onsdag 26. oktober 2011

One Week in Vallebona

Almost 10 years ago, I booked my first riding holiday outside Norway ever, a week in Tuscany on horseback. Unfortunately I fell ill, and had to cancel the trip. I've been keeping an eye on the same travel agency since then, Häst & Sport resor (Horse and sports travels) and dreamt about going on one of those trips. This year, I decided it would be my 30 year birthday present to myself, and with my birthday money I booked a new holiday. Not exactly the same trip, but western riding in Tuscany on Vallebona agriturismo. This is my blog about my experience from the week, as well as a review for others considering going there.

My week in Vallebona

Saturday morning, I left from Oslo, Gardermoen, via Zürich and to Florence. The last flight was with a small airplane of the type with 5 seats on each row, and it was rather windy. The landing felt like taken out from some funny Donald Duck movie, though I didn't feel it was funny at all, being a part of it. Having survived the landing in Florence, I easily found my way with the bus to Florence and train further on to Pontassieve. There, I was picked up by Raimonda, the wife of the house, together with a Swiss couple. It appeared that all the other guests were Swiss, and everyone had been there before, some yearly (even twice!) for some time.

After arriving at Vallebona, having been assigned a room and informed of mealtimes and riding, I walked down to the stables for a curious inspection. The afternoon riders were just coming in, and I ended up helping the Belgian stable hand taking some of the horses out to the paddock. There were three girls working in the stables for the season, besides the regular employees. Since they were closer to my age than most of the guests (being either children or closer to my parents' age) I ended up talking a lot to them during the week, also as I was one of the few guests that tended to my own horse during the stay. Tiffany was from Guernsey and the only one that didn't understand German at all, so we ended up talking a lot. She also guided most of the rides I was on.

Every morning I was up at 8, tending first to my own horse and then others, before having breakfast. At 10 was the first riding session, and I had lessons every morning. The first morning I had a short lesson only learning to start, stop and turn the horse, before I went out with Tiffany. It was only the two of us, and we had a nice ride and even some gallops on my first ride out. This days funny experience happened when we rode past a nearby restaurant. The music flowed out from the place, and playing was "Personal Jesus" by Depeche mode. Nothing funny in that itself, except that it is the theme song of one of the greatest Norwegian wrestlers, Bjørn Sem, and to me this song always means the Bjørn threads out, with his sunglasses and ponytail, ready to beat someone half to death. Sitting in a western saddle in the Tuscany countryside it felt very absurd.

The horses were mostly Italian breeds, Sardinian and Maremma. Between "exotic" names like Biagio, Fulminae, Chiccala, Malvasia and Desidario, I got a nice horse called Molly. She was a really good teacher, steady but exciting enough, and very nice and gentle both inside and outside.

The first day I didn't ride in the afternoon, taking a slow approach as I haven't been riding regularly in a very very long time. I watched a lesson, and then had some sun, and a rest before dinner. The second day I had only a lesson in the morning with Steffi, the German stable hand that has been working there for 17 years! After the lesson I took the horse back to the stable, and had some sun and rest myself. The lesson got a bit extra excitement in it when 4 wild pigs came rushing through the forest and through one of the nearby paddocks. The horses didn't react much, and luckily I never came to see them any closer than that. In the afternoon I had my first 2 hour ride out, and it was nice, even with a bit more climbing than I care for (it's not THAT exciting when you have lived between mountains all your life).

An afternoon/evening pastime on Vallebona is knots. In the main house there is always pieces of rope lying around, waiting to be knotted in some challenging way, people teaching or learning new knots. Many of the horses' headcollars were made from ropes, and during some of the evenings Franco started teaching me the necessary knots (knot of love and the diamond) for making them the way he does. I never managed the last knot, so I will have to search for it online and practice on my own.

The third day, me and three of the other women had a lesson with Samuele, which was really good. We started working on using the reins and legs to turn the horses in different ways. I rode out both after the lesson, and another two hours in the afternoon. To my surprise I didn't feel very sore or stiff after riding 7 hours in three days. I stretched out after riding the first three days (and then forgot about it), and the only thing I felt was a bit tired after much fresh air and outside activity.

On Wednesday, I had decided to go to Florence on a daytrip, as the forecast said it was going to rain and not too good weather for riding. I joined the morning lesson with Samuele again, working further on the reins and turning, and took my horse in when the others rode out. Then I got the bus from the mill, taking an hour to Florence. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Florence, apart from Renaissance, pizza and gelato (ice cream). I had pizza for lunch, before I went to see the Duomo Santa Maria Del Fiore. I have seen many impressive cathedrals, our own Nidarosdomen in Trondheim competing with some of the grand English cathedrals, but this one measured up to most of the cathedrals I have seen. Grand in both size and look it was really a lovely sight. From the Duomo I wandered around the streets of Flornence, passing Dante's house and church on my way to the bridge Ponte Vecchio, which is known for the houses hanging out on the sides, and the jeweler shops along both sides. I saw of course the David statue (the false one, I didn't bother to queue to see the original), and also the Santa Croce church and other nice, old buildings. I had my gelato, a keyring for Cuddles (my traveling red panda, who collects keyrings from everywhere we've been), postcards for the family, and some supplies for between meal snacks. The weather forecast didn't hit in, so it was a nice and sunny day to walk around Florence, and I had no regret on that account.

On Thursday the rain was said to be rather heavy, and we just had time for a lesson with Samuele before the drops started to fall. Some brave souls rode out anyway, while me and a couple of the others went back inside and settled in front of the fireplace. It was a good choice, seeing the others coming back an hour later quite wet, and the rain continued to pour down throughout the day, accompanied by thunder and lightning very close up to the farm. Two of the other guests turned out to be board game players, and I got to play a round of Stone Age, having observed them and taught rules the night before. In the evening that day we had an indoor barbequeue, first being served toast (toasted in the fireplace!), also called by the Italians bruschetta (preferrably with garlic, olive oil, tomatos and spices), pork speck, olives (of course!) and then grilled pork chops and other good food with it.

On Fridays there is usually a long trek of 4-6 hours, but the weather was so unsure that they decided to follow the normal routines. I got a lesson with Franco himself in the morning, and managed quite well, in my own opinion. After the lesson, Tiffany took us on a very nice ride to an old church, and with a nice view of the area. In the afternoon I went on a longer ride with the German guide Rainer, up and around the hills behind the farm. Molly was in heat and a bit more challenging than usual, bucked a couple of times in the beginning of gallops, and made a couple of extra gallops when she felt like it. Nothing that I couldn't handle, but it was not the most relaxing ride I had.

After a week I still didn't feel like I'd had too much riding, although I was starting to feel very tired. The beds were quite old and not too comfortable, and I didn't sleep well enough to get enough rest according to the amount of physical activity every day. It was very good to come home to my own, soft bed. But I have also learned a lot about western riding, and will definitely follow up on that. It is true what Steffi said one of the days, many people go from classic riding to Western riding, very few (if any) goes the other way. I will never sit as comfortably in an English saddle again, as I do in a Western saddle.

Vallebona review

First of all, for riding purposes and learning western riding, I am not sure if you could get it better! The program presented from the agency was one hour lesson in the morning and one hour riding out in the afternoon. Actually, at the farm, there is two hours riding in the morning and two in the afternoon. You can choose between an hour lesson with a following riding out, or just riding out for two hours. You can also have only one hour lesson, or only one hour riding out, but that doesn't really happen when you get the opportunity to ride more! Franco, who owns the place, is really good with the horses, and buys and train them to go with the guests and tourists. He also knows a lot about both western riding and other sports on horseback, and horses in general of course.

All the horses were well trained and responsive to new, inexperienced riders, as well as more experienced riders. Thunder or shots from nearby hunters doesn't bother them much, and even the wild pigs have to come quite close up to be given any attention. I always felt safe, but not at all bored, on riding out in the landscape around the farm.

The food was said to be incredibly good from other reviews and guestbook comments, so I had high expectations of that. As a pasta lover, I didn't mind having two different types of pasta as a starter for every lunch and dinner, some people might tire of it. It was followed by some type of cooked meat and vegetables (varieties of pork, chicken a couple of days, one day we got hare), and after dinner also a dessert of some kind. I may be spoiled in food ways, but though it was over average tasty meals, the food will not be the main reason for going back. Also, if three meals a day is not enough, you might want to bring some snack for between meals, as the only "food" available at the place is ice cream and cold drinks.

The place was nice, idyllic location in Tuscany hills, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards. We rode around, through and past many of them, never the same way. A couple of trips also went up to the top of the hills with a lovely view of Tuscany. For good and bad, Vallebona is some distance away (6 km) from the nearest village, Pontassieve, and there's no regular bus. If you don't like sunbathing, picking olives, reading or riding, there's really nothing to do there. There's a buss from the nearby mill (no. 333 operated by amvbus.it) going to Florence 2-3 times a day and back in the evening, and a trip to Florence at least one day is absolutely recommended.

I will present some of the pictures in another blogpost, but all my public photos from my trip can be seen in my gallery.