Cantering along the very edge of a rocky ridge in Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, I feel more emotionally free and physically vital than I have in months. My grin must be five miles wide and London seems a zillion miles away. I realise that I’ve really missed riding and hadn’t even been aware of it. Being in the mountains and riding along narrow tracks, with sheer drops inches from the horse’s hooves, and up very steep, incredibly rocky terrain intensifies all my senses. It also lends me a wider perspective – literally and metaphorically. I feel like a teenager at the best pony club camp in the world. Rock-climbing horses: who’d have thought it?
I am on a week-long horse riding adventure holiday in Andalucia and I’m having the time of my life with the sun on my back and a sturdy steed between my legs. It is day three of the stunning La Alpujarra trail ride arranged through www.equestrian-escapes.com . I can’t remember having this much good, clean fun since spending all day, every day at the stables messing about with my ponies as a young teenager. Horses, laughter, fantastic food and wine – all my favourite things, combined with the incredible mountain surroundings, make this one of the most exciting riding holidays I’ve ever been on.
Dallas, our guide – yes, it’s her real name – is exactly the kind of person you want heading up an expedition like this. Cool, calm and collected and a total dudette to boot, she has been guiding horse riding holidays on top-quality Spanish horses in La Alpujarra – the name given to the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada where she grew up – for more than two decades. I’ve done loads of riding over the years and I can unequivocally state that I’ve never seen a group of better-behaved or more impeccably schooled horses than these. The trip is not suitable for weak riders, the unfit or the especially faint-hearted.
Dallas’s brand of fun can be fast and furious and you must be able to control your horse at all paces, as well as walk while leading it for up to 30 minutes at a time over terrain too steep or rocky to ride on.
Our group of ten meet at a prearranged point in Malaga airport, ready for the two-and-a-half-hour transfer via air-conditioned minibus, away from the Costa del Sol and up into the mountains. With two men and eight women, the group is a very mixed bag as far as age, nationality and previous riding experience go, but the laughs are instantaneous as we share horse stories and discuss what we should expect from this trip.
We arrive in Bubión, a pretty, white-painted village perched high on the slopes of the beautiful Poqueira Ravine, and are shown to the Casa la Sevillana guest house. A comfortable, seven-bedroom rural bed and breakfast, it is popular with the many groups of walkers and mountain bikers who also visit the area. We meet Dallas for dinner at a restaurant down the road and dig into tapas, cervezas and some truly delicious local cuisine. The first night reminds me a bit of first nights at ski chalets. Everyone drinks too much over dinner and then gets stuck into the Amaretto. A few tall tales and unsuitable stories later and most of us are New Best Friends by the morning. I can tell already this is going to be a fantastic mountain trail riding holiday.
After a huge continental breakfast, we’re picked up and taken to Dallas’s stables ten minutes or so up the hill. The bus is uncharacteristically quiet as we all stare out of the window at the spectacular landscape and awe-inspiring scenery. I’ve never seen anything like it. A lot of people say that the real Spain is to be found in these mountains and I’m beginning to see why. This place is so far from Alicante and Torremolinos, it might as well be on Mars. It’s rural and peaceful and all the horses look so fit and happy that I can’t believe my sheer good fortune when we get to the stables.
I am allocated Laurel, an Andalusian gelding with a huge dappled bottom and the softest grey nose. I’m told he is ‘sensitive’ and that I should ‘ride him properly’. I can’t help but feel a tiny bit nervous. As the rest of the group are given their horses, we all mount up and get ready to go. Striding away from the stables, it is immediately evident that all these horses are fit, sure-footed and very responsive to the correct signals. Laurel is a real pleasure to ride. (In fact, by the end of the week, I am so seriously in love with Laurel that I try to talk Dallas into selling him. She won’t.) Who would of thought i would find love on a mountain trail ride in Spain.
We set off east, riding through an ancient land of pine forests and alpine meadows, wooded valleys and gorges. We take old bridle paths and steep inclines, trotting, cantering and hill climbing through Moorish terraces and chestnut groves. We stop for lunch, tie the horses to trees and sit down on a carpet of pine needles. Huge homegrown tomatoes and lettuces appear from saddle bags and are sliced up in front of us. Fantastic locally baked bread, cheese and olives are offered around. Chorizo and salami are laid out on a log. Olive oil, salt and a few bottles of red wine make an appearance.
It’s the ultimate picnic: horse blowing on my neck, beautiful mountain in front of me. A total dream of a riding holiday.
We climb and climb, until we reach the broad forest track which leads us to Trévelez, the highest village in Spain and famous for its cured hams and river trout. We’ve covered 26km today, a marathon that takes us about six hours. I feel slightly saddle-sore, but happy, as we lead our horses through narrow, winding streets. We arrive at the village stables, where we untack and give the horses a shower before settling them down for a well-earned rest. We’re expected to tack up and groom our horse every day, although assistance is available if required, and our luggage is taken ahead for us by one of the team.
We enjoy a few beers and a whole lot of tapas before spending the night at La Fragua, a family-run hotel situated in the old quarter of the village. The hotel is small but comfy, with fabulous views across the mountains from each of the south-facing bedrooms. I don’t know whether it’s the mountain air, the exercise, the wine or the great beds, but I sleep like the dead every night and am ravenous for breakfast each morning.
After a brilliant evening spent squealing with laughter (this is a very sociable horse riding holiday and the hilarity never stops) in a cosy restaurant serving great local food, complete with hanging hams, we collect our horses and set off up a very steep and rocky path. I realise halfway through that I suffer slightly from vertigo. Mountains not being my natural habitat, I’ve never noticed it before. There’s nothing to be done, except carry on and put my total faith in Laurel. This is when I realise just how good these horses are – not one of them puts a foot wrong. We have another fabulous picnic lunch en route and then begin the rough descent into Bérchules, where we spend two nights in the lovely Hotel Los Bérchules. Its incredible chef serves up delicious pork tenderloin one night and grouper with garlic and chilli the next. Aside from lovely rooms, the rustic hotel has a wide terrace with terrific views across the Bérchules valley and a garden with a pool. Perfect for relaxation after a long day in the saddle on this riding holiday.
Bérchules takes its name from the old Spanish word berchel, meaning ‘mountain garden’.
On the fourth day, we follow ancient Moorish bridle paths through terraced orchards and
fields before stopping for lunch by a river. We return to the village along one of the Sierra’s wide forest tracks; cantering more than on any other day, we cover an astonishing 38km in about seven hours. These horses are beyond fit and I’m beginning to feel more toned and healthy myself.
Leaving Bérchules, we descend to the river Guadalfeo and head west back to the village of Trévelez. The landscape changes abruptly as we leave the alpine-like Sierras behind and ride through terraces of olive, almond and fig trees. After lunch the path commences the gradual descent towards Trévelez and we dismount to lead the horses for about 40 minutes as we approach the ancient village from the other side.
Day six is a shorter ride. We take a forest track through pine and oak woods back to the stables. The views across the Contraviesa mountains and the Mediterranean beyond are breathtaking. We have a late lunch in a restaurant in Capileira and spend the rest of the day exploring the village before heading back to our original home from home – the Casa La Sevillana in Bubion. Dinner is not included this evening, so a few of us head out for yet another raucous meal in a local restaurant. Jamón serrano, fat olives, fresh anchovies and calamari, marinated pork, steaks, shoulder of lamb, grouper roasted with chilli and garlic, pork tenderloin, and cheese of all kinds. We don’t have one bad meal the entire week.
On our last riding day, we set off from the stables to explore the more inaccessible parts of the Poqueira valley. The Mulhacen – the highest mountain in Spain – forms the backdrop as we canter through wisps of cloud, the scent of pine heavy in the air. This valley is claimed to be the most beautiful in La Alpujarra and I don’t think I’m the only one with tears in her eyes as we say goodbye to our horses. It has been the most intense week of physical activity, social bonding and great thinking time. None of us want to leave.
The morning after I get back, I wake disoriented from a dream in which I am cantering up a dusty track towards a bright, white-painted village in the Sierra Nevada. The blissed-out grin on my face vanishes, as I realise the click-clacking is actually the sound of my upstairs neighbours stomping about on their wooden floor. I lie in bed, pine for my horse and long for the mountains. I feel really quite sad, full of nostalgia for the scent of thyme and mint crushed underfoot and the softness of Laurel’s nose. One thing’s for sure: I haven’t had such a blast of a week in a very long time. I’m booking another horse riding holiday very soon.
This spectacular horse riding holiday can be booked through Equestrian Escapes (equestrian-escapes.com), which also offers a selection of other great riding holidays around the world for all riding abilities.