Sun and Saddle in Spain
As my horse scrambled up the steep, rocky trail in front of me, I leaned forward and tried to stay light in the saddle. I dared not look to my left, because the only thing separating me from the abyss of a cliff that tumbled down into the Mediterranean Sea was a spindly wooden fence made of weathered olive branches. I did not trust it would hold me if I fell. Instead, I focused on our guide Catalina’s words at the beginning of this impossibly beautiful holiday on a remote island off the coast of Spain: “Trust the horses.”
This story has a happy ending: An impromptu riding holiday on the tiny island of Menorca, with people I’d never met, and with very limited equestrian skills turned out to be one of the most rewarding trips I have ever experienced.
But as is true with all real adventures, I did not yet know it.
The trip, called “The Unknown Views of Menorca,” includes five days of challenging riding along some of the most scenic sections of the historic Cami de Cavalls trail. Nights are spent at picturesque Menorcan inns and villas, and authentic, finely prepared meals are provided every step of the way.
“I picked that name because I feel that you really do see the island on a horse in a way that you wouldn’t be able to any other way,” said Maria Elena Dendaluce, who owns Equiberia, a horse-riding tour company based in mainland Spain. Since 2011, Maria Elena has partnered with lifelong Menorcans Catalina Florit and Antonio Moll, owners of the local riding tour company, Cavalls Son Angel. “Unknown Views of Menorca” is unlike any other, offering holiday-goers a chance to spend time with the very horses for which the island is famous.
NERVOUS FIRST STEPS
Meeting our horses on the first day, I smiled and reached out to pet them. Drawn to all animals, this part of the process felt easy. Horses, dogs, cats and sheep – you name it, and I adore them.
As Catalina began describing the days to come, though, my smile became thin, a sort of forced grimace. The gorgeous Menorcan mares seemed bored yet confidant, and Catalina explained their significance to Menorcan culture and their uncanny skill at navigating the rugged island terrain. She casually assured us that these horses could traverse the impossibly steep and rocky routes that follow Menorca’s windswept coastline. Photos of the trip I’d seen online (www.equiberia.com) showed a vertigo-inducing cliffside route so boulder-strewn it looked like a volcanic debris-field impassable for the toughest of goats, much less a horse.
My inexperience as a horseman nagged at me and I wondered if I’d gone too far this time. I stood with a group of fellow world travelers; three from France, one from Connecticut, two from Tokyo and another from Montana. They looked the part: riding pants, half-chaps, helmets, and even waistcoats – what the heck is a waistcoat, I thought when reading the suggested gear list? (Turns out, it’s a vest with pockets, only fancier). I wore denim jeggings from Kohl’s and thrift store faux-leather ankle boots – the closest approximation of riding shoes I could find. The riders enthusiastically shared stories of their riding holidays in such places as Chile, Botswana, Kenya and Iceland, while I replayed my predeparture emergency riding lesson with a Welsh pony named Lovey and decided it wasn’t a worthy enough story to share.
Nudging my doubts aside, I continued to take in every minute of the experience. Two weeks earlier, I didn’t know Menorca existed. It is one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, located a short flight southeast of Barcelona. At just 10 miles wide and 30 miles at its longest, Menorca is rich in culture and tradition. It has two cities: Mahon, a modern enclave and home to the airport, and the historic city of Ciutadella de Menorca, where Catholicism and tradition still dominate.
Menorca is more low-key than its neighbors, Mallorca and Ibiza, and is the ideal place for those who prefer off-the-beaten-path destinations. I’d been invited on this trip by an agent of the Spanish tourism council and had impulsively agreed that I was experienced enough to take part in an “intermediate to expert riders” horse trek. I mean, who turns down a trip like that? I pushed fears of falling off the horses and breaking my neck aside and forged ahead.
IN THE SADDLE
Once astride our horses, we waved farewell to our handlers and walked away from Catalina’s father’s farm, through a pasture and into the streets of town. This would be the first shock of many to come. In Alaska, trail riding is done on trails. Here, riding a horse is an everyday occurrence and we garnered nary a second glance from the drivers, who whizzed by while our horses clopped along the pavement.
Eventually, we left the road and headed toward a trail, which would take us to Punta Nati, on the northern edge of the island, and to one of the many historic lighthouses situated along the coast. The rough coastline offered expansive views, and the waves crashed so loudly hundreds of feet below us that we couldn’t hear each other speaking.
Fortunately, we were walking in single file, so I simply followed the lead of the riders in front of me, Sophie Pascaud and Leonor Maroutian, both from Paris. I enjoyed the fluid rhythm of their language and every now and then picked up a word or two I remembered from high school French class. Behind me was Joe Gitterman, a lifelong equestrian from Connecticut with exquisite technique who, after seeing my awkward attempts at posting on a trot, gave me pointers on how to hold the reins and sit in the saddle more comfortably. Kenji Aoki, another expert rider from Montana, also tutored me, and I slowly gained more confidence.
Menorca’s beauty reminds me of earlier, simpler times. UNESCO recognized the island as a natural biosphere reserve in 1993, to protect its natural surroundings and way of life and culture. Catalina, during one of our conversations, says her family is no longer allowed to build any new structures on their land.
“The idea is so you are not changing the landscape,” she said, “so it feels more natural and you do not have these big resorts.”
Indeed, development is sparse in most places, with only a few concentrated resort areas on the southern part of the island. For the most part, there are winding, narrow roads, old stone and whitewash buildings and miles upon miles of rock walls, built over the centuries as farmers worked the rocks out of the soil, and out of their way. We’d travel alongside these rock faces for miles, especially along the northern part of the island, stopping occasionally to watch the sheep or let the horses drink from troughs along the way.
The Cami de Cavalls is a renowned trail that once was used as a patrol route by horsemen protecting the island from marauders. These days, it beckons to adventurers, and October is the high season for walkers, cyclists and the occasional equestrian. Temperatures at this time of year hover in the mid 60s to low 70s, downright balmy to Alaskans seeking to extend their summer with an autumn getaway.
My horse’s name was Xirola, and within my first hour of riding her, I came to trust her completely. I figured she had me pegged as inexperienced immediately. However, she did not take advantage of this lack of horsemanship, rather seemed to adjust to my awkward maneuvers and forge ahead patiently. I rode close to the front near Catalina, who rode Estrella, one of the older mares who back home is content to be part of the herd, but on tour becomes the leader of the group.
“Xirola does not like Estrella leading,” Catalina said, as my mare kept nudging her way closer to the front. “This is not normal, she thinks.”
The horses possess a spirited independence that has been bred into them for centuries. One of the island’s best-known traditions is simply called “Festival,” the biggest of which, the Sant Joan Fiestas, is held in late June in the center of Ciutadella. Here, thousands of revelers celebrate the patron Saint John the Baptist, and the Menorcan stallion is at center stage. Men known as los caixers y cavallers wear black and white and adorn their horses with ribbons and multicolored rosettes. The los caixers y cavallers parade through town, and their stallions rear up and walk on their back legs amid the cheers and jubilation of the crowd. Only the most respected and qualified of riders are allowed into the annual event, and families prepare nearly a year in advance for this one weekend.
“There have been cavallers from ages 7 to 92 who are in fiesta,” said Lluis Ameller, who offered us a tour of the historic townsite of Ciutadella the night before our riding began. “It is an honor to be chosen.”
In five days of riding, we covered roughly 50 miles of terrain – less than half of the entire Cami de Cavalls, at 115 miles. The first three days we traveled along the more rugged and remote northern part of the island, while the last two days were spent in the warmer, southern region, where we often dipped into canyons and verdant, green forests before popping out again along the ocean. Often, we would traverse right into touristy, seaside towns, clopping along the streets, in a 10-horse conga line that drew surprised stares from the spandex-clad sunbathers.
On our fourth afternoon, we emerged fromthe forest and approached the small tourist town of Santo Tomás, which featured a large beach and would be a stopping point for our lunch. I assumed we would skirt around the town’s edge, but instead Catalina directed us along a beachside boardwalk packed with tourists. There I was, riding by like a cowgirl while kids wrapped in beach towels shrieked “caballo, caballo!” to their parents. We reached our destination, Es Brucs, a cliffside restaurant with an expansive view of the sea below and featuring fresh seafood from the island. Here, we would spend nearly two hours listening to the crashing surf, walking on the beach and admiring the pack of small, wild kittens that darted about looking for table scraps.
Back on the trail, I once again concentrated on the task at hand. While I’d quickly figured out how to help Xirola manage the uphills, the downhills were more daunting. As Xirola picked her way down slippery, rocky slopes, she often would hop off a ledge that dropped four or five feet at a time. Maria Elena told us to hold on to the back of our English saddles and lean back in unison with our horses’ movements. Soon, it became intuitive, and what at first looked insanely impossible, I quickly realized was just a balancing partnership between my horse and myself.
Maria Elena kept her position at the rear of our pack, riding an elegant-looking gelding named Artista. From her vantage point, she could monitor the entire group ahead, and whenever I looked back, she had a smile spread wide across her face. Clearly, there was nowhere she would rather be, and her enthusiasm for sharing these riding adventures was infectious. She first arrived in Menorca in 2010 to assess the potential of equestrian tourism on the Cami de Cavalls.
Unlike her other trips on the mainland, which provide ample time for cantering, galloping and riding alongside one another, the “Unseen Views of Menorca” is more about the surroundings.
“I fell in love with the island,” she said. “The Mediterranean is definitely a distinctive part of the Spanish history. Menorca, having its own breed of horses, the Menorquin, made it even more unique, and the partnership with Catalina and Toni allowed me to create a fantastic ride.”
By the fifth day of riding, I knew exactly how Maria Elena felt. Despite my lack of experience, and the jitters over the challenging terrain (and it was challenging. If you come here, make sure you are in good shape), there is a magic to this island that I knew would bring me back again.
“The views, the sea, the pace, the ‘silence’ as we ride in a single file – usually riders are quieter, you are more with yourself,” said Maria Elena of the Menorca trip. “It’s a comforting ride.”
After our long days in the saddle – punctuated by leisurely lunches in impossibly scenic locations – we would gather again to eat, family style. Maria Elena would regale us with stories of past riding adventures with clients and friends from around the world. The atmosphere was a joyful mix of languages and laughter, gesturing and nodding. And always the wine flowed. Meals were not so much about sustenance as an event in and of themselves and we sampled the seafood-rich island cuisine with gusto.
Joe and Kenji, repeat customers who have known Maria Elena for decades, said she is the reason they return to Equiberia over and over.
“I think her success is because of her passion for people and the horses,” said Kenji, who met Maria Elena when she first launched Equiberia more than 20 years ago. Not only business-minded and well organized, she also is a reassuring presence: “If she has difficulty or some problem, she solves those problems with calmness.”
Gitterman agrees. Menorca was his sixth trip with Maria Elena and will not be his last. Unlike other companies that sell rides but have not actually been on them, Maria Elena personally chaperones each trip.
“She is wonderful; she is why I come back,” Gitterman said, during our last meal after our final day of riding. Our group sat around the dinner table at a picturesque inn called Hotel Rural Morvedra Nou, on the edge of Ciutadella. Surrounded by rural countryside and dripping with flowering plants hanging from every available trellis, the small boutique hotel was a calming oasis. We toasted to the trip, to the horses, to the great fortune of meeting each other in such a special location. Most of all, we toasted our guides – Catalina for her local knowledge and expertise with her horses, and Maria Elena, for the grace with which she brings such a diverse group of strangers together, who in the end have become the best of friends.
MENORCA: IF YOU GO
The best time to visit Menorca is in the spring and summer, as it gets quite busy with European travelers at the height of summer.
Equiberia offers two Unknown Views of Menorca trips, in September and October. www.equiberia.com
Cavalls Son Angel offers trips ranging from a couple of hours to multi-day outings. www.cavallssonangel.com
Cycling and hiking also are popular on the island. For details on Menorca in general, visit www.menorca.es