our friends in Premariacco, Antonietta and Dario. Their network of friends across this patch made life a lot easier for us in the last week in Italy. We were passed on from place to place, from Nadia and Patricio to Piero and Anna to Artemio and Becky to Gemma, all the way to Premariacco, less than half a day's ride from Slovenia. All warm and welcoming, friendly and helpful. We were almost embarrassed to get so much help – we were just on holiday, they were all working hard.
For virtually all our 42 days across Italy we'd had good weather: beautiful in the Alps, a bit dull and foggy in the mornings across the plain but hardly any rain. But for one day, as we rode south of Conegliano, just where the mountains hit the plain, we experienced a monsoon. Heavy rain at night and solidly all morning meant that the rivers were all full to the brim, or higher – many had spilled out of their banks and over the fields and roads. Normally small streams were impassable and we had to make many detours. A French rider Magali Pavin had crossed Italy a couple of years ago in the wettest autumn that anyone could remember. We thought we'd been having things too easy, but this day must have been the wettest 31st October for, ooh, ages. That night, at a horse place called Gallo Rosso, we accepted the offer of sleeping in their big clubhouse and turned the heating up high to dry out all our stuff.
Our last day to Premariacco turned out to be a long one (50km) due to a couple of navigational errors and a new autostrada not shown on my 1973 map. But Antonietta and Dario rode out to meet us and they led us back to their home as the sun set behind us and the mountains of Slovenia rose up in front. The next day they took us to the Fiera dei Cavalli at Verona, the huge festival of horses that takes place every year. We met friends from six of our night's stops across Italy and it gave us another chance to thank them.
We rested for a few days with Antonietta and Dario and couldn't have found anyone nicer, friendlier or more helpful. We slept in five star comfort on the top floor of their lovely house, our first bed since the bunk on the ferry over from Plymouth. Everything was washed, everything repaired, modifications made to equipment. We talked for hours about everything, especially all aspects of horse travel. Always riding from home, they've done long trips all over Europe, including one to Russia and the Baltic Sea. They knew exactly how they could help us the most and they did. Maps, addresses of good places in Slovenia and Hungary, a reconnaissance mission to check out the first day's ride into Slovenia. We couldn't believe how lucky we were to have met them and found we had many other things in common besides the horses. Three thousand seven hundred horse kilometres from Llandeilo, we were made to feel at home: mountain pictures on the walls, Bob and Bruce on the CD player.