My philosophy of vacation is that it is never too late to be a dilettante -- better to do something badly than not do it all.
I ski, for example, badly, but I still have a dandy time. So when it came to deciding how to spend a vacation last spring, all it took was a close encounter with a travel brochure that offered, sprinkled in amid the usual walking tours and bike trips, a riding trip.
That was that. I've always loved horses, and I used to ride, though admittedly not terribly well and some 10 years ago. But with a few equitation lessons to get my "seat" back, I figured I could hold my own on a horse.
To my delight, there turned out to be a whole world of vacations for equestrians. I could fox hunt in Britain or blaze trails through the jungles of Belize. I could hoof it up 8,000 feet of an Austrian Alp ("not for riders with acrophobia," one brochure warned) or bound through the surf on a tropical beach like some reject from a Coppertone ad. And I could have my pick of mounts: sturdy Hanoverians, flashy Arabs, elegant Andalusians or massive Irish hunters.
Just narrowing my options was a ton of fun, but as I am a dilettante of somewhat limited means, the issues of purse and peril eventually led me to a "moderate" ride (and moderately priced) that offered "charming guides, fine horses, delicious food and hospitality." Sounded just the ticket. And it was in a country I wanted to visit -- France. I sent off a deposit on the "Pe'rigord Trail," and signed up for lessons in riding and French.
Months later along a roadside in southwestern France, I swivel in my saddle to spot the car as the cry of "Auto! Auto!" is passed down the long file of horses from rider to rider like a baton in a relay race.
We take this warning seriously (at first), gathering reins, sitting up straighter and pushing weight down in our heels in case of trouble. But trouble is turning out to be as rare as rain on this ride, my horse as benign as the blue skies so reliably overhead. A motorbike eventually whines by. The horses ignore it. We relax and turn off the verge, into the woods.
The woods are cool and deep with spatters of sun to save them from gloom. No traffic here, but down the line, the cry comes again: "Auto! Auto!"
The rider in front of me, a handsome German newlywed who speaks no English and not even bad French, points in warning to a mushroom hunter browsing beneath some nearby trees. The mushroom hunter isn't motorized, but "auto" is the only word we all have in common. An "auto" is an "auto" in English, French, Dutch and German.
So, in short order, a bunch of goggle-eyed cows that come to gawk in their witless way are described as an "auto"; ditto, a band of those famously intrepid English hikers. The word "auto" becomes our way of making a joke, a way of jumping the language barrier -- a tad more gracefully, I'd say, than most of us managed the jumps on a free-for-all through the forest on our first day out on the trail.
I had arrived in the province of Dordogne, location of our ride, one Saturday after a five-hour train trip southwest out of Paris. Flat countryside had gradually given way to rolling green hills not unlike the foothills of the Blue Ridge, but minus the signs of recent "civilization" -- from my window I saw lots of cows but not one convenience store.
The guidebooks said I could expect to see chateaux, historic villages and prehistoric cave paintings and to taste some of the most outstanding food and wines of France. My French tutor had actually kissed her fingertips when describing the meals I'd be served in Dordogne, and as it turned out, she wasn't exaggerating.
Our home base for the vacation was to be the Relais des Garennes, a sort of French dude ranch, about 20 minutes outside the modest town of Souillac, which in turn lies about 100 miles east of Bordeaux. The plan was for us to stay at Relais des Garennes for two nights before going on a four-day circuit ride covering about 85 miles of countryside. We would then take a day ride out of the ranch before being packed off to the train exactly one week after our arrival.
In the softening light of early evening, the Relais des Garennes was somewhat less lovely than its surroundings. Set on a weedy hillside punctuated with building materials for a partially completed pool cabana, it could have done with some landscaping -- and with some maid service: We got no fresh towels and we made our own beds. It could also have done without a pack of dogs that was given to early morning disputes and X-rated cocktail-hour conga lines.
But these were quibbles. It did have a pool and tennis courts, and my room, which I shared with one of three Texans on the trip, was clean and comfortable -- even if the shower wasn't exactly state of the art.
Since dinner wasn't till 9, it wasn't long before the American contingent of the ride -- the Texans, two Californians and this D.C. denizen -- with wine glasses in hand (this was France, after all), was strolling past a meadow drenched in flame-colored poppies to check out the horses, grazing in a nearby pasture.
They were not particularly impressive. Standard hack horses. Nothing wrong, but nothing special either. We had reason to upgrade our opinions later.
By the call to table, all 13 riders were accounted for -- 11 women and two husbands. Our guide, Annabella, made it 12 women and two husbands. No one has ever explained to my satisfaction what it is with women and horses, but there you have it.
With riders hailing from the States, the Netherlands and Germany, it became apparent that I was going to have fewer opportunities to try out my pidgin French than I had hoped. Lucky for one of us, though, I was seated at dinner beside our rather uncomfortable-looking host, Jean Paul, who claimed to speak no English. For a few courses, I devoted the full force of my French lessons to him. Over delicately flavored asparagus soup, he told me, in what could have been a compliment, that for an American my accent was very good.
It also became apparent -- as appetizer followed soup, and cheese followed main course, and coffee followed dessert, and wine and crusty bread preceded and followed everything but dessert -- that the best preparation for this trip would have been a diet.
During our stay in Dordogne, with few exceptions, we either had reins in our hands, or forks. We never had a bad meal. We never had a mediocre meal. Even when I didn't know what I was eating and wasn't sure I wanted to know, it was magnifique.
In Dordogne, the food was always fresh -- no boiler bags, no warming trays, no freeze-dried this or reconstituted that. On our first day on the trail, for example, we stopped at midday at a 400-year-old farm, where ducklings paddled in a millstream and our horses shared quarters with a flock of indignant geese. What did we have for lunch? Pa~te' de foie gras, duck and, for dessert, some of the strawberries we had been seeing and smelling all morning in the farmers' fields.
The French just have their way with food. For one thing, they have a wonderful sense of proportion. For example, we were served morning coffee in bowls. Bowls! What a great idea. And they never rush things. With lunches of an hour and a half and dinners that stretched longer still, we had plenty of time to savor both the food and the company -- and count ourselves lucky that riding pants stretch.
After that first delicious taste of what was to come, the next big event was meeting our mounts the next morning. On first blush, mine was not quite all I had hoped.
Princesse was not what you'd call a looker. She was an Appaloosa, which means that right off she was covered in spots. Technically, she was white, but a habit of rolling in the dirt had turned parts of her orange, and the orange didn't come out no matter how vigorously I brushed. Her eyes were ringed in pink mottled flesh so she had a morning-after kind of look. Her hooves, which I cleaned with a pick every morning, were the size of Frisbees.
But looks aren't everything, and I came to appreciate Princesse who, beneath her humble exterior, was an amiable animal, steady, sure-footed and surprisingly fleet. We never once had occasion for words.
Horse-rider introductions were followed by a shakedown ride, more good food and a little sightseeing, but we were all really just waiting for the main event to begin -- our trek.
For the next day and for three days after that, we walked, trotted and cantered through an undulating scene of farms, forests and fields. Sometimes we galloped. We sweated up hills, often dismounting to give the horses a break; we caught a breeze, a breath and a view at the hill crests; and then picked our way back down the steep and stony trails.
We saw chateaux. Lots of them. We passed through quiet villages almost untouched by this century, all stone houses, rambling roses and charm. We visited a compound of bories, beehive-shaped huts that dated to the 12th century. We rode along the grassy edges of little-traveled roads, scaled embankments and sloshed through streams. We saw many children, dogs and farm animals, and we made their day. We didn't see tourists.
We had a couple of long days in the saddle -- doing perhaps 20 or 25 miles, riding for seven or eight hours. Sometimes it was a relief to get off and walk beside the horse for a while.
En route, we had leisurely lunches. We ate at farmhouses, and we ate at a village restaurant. Once we ate inside a borie, where candles flickered on the tables and buttery sunshine from an open door spilled across the floor. Once, on our last ride, we had a picnic in the field with our horses hanging close, hoping for handouts. But before we ate, we always took care of our horses, removing their saddles and bridles and turning them out to pasture so they could have a bite and a break too.
Every night we had rooms with a view. The first night, we looked out over the medieval city of Sarlat-la-Caneda hugging a valley below. Our inn was cool and churchlike, with stone walls and heavy wooden beams and eccentric touches, like a carpet-lined shower stall and a maned, horse-skin rug.
Another night, we stayed atop an even higher hill in the town of Tamnies. Geraniums sprouted from flower boxes and flowerpots, and our room was tucked under the eaves, at the top of a carpeted ladder.
And then there was our visit to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. Les Eyzies is a place heavy in mystery. Limestone outcrops, weathered close to the ground, arc out of the earth at unpredictable intervals in the town. And looming on both sides of the narrow village are cave-pocked cliffs. When lit by night, the caves look like entrances to the nether world.
And in a way, they are, of course, because inside them are eerie, elegant images of bison, reindeer and horses painted by an unknown people 14,000 years ago.
While at Les Eyzies, we were able to visit the grotte of Font-de-Gaume. Like the famous caves of Lascaux, it may soon close to the public because human traffic damages the fragile paintings. At the entrance to Font-de-Gaume, visitors pass over a grate that sterilizes their shoes, but their skin, their very act of breathing, still spread bacteria that break down the pigments in the paintings. Already, admission hours are short and tickets rationed; on the day of our visit, the ticket office was closed for the day by 10 a.m.
The concern for the paintings is justified. They are badly deteriorated. In places, the guide had to trace their outlines with a flashlight before they were even discernible. Yet seeing them was like a religious experience. We spoke softly and made quiet gestures. Their age, their beauty, but most of all the unknowable but powerful impulses behind their creation stood us in awe.
After Les Eyzies, we rode through more charming country, enjoyed more marvelous meals and soaked up more of the perfect weather.
One of us got a black eye and stitches from getting butted by a horse, but that was our group's only injury, other than a few scratches.
Some of us got a little fatter or walked a little funny. And some of us got to be friends, even if only in translation.
By the end of the trek, all of us secretly believed that we had had the best horse. And all of us had slipped happily into the lulling rhythms of the ride.
I didn't become bilingual, but, contrary to the lore, the French appreciated even my dilettantish attempt at their language. And I didn't turn into a prize-winning equestrian, either, but my riding went up a notch.
And next year, I'll definitely be a dilettante of a higher order -- on to Ireland and those ditches and hedges.
WAYS & MEANS
The eight-day ride I took, the Perigord Trail, entailed six days of riding and was aimed at intermediate or better equestrians. I booked it through the California-based agent Fits Equestrian, which this year offers the ride May 11-May 18, May 25-June 1, June 8-June 15, Sept. 7-Sept. 14 and Sept. 21-28. The cost is about $975, excluding transportation to the Dordogne area, though that can vary according to the strength of the dollar against the franc. Your cost is locked in at the time of full payment, regardless of later currency fluctuations.
From the Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris it is a five-hour train ride to Souillac, where your hosts from the Relais des Garennes will meet you. All costs except personal incidentals are covered from then on, including fabulous meals (with wine) and accommodations.
Fits Equestrian also offers two other riding options out of the Relais des Garennes, both eight days/seven nights with six days of riding: the Tour de Quercy (a bit slower-paced than the Perigord), and Riding Holiday in Souzet, a series of day rides, priced at about $885 and $690 respectively, also subject to the dollar's strength.
Two other agents in the United States offer riding tours here and abroad for all levels of equestrians. English saddles predominate but Western saddles are available on some rides, especially those in the United States. All three companies offer free catalogues upon request.
INFORMATION: For more information:
Fits Equestrian, 2011 Alamo Pintado Rd., Solvang, Calif. 93463, 800-666-3487; rides here and abroad, with Europe a specialty.
Equitour, P.O. Box 807, Dubois, Wyo. 82513, 800-545-0019; rides here and abroad, including in Africa.
Hoofbeats, 182 Hillside Ave., Englewood, N.J. 07631, 800-733-2995; rides here and abroad, with Ireland and England a specialty.
Information on other operators also is available from individual tourist bureaus. The French Government Tourist Office (212-757-1125 or, beginning Monday, 900-990-0040 -- with calls costing 50 cents a minute), for example, will send a list of specialty tour operators, which includes those who operate riding trips.