Saturday, April 12, 2008

Al-Andalus Day 1: The Pilgrimage to El Rocío

Saturday March 29 2008

3 Fases:
1 - Sevilla to Villamanrique de la Condesa, 28.7 km
2 - Villamanrique de la Condesa to El Rocío, 22.6 km
3 - El Rocío to El Rocío, 10 km

The first day of Al-Andalus established what was to become a normal pattern and an essential ingredient of Al-Andalus - not enough sleep!

The hotel cafe opened at 6:50 AM with coffee and breakfast food for all of us - riders, crew, officials - just as we were ready to leave! I (with my heavy suitcase) was to catch a ride with Javier Gutierrez, the course designer; I saw him rushing out of the hotel, and as I ran to follow, ineffectively yelling, "Wait!" around the donut in my mouth, pushing my heavy suitcase and carrying my computer, and backpack with cameras, I got outside, and he had disappeared! By now most of the other people had left, and I was in a pickle - missed my ride, no room with the other riders and crews left (I ran back inside to ask them), and now would be a terribly inconvenient time to call Inés to ask her to come back to the hotel to get me. Oh, dear, already making trouble the first day - maybe it would be better to call a taxi. Just as I was about to do that, Javier whipped around the corner with an SUV full of people that he'd picked up, with one seat left. Now, here I was, with a huge suitcase.

Javier's eyes popped out, somewhat in terror, as he looked at my huge bag and the small space left in the back. Somehow he found room, and somehow he lifted this heavy bag up and shoved it in there, and he got the hatchback closed. We jumped into the SUV and sped to the racetrack, where most of the horse vans had all pulled out, headed to the starting line at some stables in Villamanrique de la Condesa, 30 minutes away.

The officials sorted out the vehicles and 4-wheelers and motorbikes for the day, then we all left the racetrack. There was a line of assistance cars and vans waiting at a roundabout for the final van to join us so we could proceed in a caravan ... and while we waited, Paco Maeso and José Soto visited with people. I pulled out the Raven for Paco - and for José Soto to meet. As always, the Raven produced big smiles - José Soto was obviously happy to meet the Raven for the first time.

Then the parade of vehicles headed off to the start, where the stables were ensconced right in the middle of a crowded neighborhood. The horse vans and crew and official cars squeezed into the small stable area, and riders tacked their horses, and began warming up around the grounds and in an arena. Joining the Al-Andalus riders today were some 20 members of the local riding club, who would follow the same 50 km trail to El Rocío.

At 9 AM (or thereabouts), the lead motorcycle and a few quads took off, crossing the stable area to an exit in back, onto a dirt road, followed by 32 Al-Andalus horses and riders, and 20 more riders. As we were leaving, I was suddenly directed into a different SUV, driven by Nacho (Francisco Peña, the director of the course), and carrying Dr. Luís Herrero Mateo (human doctor) and steward Carmen González Martín-Moré. All of them spoke little English, and I spoke only a little Spanish, but throughout the days we had fun trying to communicate anyway. Hand gestures are very useful in helping convert Spanish to English and vice versa.

Today was to highlight another essential element of Al-Andalus - truly wild driving: various versions of creeping behind horses, then hurtling past them; waiting, leap-frogging, shooting by, squeezing by, rocketing ahead; dropping back, racing beside, on four wheels or two or one, it didn't matter, squeaking past, whipping around the horses over the entire course of Al-Andalus (except for only one cliff the cars couldn't squeeze through, and one area of roof-deep sand, I think). You might think that it would be easier to just drive on the roads and meet the riders at assistance points, and then just drive on to the next crew point via roads, meeting them again easily and in advance. Well, yes, of course that would be EASIEST, but that's not the POINT. Driving over every inch of the course was the point, and passing as many horses between assistance points was the point. Letting the horses pass us, and then us passing them again was the best! (Not to mention it's a great way to break your horse to cars and quads and motorcycles passing within inches.) The extreme driving (which can accurately be described as 'frenzied') was truly as much a part of Al-Andalus as the horse ride itself! In America, you're usually on your own from vet check to vet check, even if it's 40 km in between. But here in Europe, horses and riders get assistance every 10 km or so. That's part of the rides and part of the fun.

Out of the stables, we honked and thrust our way through the remaining vans that were in our way, whipped a tight corner and barely squeezed through a gate onto the dirt track through the olive orchards, and we raced after the field of horses, brush slashing through the open windows. I ducked in the back seat, just in case.

We eventually overtook Paco Maeso, who was at the back of the pack (which was long gone), leading his white stallion Ibor on foot - or rather, Ibor was leading him. The stallion was quite excited because the field had left him behind - Paco had started riding him then gotten off as he got more unsettled - and now, there was no getting back on the horse because he was too excited. Nacho, Luís, and film cameraman Carlos (who had just now hopped into our car) all got out of our car to help hold Ibor still while Paco mounted him.

Once Ibor got moving along at a trot, he was easier for Paco to manage. We raced past Paco, along the dirt track between olive orchards and green fields of wheat, zooming past a couple of horse-drawn, or mule-drawn carriages (appeared to be carrying tourists), and arrived at the first assistancia point at 12.4 km, after most of the horses had passed through. It was warm, and it was green - the height of spring. But, Carmen said, "En Andalucía, es siempre verde!" always green! This is a very fertile part of Spain.

Steph, Paul, and Madonna were there (Steph was riding around to the assistance points with them today), and the Raven came out to say hi. Paul is a big fan of the Raven, though you have to keep an eye on Paul, because he likes to grab him and try to run off with him.

Suddenly Nacho called, "Venga Merri!" We go! I jumped back in the car along with Carmen, Luís and Carlos, and off Nacho shot along the course, racing past riders (I took many out-the-window shots), passing José Soto, who had stopped to help one of the drivers change a flat tire, and on to where the trail crossed a tributary of the great Guadalquivir River. Nacho said "Bueno photos aqui!" He stopped here, and Carlos and I jumped out to catch riders coming through the water crossing. Nacho and Luís handed off cold water bottles to any of the riders that wished for a drink. As we waited, a Spanish man and his granddaughter passed in a cart pulled by a pony. The pony trotted smartly right on into the creek, out on a Sunday drive.

Next we reached the first vet gate at 29 km, where most of the riders had already passed through (after a 30 minute hold) and left. We stayed a few minutes, grabbed prepared sandwiches and cold drinks (water, Coke, Aquarius, supplied at all the lunches, assistance points, and the finish every day by the sponsors), and took off along the course again for the second 22 km phase. This part of the course passed through a good deal of at-least-ankle-deep sand and pine forests, and Nacho took great delight in racing/skidding/sliding through the sand. The forest flew by in a blur, sand shot in the air behind the wheels, and I could picture the car slipping and sliding right over onto its side. "Tengo miedo!" I said, I have fear! Oh, little did I know what was in store for me over the next few days! Nacho chuckled and pushed the pedal down harder. Perhaps I had said, "Go faster!" instead of "I'm scared!" We know how my Spanish gets mangled.

We stopped to set up an assistance point for the riders at Palacio Del Rey after 12 km, a lovely old home surrounded by a herd of cattle, fields of yellow daisies and a colony of storks that were flying around, sitting on nests, and clicking their beaks in avian conversation about the horses passing through. The horses had a long old stone water trough to drink from, and Nacho and Luís and Carmen handed cold drinks to the riders and poured water on the horses as they took a quick refreshing break after that stretch of sand. We attempted to chat/handspeak in Spanish while we waited for more riders. It was a lovely spot in the Spanish countryside - perfect weather of warm sun, and 23*.

Javier's SUV full of people arrived at our assistance point and took over, and we raced on toward the second vet gate in the little town of El Rocío.

For most of the year, El Rocío is a quiet little village of 800 people, with all sand streets, and hitching rails for horses in front of every building. But once a year, on the 7th Sunday after Easter, El Rocío comes alive with up to a million people, during the Romería Del Rocío, Spain's largest romería festival (pilgrimages so named because pilgrims traditionally walked to Rome, and became known as "romeros"). Pilgrims have come here every year since 1280 AD to worship the statue of the "Madonna of the Dew," the Virgen Del Rocío. It is believed that she can cure disease, infertility, and mental disorders.

The massive white Santuario de Neustra Señora de El Rocío dominates the center of town. It was destroyed in an earthquake in 1755, and rebuilt in the 1960's. Inside is an ornate gold altar, and you may light electric candles in a little room on the side of the church. Smoke from years of real candles is blown out of a high window via a fan, where black smoke residue stains the white outer wall.

On this first Saturday after Easter, to El Rocío came the Al-Andalus equestrian pilgrims - roaming in from 50 km away for a festival of our own.

El Rocío has been named as an international equestrian village, and we could see why. There were horses everywhere when we arrived - in addition to the endurance horses coming and going, there were horses pulling carriages, horses and ponies giving rides, bitted up prancing Andalusians, and even wild horses roaming the marshlands of the Guadalquivir River delta. The finish line, or Meta, arch had been set up in the middle of the square beside the church. Ladies in traditional flamenco dress and high heels wobbled through the sandy streets in front of a smart pair of draft horses - showing off their pompoms by shaking their heads at each other - pulling a carriage, their drivers dressed in Andalucian hats and fine long-tailed coats. There were souvenirs, stores selling carriage harnesses and flamenco dresses side by side, and the smell of freshly harvested strawberries in the air.

Riders arrived here for their second vet gate and hold, and then went out on their final stage of 10 km around the wetlands-lake, returning to the Meta (finish) in the town square. Coming first across the line today was Bulería hauling José Leon. The blisters on José's hands indicated this was not his idea to win this first Etapa, or stage, of Al-Andalus. (And this put Steph and José in first place Equipos - teams!) He finished 15 minutes ahead of Estefania Garcia Escandell on Risk. Seventh across the line, Carmen Campos Illanes on Capri CP, was first in the binomial category. José and Bulería were finished with their ride by the time many riders were still coming in off of phase two. The grounds stayed busy and colorful with horses continually coming across the finish line, getting washed down, trotting out for the vets, eating and resting, waiting out their vet gate hold.

Many spectators strolled among the horses and on the promenade along the lake. The lunch/dinner was served under a big temporary tent (this was put up nearly every day for the lunches, then taken down and transported to the next day's ride end). Riders and crew packed the tables and chairs, and spilled out onto the lake walk, devouring plates filled with garbanzo beans and cooked beef, vegetables, and apples and oranges. It was pleasantly cool in the shade under the blooming jacaranda-like purple trees.

Steph and I made time for a coffee in a little cafe on the dusty main street. After the last of the horses had come in, we hopped into Fernando's caravan, and he drove us to our home for the night, little bungalows just outside the main part of town at Camping La Aldea.

Javier had unloaded my suitcase (happily, I expect - he told me he thinks I'm stowing a body in it) and left it at reception for me, and we wheeled it and Steph's heavy suitcase through the dirt streets to our little bungalow. We couldn't find anybody excited about taking our luggage tomorrow, so we decided we'd wheel them to Fernando's caravan in the morning (Steph was riding tomorrow) and let him deal with them. Fernando wouldn't mind!

The bungalows were plain, very comfortable - but no hot water. I took an icy shower, and not long after, a nice man showed up to fire up the hot water heater. I followed that up with a hot shower! We had no internet here, but we really didn't have time for it anyway. We did prepare our photo galleries (which in itself took hours every night) so they'd be ready for uploading next time.

This night we took time to go to the rider briefing - or, rather, the cafe, where we ate dinner while the rider briefing went on in Spanish. Fernando joined us after the meeting and briefed Steph on the details for tomorrow's ride, and told her when to show up to saddle her mare Arenal. She'd be riding along the beach tomorrow, and she'd be riding with Paco. I found Nacho and arranged to go in his car in the morning again.

Michael Baxter, the physiotherapist that photographer Lynne Glazer met last year, joined us for dinner. I told him that Kristian, one of the photographers last year, had noticed that Lynne disappeared quite a bit - "we thought she must have gone sightseeing!" Steph and I had told Kristian no, we are pretty sure Lynne produced horse pictures from every day of the ride last year. Michael laughed. "Well, we DID go sightseeing, but not on purpose! I bought a GPS for my car this year so I wouldn't get lost!" Getting lost, I was to find as the days went on, is also an integral part of Al-Andalus, not only for the press and crews, but also for the course directors at times!

See the full day's results at:

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