|Thursday March 27 2008|
ANDALUCÍA is an autonomous community in the south of Spain, touching both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean, and encompassing the highest point in continental Spain (Mulhacén, at 3,479m, in the Sierra Nevada range). It is a land of romance and passion: it is the birthplace of bullfighting and flamenco dancing and the Andalusian horse; it is the home of the legendary Don Juan; it is where Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan began their voyages; there are fiestas, celebrations, ferias, romerías (pilgrimages), and world class horse competitions.
Being rich in history with cultural relics and traditions from the times of the successive invaders - the Moors, Arabs, Christians, and Europeans - you can visit ancient mosques and churches, castles and towers, and you can still travel over the original archaic Roman roads. You can park your car below modern skyscrapers in Granada and sip coffee with half a million people, or you can park your horse at a hitching rail next to the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de el Rocío - where the statue of the "Madonna of the Dew" has been worshipped since 1280 - in El Rocío, a town of 800 people, and sip coffee in a cafe on the dirt streets.
You can taste food and drink unique to or originating in Andalucía: olive oil (Andalucía is the world's largest producer), iberican ham (from a special iberican breed of pig that feeds on the acorns from the scrub oaks and cork trees, producing a healthy, omega-3-fat-rich ham), sherry (almost all genuine sherry is produced here), and gazpacho soup, a heavenly cold soup made from ripe tomatoes, garlic and olive oil.
As much an integral part of Andalucía as the scenery and land and food and drinks, are the wonderful people: people quick to smile and laugh, and with a deep, proud love of their part of Spain and a great desire to share it with others. One can only imagine the pressure they were under, but even when they were falling-over-beyond-tired, they would stay to talk with you, make one more phone call for you, drive to Antarctica to pick you up if necessary, and it was "No pasa nada" - no problem - and they always looked like they really enjoyed it.
You can encounter some of these perks of Andalucía as a tourista; but if you are an endurance rider, then you have a unique chance to truly experience this part of Spain intensely, on horseback, with special horse people, in "the tough and exciting Kaliber Tierras de al-Andalus endurance trial."
I have found in my travels that when you are in exceptional situations - like travelling with a backpack in another part of the world, or working on a show together, or doing an adventurous endurance ride somewhere in the world - many of your friendship bonds are quicker to form and more intense than they are when you meet someone on your home turf. You are stronger friends faster the first time; and the second time you see them, they are your extended family. Already I was by good fortune delightedly reuniting with extended families - Paul and Madonna from New Zealand, and Paco from Spain - and immediately I was forming new ones. The Andalucian people were special from the very first day, even through the chaos. Now add the horse into this extraordinary adventure - paradise!
José Manuel Soto, himself an Andalucian and one of Spain's great flamenco singers and television stars, has combined his great passion for his land, his people, and the horse, with his great desire to share it with the world, and created Tierras de Al-Andalus, an 8-day endurance ride across Andalucía, now in its third year.
For the third year, riders, crews, press, and officials from around the world - Spain, Germany, France, Italy, New Zealand, the US - converged on Andalucía to experience the joys, trials, excitement, and great challenges of this special 8 days and 500 km on horseback (and in cars and horse caravans), of scenic country, rugged trails, top-class hotels, great food and wine, and lasting, special friendships.
With the help of major sponsors and a crew of dedicated, hard-working people, this tremendous event unfolded, mostly smoothly, occasionally not, but it always progressed successfully. Major sponsors were Kaliber (non-alcoholic) beer, Andalucía Tourism, ABC, Ideal, Sur, La Voz, Coca-Cola, and a slew of others (the long list can be seen at www.tierrasdeal-andalus.com).
Many of the villages, towns and provinces we traversed and the hotels we stayed in provided food, drink, and housing for the riders and crews and the large number of employees of Tierras de al-Andalus. Volunteers were also indispensable, as were the work-horse rental cars supplied by Fualsa, which I can firmly attest first-hand were kept extremely busy and put to the work test!
This year's entries are: 19 Equipos (Teams) entries - fourteen 2-riders-2-horses, and five 1-rider-2-horses teams; and five 1-rider-2-horses teams. There are 13 Binomios entries - 1-rider-1-horse. (A total of 51 horses and 46 riders).
A very quick glance at, and a very simplified view of the rules are: each day is approximately 60 km and has two or three stages; for every stage not completed, the rider/team will receive a time penalty, and for each stage not started, the rider/team will receive a greater time penalty. Riders and gear must weigh a minimum of 70 kg. Horses have to be at least 6 years old, with a valid passport. Heartrate at vetgates - 56 bpm. Upon completion of a day's ride (passing the vet inspection), there will be another vet inspection of the horse for the next day's ride, at approximately 7 PM. Competition is against the clock - riders with the shortest overall time in the Equipos and Binomial categories each day will be declared the winners; riders in each category with the shortest overall time over the 8 days will be the overall winners, with a Best Conditioned horse being named. Cash prizes will be given to the overall first 3 places in each category at the end of the ride, with, additionally, a purebred Arabian colt going to the binomial winner, given by La Beata.