Sun Pony Ranch

Diary of novice (clueless) ranch owners

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Italy-Switzerland 2011, part 1

One entry on my "bucket list" has been to go horse touring in Tuscany. Well, we aren't getting any younger, so last summer we decided 2011 had to be it. Friends recommended May (over September), so this was the plan. Things were somewhat complicated by the fact this has been the busiest springs we have ever had - we've been working harder than ever at promoting the ranch and trying to expand business. So when it came to be February and we still hadn't done anything to plan for the trip we called United, picked a couple of dates off the calendar and cities off the map - and low and behold, a trip was born!

We had 2 Brokie friends to spend time with, and of course the horse touring: all else was up to our whims. Doing some Internet searching, I found a fantastic spot to do our riding, and very quickly an itinerary was drafted. I do have to thank both Roby and Antonella for their patience, but also their prodding, as if it were not for them asking for details so that they could continue to plan their own lives, I bet our plans would have been even more delayed. As it was, I was reading the tour book on the flight over. :-D

Our first leg of the trip was the horse touring. I'd made a few contacts, another of which I thought was going to pan out well. But when they kept asking me if the horse back riding was optional that they had many great villas at which to place us, I figured the Castello was better suited for us. Technically over the border in Lazio (not Tuscany) -- but, ehem... close enough for us: Castello di Santa Christina, in Grotte di Castro, near Lake Bolsena.

In hindsight it would have been easier to fly into Rome than Florence, but again we'd made out flight reservations long before selecting destinations. We arrived in Florence in the evening, rented a car, and promptly entered the toll road going the wrong way. *GRRR* Thank GOODNESS Dave had found our ~3 Euros of coins left over from our trip to Ireland some 8 years ago that we had in our pocket, else we would have only had 50 Euro bills. What we were advised would be a 2.5 hour drive was over 4 hours for us. As we were approaching our highway exit, we saw a bunch of lights leading up two sides of some high mound -- it took us awhile to reason out that was probably Orvieto, a medieval walled city which tend to be on high ground. Somewhat unintentionally we ended up all the way up in the city, in the dead of night, still getting turned around and backwards on the little streets despite the fact they were deserted. Finally, FINALLY, we figured a way onto the map and headed for Grotte Di Castro. Such was our introductions to driving in Italy and their damn crazy system of road signs.

So we made it to Grotte Di Castro -- which really was a much larger town than we'd expected. 10:30 pm on a Tuesday night, even, and we saw a couple of centers of night life, so I was all for stopping to ask for directions. Dave was in favor of pushing on and looking for the sign to the Castello. Large town or no -- it did have a far side and we had clearly crossed over - when this tiny little 'historical marker' type sign appeared listing the castle down a country lane. Hooray!

Only... the road just kept going, and going. The vegetation overhanging the road, no lane markers... into the absolute pitch blackness. It was about here that the 20 hours of traveling and exhaustion at trying to navigate via Italian standards started to get to me, I think. I started thinking back about my exchanges with this establishment -- all via email. Sure, they have a lovely website, but really, anyone can put up a website, right? They had required a 30% down payment - what if all we were to find was an old ruined castle at the end of this road? What if it was the Blair Witch??!!

Yeah - really, I was freaking out big time. Dave later said I did a commendable job in not letting him know. Finally we came upon a pasture gate with halters hung upon it. Shortly thereafter a sign for Reception. I have never been so glad to see a sign of civilization before! We pulled up and phoned them, given that it was now 11 pm and certainly no one in the reception office. And they picked up.

NEVER AGAIN will I rent a car in Europe without GPS!!!

Giacomo came to meet us and led us to our cottage. All looked lovely - but bed was calling us dearly. Breakfast wasn't until 9am, so in the morning we had a little time to explore. What an amazing discovery we were in for:

No, we didn't stay in the Castle proper, but the Breakfast room was there. The (noble) family who still owns this castle after many hundreds of years lives there as do some of the main staff.

View of the Castle from Registration

This, actually, was one of our first sights - our cottage was just up from the riding arenas.

It even had the obligatory outdoor wood-fired pizza oven / patio! A sight we became quite familiar with over the next week as no self respecting Italian household seemingly was without one.

Breakfast buffet

At breakfast Giacomo came by to chat with us. He is the director of the riding program (though we learned later that a back injury prevents him from riding anymore). We discussed our goals for our stay and our riding experience. He assured us they would be able to cater to our needs and desires. However, as he had to transport a horse in the morning, he suggested our 'match up ride' be delayed until the evening so we could get out for the day for some touring. That was fine with us so we took him up on his suggestion to check out a couple near by medieval towns.

Driving out we got a sense of what we came through the night before.

The gates to the castle proper.

The driveway to the castle, it turns out, is 4 km long through beautiful farm lands -- much of which I believe are lands of the estate itself. Sooooo much more inviting in the daylight!

We made it to Pitigliano without incident (hooray!), but honestly were wondering what we were supposed to be visiting here, when we came around a corner upon this vista:

Oh - you mean THAT medieval city. Gotcha.

I mentioned these medieval cities tend to be on (defensible) hill tops, right? Makes for some spectacular views!!

And the alleys are THE CUTEST!!! Yes, I'm showing great restraint in posting only this one. :-)

It also was home to this incredibly charming wine merchant. LOVED this shop!

After a few hours wandering around Pitigliano, we headed towards Sorano, not far away. Getting there, this medieval museum was due to re-open in 20 minutes. So what the heck, we sat on the wall and finished off our bottle of wine. Hee.

To be honest, we didn't know what to expect of the museum, and things were looking like a bust when we found out they had virtually no English documentation. But they would allow us up to walk the battlements, so we asked that the gate be unlocked. Holy cow -- we had no idea of the view that was waiting!

Another amazing little jumble of winding alleys and buildings.

Though we found Sorano interesting in the close mingling of total ruins next door to an inhabited home. Amazing really.

And shops!

But soon we had to be heading on, for our riding lesson was at 6. We made it just in time, and Vicki went out to collect the horses.

Look at that pasture! I wouldn't come in either!

Meet Pabo - the 17.3 hand, Dutch Warmblood mount Dave had for a few days.

We had a very interesting hour long lessong with Giacomo - learning to ride in a style COMPLETELY opposite to that which we've been working on for the last year or so. *shrugs* I actually see the points he was making about his approach being superior... But that is just one more frustration in learning to communicate with a horse - WHAT method do you want to focus on? In anycase, when riding Giacomo's horses we have no choice, so did our best to adapt.

And that -- my friends, was our first day. Well almost. Day one was actually capped off with dinner at the castle restaurant with the only other guests there at the time. A charming Austrailian couple who were on their 4 week long honeymoon! My goodness, we exclaimed - that's a long trip! But they said it's such a long trip from down under it hardly makes sense to come for less time. We very much enjoyed chatting with them, and then turned in after an eventful day!



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