Beneath the cloudless blue sky of Val d'Orcia in southern Tuscany, I am trotting on Amigo, a chestnut-colored Arabian stallion. I dig in with my legs and gallop faster behind seven others Enrica, our guide, passing through meadows with row after row of giant sunflowers whose bonneted faces reach up towards the sun. The horses lead us through a field dotted with perfect round wheels of hay as big as truck tires. In the distance rows of silver gray olive trees and rolling green hills with occasional cypress trees stand sentry. The only sounds are the horses' hooves gently pounding into the earth.
I am in Tuscany on a horseback riding vacation because I want to experience this part of Italy intimately, not through the window of a car or van. I'd also like to gain more confidence on a horse. The outfitter I've chosen is Cross Country International, a specialist in horseback riding vacations, and the trip has far exceeded my expectations. The other riders include a married couple from California, a mother and daughter from New Jersey, a woman from New York, and man from Washington, D.C. Except for the seventeen-year-old, we range in age from 35 to 60.
As we arrive at the top of a crest Enrica, an expert rider, pulls her grey speckled horse to a full stop and we do the same. . "There," Enrica points to the ruins of a stone farmhouse. "That will someday be my riposta, my refuge." Her accent is Italian, her smile infectious. "And look at what I will see through my windows." She points with her gloved finger as we oohhh and ahhh at wheat fields shimmering in the sun, medieval hilltop villages in the distance and gulches and ravines leading down to the river.
In the distance the tower bell of the village of Celle sur Rigo chimes eighteen times --- it is 6pm, time to go back to Il Poggio, the guest house in Celle sur Rigo where we are staying, and which Enrica owns with her husband, Roberto Bartolini. I was sure a guest house would be rustic and cramped, but Il Poggio is a spacious sun-washed pink stucco villa originally a farmhouse, and it has been in Roberto's family since the 1800s. About ten years ago, Roberto and Enrica expanded the main house to three more buildings of suites, each with living room and dining area, cable TV, fireplace, and kitchenette complete with espresso machine. Besides two large swimming pools, there is archery, a soccer field, tennis court, and an equestrian center with 22 horses, riding ring, and endless wooded trails which lead to meadows, vineyards and medieval villages.
Each morning we saddle up the horses and Danielli, the riding instructor, or Enrica, if she Ãs not too busy, points out our destination for the day. As Il Poggio is perched on top of a hill with a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside, we can see past the tile roofs of the nearby village of Celle sur Rigo as far as the mountains on the horizon. Yesterday, Danielli pointed to a small hill town in the distance whose silhouetted tower looked like a rook from a chess set. Once mounted, we followed the old Cassia Road that originally linked Rome with Northern Italy and rode by a crumbling post house built by Ferdinand de Medici in 1587. Usually we do a trail ride in the morning followed by a picnic lunch, a swim back at Il Poggio, and later in the afternoon go to the ring for lessons. I love the bilingual instructions but I don't like posting.
Most of the group are experienced riders, but IÃm an advanced beginner. Danielli tells me I have to learn how to control the horse and learn to post correctly. "Uno due," he calls, "Uno due." I pull myself up, then back down. "Don't go up so far," he says, "You are using too much energy for nothing." I try it with less effort. "Good, Better." He nods, then suddenly says, "Galoppo!" and AmigoÃ' hooves kick up the dirt as I follow the pack. Seconds later he calls out, "Trotto," and we're back to "Uno, due, uno due." Often, the Italians staying at Il Poggio come to watch, and sometimes they even take riding lessons. But out on the trails we see no one else because this area of southern Tuscany is too far away from Rome and Siena for most people. "Don't the Italians like to ride?Ã®" I ask Danielli. " They like to drive fast," he replies.
Yesterday we tied up our horses and explored Radicofoni, a medieval town complete with a 9th century castle offering a spectacular view of the countryside. Then we walked through the cobblestone streets of the village, where each stone house was decorated with hanging pots of bright red geraniums. Inside the 14th century San Pietro Apostolo, Danielli showed us the original bell sitting in the back of the church, and explained that every bell is dated, so you can always tell how old a church is.
After exploring the town, we went back to the horses and Marcello, Il Poggio's driver/handyman drove up with a picnic lunch of local white wine (Il Poggio has its own vineyards), home made pasta salad, bread, and a big hunk of Pecorini, (sheep's cheese), also homemade at Il Poggio. Marcello poured the wine, clinked his glass and explained that the land is very barren and it's hard to grow grapes. "But those that grow," he said, "are better because they are grown with such love."
After lunch while riding back to Il Poggio, we heard a coocoo bird and saw a mother quail with seven babies. Once we'd taken care of the horses and changed, we went for a swim, then returned to the ring for dressage, and finally gorged ourselves in ll PoggioÃs gourmet restaurant. I had Pici, a local pasta only made in this region and served with garlic and spicy tomato sauce, and also tasted the ravioli filled with potatoes and Pecorino cheese.
Each day we ride to a different place. We have been to the steaming sulfur Renaissance pool in the main square of Bagni Vignoni; explored the medieval village and castle of San Casciano dei Bagni; ridden through the gorges of Rocca d'Orcia; and gone to my favorite, Pienza. This ancient town only a city street long is crammed with stores selling cheeses, olive oils, the famous local Brunello wine, and magnificent blank journals with hand-made paper. For a week I have experienced this simpler life on horseback in pastoral surroundings where a typical traffic jam is herds of sheep crossing the trail or farmers trying to hold onto their pigs as we pass by. I have kept time by the tower bells and I have tasted foods right off the vine or made from scratch.
And now it is our last day, and we are with Enrica on an evening trail ride. She pats her horse and says, "So, we go back for dinner?" I let Amigo graze as I take a last look at the rolling hills and tilled soil, now terracotta-colored in the setting sun. It will be hard to leave my new friends, this gentle horse, and the unspoiled endless countryside. It will be hardest of all, to go back home.