Editor's Note: This is the final postcard in a series of six as Janice Booth takes part in Cross Country International's Valentine's ride through the countryside outside of Rome, Italy.
Feb. 18, 2005 -- The day dawned clear and warm for the last adventure of our trip. We reported to the barn, dressed in our hunt finery, at 11 a.m. and waited for the Master of the Drag Hunt who never did appear. Eventually, we decided to improvise and set off around 1 p.m.
The weather was perfect--sunny and bright, not overly warm and just right for exertion. I had momentary bouts of nervousness but was really quite calm about the whole thing.
Stefano led the hounds out of the yard, barking and shouting. The horses clearly knew what was ahead and were rarin' to go. We trotted up the lane to the cross country field and waited until the jump master took his first fence. Sometimes waiting is good, sometimes it isn't. In this case, sitting there allowed my adrenalin to kick in, so I tried to occupy my mind with comforting thoughts like the sinful desserts that would be served at tonight's dinner.
The jump master, PierPaulo who was mounted on a lithe gray thoroughbred, began a beautiful and controlled canter toward the beginning of what I hoped was not going to end up being my demise. Maria directed me to follow him. No problem: the first obstacle was a small ditch that even I wasn't afraid of. But as we cantered toward it, PierPaulo's horse suddenly stopped, planted its feet, and sent PierPaulo tumbling to the ground! The big gray took off galloping up the hill, and I was left to think thoughts best left unexpressed on a public website.
Once the rogue horse had been captured, we tried again, and I managed the ditch, a small combination, a sharp turn to a log, and then a big canter up the hill. Mounted as I was on John George, I really didn't worry about getting over the fences. Frankly, the horse could have stepped over them if he wanted. But PierPaulo's horse was having a bad hair day and refused more than one fence with me behind him. It was a little disconcerting, so I chose my jumps carefully after that.
Our group of 12 was followed by two carriages that brought snacks and beverages, including wine for those of us who needed fortification. We stopped for a little rest and refreshment at the goat farm and sat on the porch high atop the hill overlooking Lake Bracciano. While the horses grazed, we relaxed in the sunshine.
One of our carriage drivers was Rampichino, the nickname for Tomasso Eusepi, who is 84 years old, and the most famous living buttero (Italian cowboy) in the world. Rampichino is a small but strong man whose body has been shaped by a lifetime of riding. Looking at him, he presents a perfect combination of Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. He doesn't speak a word of English but still managed to charm the breeches off of all of us.
On the second half of our hunt, the hounds caught the scent of a real fox and there was momentary pandemonium as they raced off to find it. It was interesting to watch the riders and their horses work to get the hounds back in place, and it took quite a bit of effort and coordination. And a lot of noise. I kept thinking that my own horse, Brazen, would have turned himself inside out several times, just from the yelling.
According to Maria, once the hounds catch the scent and a glimpse of a real fox, it is best to get them under control and back to the stable. So Stefano and his crew headed off on the shortest route to the barn while Maria took the hunt guests on a longer route to allow for more gallops and jumping. At the end of the ride, Maria let us play around on the hunt field, and Jessica and I took the last cross country fence together. After all my worry and elevated pulmonary activity, I was able to end my ride with one happy thought: Success!
After depositing the horses at the barn, we reported to the restaurant for our well-earned hunt lunch. It was delectable, as usual. Matteo informed us that he had a special surprise for us at dinner, but smiled and would not say more.
It is hard to believe, but our last dinner at I due Laghi outdid them all. Jim Dyer, producer of the HBO series Rome, and Simona Serafini, a location director who had joined me for my very first lesson and hack, were back at I due Laghi for the weekend. They joined us for dinner as did Prince Mir Wais, Maria, Stefano and Stefano's daughter.
Matteo's surprise and final gift to us was the English singer Clive Riche who serenaded us before and after our meal, at one point inspiring Stefano to grab some spoons and start a percussion session. Stefano is a man of many talents!
When it was all over, Prince Mir Wais toasted Matteo for his peerless hospitality, Clive for his marvelous music, and us, the visiting ladies, for brightening the week at I due Laghi (as if such a thing is possible).
A few days ago, my fellow riders and I were talking about Valentine's Day in general, and how none of us really had any spectacular memories of that day, although we've spent many a Valentine's Day with many a partner. We've all agreed that this will be the Valentine's celebration we will never forget. Cross Country International had a great idea: bring together horses, hounds, handsome and charming men, enthusiastic riders and put them all together in the most romantic place in the world. I know I'll be coming back to I due Laghi as soon as I can. Maybe I'll even be brave enough by then to take another lesson from Irish Willy.
My final true confession is this: I love my friends and the people who are close to me, but I would rather set out on an adventure like this by myself, with no other agenda but than letting the possibilities unfold as they do. I came on this trip alone, but I wasn't alone for very long. Tomorrow, I will be back in North Carolina, but my heart will still be here, in I due Laghi, and with all the amazing people and horses who cared for me so well. Arrivederci!