Taking the Reins for a Tour of Provence

By M.J. McAteer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 17, 2008

We were three late Virginians that September day when we finally arrived at Cap Rando, a ranch near the Luberon mountains in the French region of Provence.

Alors, c'├ętait ma faute compl├Ętement: completely my fault. My questionable French had deposited us at the wrong bus station for pickup. Riding buddies Diane and Dorothy, however, tactfully refrained from pointing fingers, and I continue to appreciate that.

Didier Simonot, our host, turned out to be a diplomat, too. Soon after I had left a garbled SOS on his cellphone, he pulled up in front of us. He just smiled and gave a Gallic shrug about the mix-up, then got down to the business of cramming our American-size luggage into his French-size car. Apparently, in that part of the world, Americans are notorious for big suitcases, but I prefer to think Didier was able to pick us out of the crowd because of the riding helmets dangling from the straps of our backpacks.

We'd be spending the first night of our inn-to-inn horseback trek at Didier's ranch, about an hour from Marseille. From Cap Rando, we'd then ride southwest for five days, skirting the Petit Luberon and Alpilles mountains and seeing St.-Remy, a Van Gogh haunt, and the medieval mountaintop town of Les Baux. We would end up in the Camargue, a vast marshland on the Mediterranean that is home to black bulls, gray horses, pink flamingos and, once a year, thousands of colorful Gypsies. On our last night, it would be back to the ranch.

By the time we got settled in our no-frills rooms and joined the crowd in the lounge for the reception and welcome dinner, the good times were already going. Didier was ladling out punch with a kick. Kir, white wine flavored with blackberry liqueur, was being poured, too. Intoxicating spirits, including pastis, an anise-flavored liqueur served diluted with water; Cote du Rhone reds; a powerful muscatel; and excellent local blush wines would flow throughout the trip and were one reason to ride in France, instead of, say, whiskey-and-warm-beer Ireland. Another was the food, naturellement. No boiled dinners in Provence -- ever.

The weather was a deciding factor, too. My memory of riding in Ireland was of bewitching rainbows -- preceded by gale-force winds and cold drenching rain. Provence, on the other hand, is Southern California with an accent: reliably dry and sunny in fall, with typical daytime temps in the 60s and 70s.

Our fellow riders turned out to be five Germans, a French IBM'er and a shy Belgian student. We liked that. If we felt the need for Americans, we had one another. But with everyone else being bilingual or even trilingual, my opportunities to mangle French turned out to be limited.

"Just Steve" was our genial guide. His mother, from Picardy in the north of France, had been a huge Steve McQueen fan, he explained.

Pascal would drive the van carrying our stuff and the food and drink for our picnics. Pascal waited on us at lunch and did similar duty morning and night for the horses, bringing them grain, hay and water. He always was grinning, not seeming the least bit downtrodden by having to work, well, just like one of his charges.

In the morning, we fetched our mounts from the pasture and groomed and saddled them under Steve's supervision. They were practical, not flashy. My horse, Flamingo, was small, dark and without much personality. Dorothy's mare, Ishka, could have been his twin. Diane was on a gray called Fidel.

"I'm going to call him Sparky," she joked in mock horror at the name.

What kind of equines were they?

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