Tuscany at a trot
You can't beat exploring the countryside on horseback, but until recently I'd never done it. I'm not horse-phobic, but the only filly that had featured in my childhood was the fictional Black Beauty and the ponies in Riders from Afar, the horsey classic by Christine Pullein-Thompson and the ultimate in equine wish-fulfilment.
Since those days, I'd lumbered myself with the notion that riding isn't something grown-ups take up from scratch. Last year, I'd gamely tried to make amends by taking a one-hour lesson once a fortnight at a school not far from where I live, but after a few outings in the saddle, I fell off a bucking horse - no injuries, thankfully - but my fledgling confidence was shattered.
Once I'd recovered from the shock, and not wanting to be thwarted, I decided to try again in more relaxed surroundings, so I signed up for a riding holiday in the glorious region of Chianti in Italy. The Rendola Riding centre and farm, where I was to be based, assured me that it caters to all levels of ability, including the accident-prone adult novice. But I'm anxious when, on the first morning, I meet Eraldo, my wild-haired British Horse Society-trained Sicilian instructor. But I needn't be: he is warm, reassuring and scorn-free. "Don't worry," he chuckles. "You won't frighten the horses."
In fact, the warm welcome on the farm - a "family" of instructors, grooms, a cook and the motherly, hands-on owner, 67-year-old Briton Jenny Bawtree - extends to all guests, riders and non-riders alike, making this place a must for anyone who longs to step out of the rat race and into a Tuscan fairy tale.
My hostess has lived here since the 1960s, and the farmhouse, like others in the area, is thought to date to the 14th century. The property's nearly five hectares of olive groves (which yield plenty of aromatic oil), Arno Valley views and the six comfy, rustic guest rooms are only part of the attraction. With stables at the back housing the 20 or so horses, including three pure-bred and two Arab breeds for more skilled riders, the whiff of manure in the air and hens and ducks pecking around, it's a come-as-you-are sort of place. And many do, again and again.
While I'm here, I meet an Italian family - their riding gear is impeccably stylish, their affection for each other palpable and cheering - who've been visiting for an astonishing 26 years, while Debbie, a 50-something accountant from New Jersey, is on her fourth visit.
My four-night "taste of Tuscany" break is a combination of lessons and hacks in the countryside (riders are grouped according to ability) picnics, walks and guided sightseeing. All activities are optional, so no one will clock you with a horseshoe if you choose to opt out and have a siesta, play with the family dogs or get stuck in a novel. (The shelves on Bawtree's walls are crammed with a library's worth of literary fiction, Italian art and history tomes, riding manuals and even the odd blockbuster.)
But the riding is what I have come for and, despite the butterflies in my stomach, my first two-hour lesson in the ring is enormous fun. I'm on Cosimo, a sturdy trail horse, and Eraldo, who used to ride competitively in the UK, is a born teacher, attentive and knowledgeable.
"The key to riding well is balance and posture," he says, as Debbie and I are instructed to walk and then trot our mounts around the ring with our feet out of the stirrups. (This is hard, thirsty work, but let me tell you, it does wonders for the thighs). He reminds me to breathe deeply and grip with my knees, and cracks jokes to keep the mood light. Before long, we are being put through our paces in the canter, a gait I find alternately thrilling and terrifying.
By the end of the lesson, I'm sweating buckets. Still, there's time for a short ride under the Tuscan sun on gentle, wooded trails. It's a nice warm up for the following morning's hack, which takes us through the village of Mercatale Valdarno, once a medieval market place, and where the locals are liberal with their cries of "Buongiorno!"
From here we ride over the remains of a Roman road built by the Emperor Hadrian in 123AD, and through vineyards and tall grasses carpeted with wildflowers. The poppies, buttercups, honeysuckle, brooms and irises are heaven for our well-behaved, four-legged companions, who can't resist a nibble here and there. We splash through streams and ride, single file, up and down hills. "Trotto," cries Jenny, in the lead, our cue to break into a gentle trot.
Riding works up an appetite, and we return to the farm, hose down the horses (optional, although I come over all horse-whispery and have to be dragged away), pile into the real hub of Rendola, the dining room - the clanging of a cowbell heralds meal times - and gorge on delicious three-course home-cooked fare. In fact, for many, the high point of a stay here is the lively communal meals, a blessing for singletons, who need never worry about awkward tables, for one.
There's pasta, always followed by a Tuscan speciality. My favourite is the involtini, a creamy dish made with beef, mortadella and fontina cheese, which features in a book of recipes by Pietro, Jenny's 83-year-old cook, that she has self-published. Desserts are ambrosial.
I'd worry about my waistline, only I'm having far too much fun. One afternoon we listen to nightingales and blackbirds on a hike to Galatrona, a restored medieval tower, which takes about three hours at a gentle pace. From the top, we drink in the views of the Chianti Hills, spot Rendola, far in the distance, and listen as Jenny regales us with tales of her youth. Apparently the first woman in the area to eschew the side-saddle and ride trouser-clad, she journeyed everywhere on her white horse, hotly pursued by dukes and princes alike.
On another sun-dappled post-lunch excursion, we travel by train to the town of Arezzo. An Etruscan stronghold (later invaded by the Romans) in medieval times, today it's better known for its historic buildings and the Piazza Grande, the beautiful main square, where scenes from the Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful were filmed.
At the Basilica di San Francesco, we ogle the world-class frescoes created by the 15th-century artist Pierro della Francesca before pausing for espresso, served by starched-shirted waiters in the slick Caffe dei Constanti, the oldest in Arezzo.
Still, my heart lies with the horses and on the last day, Eraldo takes us out for a full day's ride. We walk, trot and canter past lakes filled to bursting with black bass and trout, and through woods that are home to hare, fox, roe and boar. We duck to avoid low-hanging branches and then ride across a ridge, high above the rolling hills. It's a tall order for a novice with stiff knees, but the scenery and sunshine are so enchanting I barely take notice.
We devour our picnic lunch in a fairy-tale glade. After some hard riding, slabs of cheese, bread, olives, home-made omelette and strawberry tarts all taste positively moreish and, in the afternoon, as we canter through a soft rain, I quiver with euphoria. I may not be a skilled or graceful rider, but, hey, I'm in the saddle and I plan on staying here. As they say, better late than never.
If you go
Return flights on Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Rome cost from Dh3,905, including taxes
The tour operator In the Saddle (www.inthesaddle.com; 00 44 1299 272 997) organises riding trips all over the world. The four-night "taste of Tuscany" tour costs £794 (Dh4,757) per person, including accommodation, all meals, riding, guided sightseeing and transfers from Florence. The next available date is April 16. There are also seven-night "discover Tuscany" tours, including a trail ride to Siena, which costs from £1,222 (Dh7,322) per person. Tailor-made breaks can also be organised.
Updated: March 25, 2011 04:00 AM