Southwest France with Compass in Hand
Departing the Loire Valley and taking the train southeast to Carcassonne I began a new and somewhat daunting horseback riding adventure – the Equitours Randonnée Liberté trail ride in southwest France. I am by no means a skilled topographical map or compass reader, but do fine with written instructions. I was meeting a client who was joining me for this exciting French riding holiday. Having never met each other before, other than our telephone conversations when arranging her booking, we teamed up in Carcassonne and were driven south about an hour to the small village of about 60 people where the ride begins and ends.
In the warm French farmhouse kitchen we were greeted with a cool beverage and shown to our comfortable, simple rooms. This is a home filled with much laughter and good cheer and as a result the evening meal sometimes goes on for hours with many colorful stories being told. The outfitters, however, are quite serious about how their horses are ridden and cared for, and so we went off for our first day of riding with their daughter who thoroughly checked out everything from our grooming, hoof cleaning and tacking up, to map and compass reading. We must have passed her scrutiny as we were given a ‘thumbs up’ to head out on our own the next morning.
With several maps, a compass, written directions, grain for the horses and a packed lunch in our saddlebags we set off to calls of “Good luck! See you in a week”! The adventure had begun. Our bags would be moved daily to each new accommodation during the week, with feed waiting at every destination for the horses. I am sure questions were asked each day of our hosts of the previous evening to see how they felt we were doing. We were never asked by the organizers if we were okay or needed anything, understanding we would ask if in need.
We found the ride to be more demanding and challenging than we had anticipated with map reading decisions to be discussed and made, wrong trails taken, then backtracking, rereading the map and off on the correct track. It was almost a course in orienteering. We did more road riding than I had expected, however, there was very little if any traffic encountered. One day as we were riding up a long ascent on the wide shoulder of the road, down came cyclists participating in the Carcassone to the Pyrennes bicycle race. They were on the downhill side of the pass and were smiling and waving as they flashed by in their colorful outfits and streamline helmets.
We rode on grass or dirt tracks much of the time, along fields of grain, through wooded areas, climbing ever upward on the strong, fit horses through sycamore and pine forests. In one instance the woods next to us were so thick it was as dark as night inside with no light penetrating. We rode in mists and sunshine, warm and cool breezes, shirtsleeves and jackets, as riding in the foothills of the mountains brings varying weather conditions. I would guess that at any time of the year riders could anticipate the same sort of weather.
There was a day or two when we rode for several hours before seeing another ‘orange arrow’, our beacon telling us we were indeed riding in the correct direction or which trail to take. Always such a welcome and reassuring sight! Some days we rode for hours through foothills and farmland before reaching a small village or even seeing another person – wonderful! One of my most memorable experiences during this week of horseback riding in France was riding round a bend in the trail to see the unbelievable Cathar castle, Puylaurens, appear as if suspended from the clouds.
It was comforting to see each evening’s host family watching for us as we approached, ready to show us where to put the horses for the night, store the tack, take us to our room, and most evenings joining us for their well-prepared evening meal. What a special experience to be welcomed into their homes, sharing briefly in their diverse lives. I felt these wonderful people were one of the greatest gifts of this very unique French riding vacation experience. It would be wonderful to return to this region of southern France that is so strongly influenced by its close proximity to Spain and do this ride again. Having already worked our way through the pitfalls of map and compass reading, it would be a breeze the second time around.
I did return in June of 2012 to do this challenging ride again! This time it was with my adult son, Peter, for a wonderful week of enjoying each others’ company in a vastly different setting than usual with shared rooms, bathrooms, meals, morning stretches and decisions on the trail. There was much laughter and many oohs and aahs at the scenery. I was once again the written directions person while he mastered the maps and compass.
Positive changes have taken place on this ride since I first rode there. Trail markers are clearer now, maps and written directions are set up for each day and laminated to protect from any unexpected moisture.
There are some lovely new locations in which to spend the night and new stories to be shared, such as our encounter with a friendly boar in a wildlife reserve. At some of the familiar spots I found that a second generation of family were now our hosts.
We enjoyed our good, fit horses and Peter loved his horse so much that he wanted to take him home. There was a very touching farewell at the end of our ride as Peter’s horse was being led past on his way out to pasture. The horse stopped in front of Peter and leaned his forehead against his chest, standing there for a few moments before being led off. Moist eyes all around!
Ride Review written by Nancie Vion-Loisel