Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Al Andalus: Rest Day in Cordoba!

2009 Al Andalus: Descanso en Cordoba!


Perhaps one of the best words you can learn in Spanish (besides Siesta), is Descanso - Rest. As in DESCANSO IN CORDOBA!!

After 6 straight days and 377 kilometers, Tierras de Al-Andalus was taking a day off, in the city of Cordoba. Really, nobody was going to 'rest' much, because there were still horses to take care of, and there was an old city waiting to be discovered. But just to be able to really open the suitcase and spread out for a whole day and a half, sleep in a bit, and just sit and breathe for a few minutes was, if nothing else, a mental break.

I slept in till some ungodly hour like 9 AM, then I got up and followed somebody's dirt tracks down the elegant marble steps to breakfast where I joined the Belgians (living in Spain), Joelle, Bernard and Melanie.

Joelle is quite amazed at the trails the organization found. Some people think it's rocky, but it's not rocky compared to where Joelle comes from. "Alicante (Spain) is rocky, Florac is rocky, and France where I lived and had a riding school is rocky. I'm used to stones - all my horses have padded, or siliconed feet, so we were prepared." Joelle observed there are less paved roads on this ride than in other European rides. She was also amazed at how well the ride has gone. "Of course there will be problems" in a ride like this, she said, though the only major things we could think of were the two times when there wasn't enough water provided for the horses, at a vet gate and a finish line.

After breakfast I, by golly, was not going to work; I was going to take advantage of this Descanso Day, and do some exploring. I grabbed my camera and walked across the Roman bridge into the old city.

The Romans built "Corduba" in 169 BC because of its strategic importance on the Gaudalquivir River. It became a main shipping port for transporting local olive oil and wine back to Rome.

The Moors conquered Cordoba in 711 or 716 AD and began building the Great Mosque, or "Mezquita," in 785 AD, over the ruins of the Romans' Basilica of San Vicente. It was inspired by the Mosque of Damascus, but still retained a strong Hispano-Roman influence, seen in the materials used, the direction in which the nave was set, and the superposed arches and alternation of red brick and beige stone in the bonding of the arches, modeled after the Episcopal palace. It eventually became one of the largest mosques in all of Islam. The Moors also built the Calahorra Fort that guards the Roman Bridge across the Guadalquivir from the Mezquita. Cordoba became one of the largest cities in the world in the 10th century.

The Christians under King Ferdinand III reconquered Cordoba in 1236, and instead of tearing down the beautiful Mosque, they converted it into a cathedral, adapting and adding to some of the architecture that was already there. The Christians also built the Alcazar (Fortress) de los Reyes Cristianos in the 14th century, incorporating parts of the Moorish Alcazar that was already there.

After wandering around the relatively quiet streets a while, I found my way to the stables, where people were busy with their horses: shoeing - at least three shoers were busy on horses, hosing legs, icing feet, brushing, wrapping legs, grazing on the sparse grass, walking horses, lunging horses, trotting out horses to check soundness, and turnouts.

The German girls were standing outside with Heike Blumel's horse "Lenny" - he was uncomfortable and could barely move. They had been waiting on the vets to show up, whose "In 5 minutes" was Al Andalus time, more like a half hour or more. Lenny looked uncomfortable, but his eyes weren't glazed over, so I wasn't too worried about him.

When the vets finally arrived, they examined him, and tried to figure out what it was. Visually, it looked like a tie-up, but that didn't fit. The blood they took confirmed it wasn't a tie-up. Heike had ridden him 5 straight days at a very conservative and sensible pace between 11.5 and 12.5 km/h. Lenny vetted out lame at the finish of Day 5, and so had the day off yesterday. Overnight he'd pooped and peed normally, ate up his food and drank a whole bucket of water overnight. Today he was stocked up, and swollen in one of his stifles.

By the time they decided to put Lenny on an IV, it took 6 people to move him - practically lifting him - the 20 yards to and then into his stall because he just couldn't move his hind end and barely his front. They had to let him rest halfway because his hind end about collapsed. Poor Heike was in tears by the time they got him in his stall... last I saw they were preparing an IV for him. It was the beginning of a long day... and more... for her.

I ran into Fernando Uriarte, visiting from northern Spain (he gave Steph a horse to ride last year in Al Andalus), and with him, we picked up Binomios rider David Gacino and his crew Alberto and walked into the old town, heading for the Alcazar. The participants in Al Andalus were given a free pass into the Alcazar today.

After we walked around the fortress and gardens, and admired some of the old mosaics that had once been in the center of the old city - now hanging on the walls of a museum inside, the boys then went back to the stables, and Fernando and I continued wandering around the city.

We stopped for tapas in a bar where I had yet another version of salmorejo and more of the Iberican jamon that was so delicious. Leaving the bar we walked across the street into the Cathedral plaza, and ran into Alexis and Ines and Jose Manuel Soto. We were going to go into the Cathedral, and bought tickets, but then changed our minds and decided to walk to the old Jewish quarter for more tapas.

Mariki, mother and crew of rider Claudia Lorenzo, joined us - Claudia has dropped out of the competition because her mare vetted out lame on Day 3, and had developed a problem that didn't allow her to continue any more. It was Claudia's first time at Al Andalus and they enjoyed the 3 days she did ride, so Mariki hopes they can return next year with a more conditioned horse.

Mariki and I continued walking and talking together - all of it conducted in Spanish, and finally Alexis interrupted - "Merri! Your Spanish has greatly improved!" It really had! It did take a lot of effort, and at the end of some days I was just exhausted from it, but it made things a lot more fun. You miss so much when you don't understand another language (though boy, I still have a long way to go).

We wandered the narrow labyrinthine streets through the medieval quarter in "La Juderia" (The Jewry), once the home of the Jewish community. We stumbled upon a lovely plaza where we sat outside and had the typical Andalucian lunch: tapas, wine, and more people. Three more friends of Jose joined us, then another 3 friends showed up, then I saw Emilio the photographer across the square and I waved him over. We kept pulling more chairs around our two tables till we had so many chairs we had to get up to reach the tapas on the tables.

Fernando and I concocted next year's "Spanamericano Team" for Al-Andalus, Fernando and me riding as an Equipos team on Arenal (Steph's mount last year) and another of his horses, "and Steph as photographer!"

And speaking of trying to concentrate hard on understanding Spanish - at times here at lunch there were 8 Spanish conversations going on simultaneously, and 8 cell phones ringing at various times, so I could no longer understand anything. (Or maybe it was the white wine.)

After we'd consumed enough food and drink and company, Mariki, Fernando, Alexis, Ines and I strolled back to the Cathedral to use our tickets. We wandered the dark corridors and arches of the Basilica-Mosque-Cathedral with its Islamic inscriptions and Christian adornments and combined architecture.

When we left, I had to split off to go do SOME work at the hotel, as it was about 4:00, and the vetting in was at 5 - which i was going to skip this time - and the Al Andalus meeting/party was at "8PM" in the Alcazar.

I stated this in Spanish, and Ines started laughing and hugged me - "Oh my god Merri, you are speaking spanish!" (Alexis corrected one verb tense - dang those tenses!) OK now I am really motivated to learn more for next year!

I did get a small amount of work done, then got ready for the "8 PM" meeting back in the old city, which was, I figured, a 10-minute walk across the bridge. Silly me, I was ready and in the lobby at a quarter to 8, thinking people would be heading over, (I was thinking in American time), and sure - there were people down there, but nobody dressed to go to a party/meeting. Some were on the internet, some were visiting, and most were in their stable clothes.

I faded back upstairs and then came down at a more reasonable time, after 8 PM, and caught Gabriel and Jose Maria (?) starting to walk over to the meeting. I went with them, and others we caught on the way; and we waited outside the Alcazar talking with everybody till after 9 PM.

Heike Blumel was there after spending most of the day with her horse Lenny; he was a little better, but still didn't want to move. They didn't know if they would be able to transport him tomorrow or not, so their plans were on hold for tomorrow - either drive to tomorrow's finish at Montoro, or to a vet clinic, or stay here, if he still could not load onto a trailer. He was still peeing OK, his blood work wasn't too off, and it still didn't indicate he was tied up; but they still weren't sure what it was. Lenny still had a lot of fluid everywhere that was causing pain in his legs; one of the vets thought it was muscle pain; one thought it might be a fracture in his stifle. They'd given him 9 liters of fluid and some pain killers and anti-inflammatories, and would check on his condition again tonight.

Leonard and Carol were there, looking like two different people because I'd only seen them the last 7 days in their riding and crewing clothes and vests. Leo said "This is my last clean shirt left!" They had a severe weight limit on their Ryan air flight to Alicante so he couldn't bring much except what to ride in.

Finally we were let into the Alcazar around 9 PM, and we had the meeting, once again, in a room with too few chairs. Fernando and I grabbed seats close to the front. It was the usual ride meeting: chaotic, loud, most of it in Spanish, and the rest you couldn't hear. This time they did use a microphone (for the first time!) and tried to interpret most things to French and English; Juan Landa spoke in Spanish and French, Alexis in English. But the microphone didn't really help after all... people just talked louder to drown it out. Even Fernando shook his head and said "Incray-ible!"

The ride meetings were always on the verge of mayhem... but you just adapt. The Germans always cornered Javier afterwards to find out the details of the start and the crewing in his labored English; I always asked him when the start was and when we'd leave the hotel in the morning.

In addition to the 65 kilometer Al Andalus ride tomorrow, there would be a 120 km 2** ride, with international FEI rules that would start a half hour before Al Andalus. We'd all leave by caravan from the stables to the starting line, about a half hour drive out of town.

A speech was given by the mayor, or second mayor of the town (it was too noisy for me to concentrate on Spanish!); then the awards were exuberantly given out, big, bottles of Extra Virgin Aceite de Oliva.

Now here's an example of how the strategy of just riding steadily every day, and to your own horse's ability, pans out: moving up to second place overall now in Equipos was the team of Emma Rosell on Al-Jatib and Maria Capdevila on Pinyo. Taking turns riding every other day, Emma and Maria had placed 2nd (17.6 km/h), 4th (15.9 km/h), 5th (15.8 km/h),11th (16.7 km/h), and 9th (15.6 km/h).

I talked to Maria's mom Nuria, who was their crew and biggest fan. Like many other people here, Al Andalus was a dream of theirs. Nuria's 14-year-old daughter Maria had wanted to ride in the first edition of Al Andalus in 2006, but at 11 years old, she was too young. She'd started riding dressage when she was 3, but dressage is a lot more expensive than endurance (which isn't cheap either), so Nuria asked her, "You want to try endurance?" (Hoping she'd say yes.). Maria did, and they eventually set their sights on Al Andalus. They had to get special permission from the Catalon and Spanish federations so Maria could ride here for the first time when she was 12. It was also Emma's third year to ride Al Andalus. It was their horses' debut in Al Andalus; Emma rides a gorgeous 10-year-old stallion, who is "getting stronger every day." He gets nervous at the starts, but he settles down once he gets going. He carries himself beautifully, collected and smooth.

And why do they keep coming back? Nuria loves the people, the countryside, the food, the experience. After all the fun I've seen Maria having with the other young riders, it's obvious the friendships are as fun for her as is the riding.

After the meeting we adjourned outside to a courtyard of the fortress, and everybody appeared to be like me: STARVED. Nobody is ever sure if it will be a sit-down meal or tapas... or just beer and wine. It seemed tonight we'd just have plentiful drinks.

Finally the waiters started coming, and they put one plate down on each table. Fingers SWARMED over the food (yes, mine were in there) and it disappeared immediately. I don't even know what it was, it went straight down the hatch.

After a few more minutes, one more plate came and the food was attacked as if by jungle ants in the jungle - there one second, gone the next. Really, these were some hungry endurance people (me included). I was so starved I migrated to another table to try to cadge more food (like other people) - no, it was gone!

Finally the tapas began to come with more regularly and more variety - and the desperation wore off, and people (like me) stopped desperately grabbing for food and slowed down to enjoy the drinks and food and conversations without interruptions. I was getting pretty good at talking with people - though my Spanish and powers of concentration had faded by this point in the night... or maybe it was the beer.

There were rumors of Jose Manuel Soto singing somewhere "at 9 PM" - to those with a private invitation shown to me by Fernando - but we'd seen Jose here as late as 10 PM. I could have tried to sneak in, but I didn't know where it was, didn't know how long it would last (or when it would start), I was exhausted (so much for the "descanso in Cordoba"), and there's always the ordeal of having to wait around for a ride back at whatever time of the morning, or trying to find a taxi at 3, 4, 5, or 6 in the morning... so I walked back to the hotel with some friends, and fell into bed around 12:30, ready for the last two days of Al-Andalus.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Al Andalus Day 6: Ecija to Cordoba


Fase 1 - Ecija - Las Pinedas - 26.09 km
Fase 2 - Las Pinedas - Cordoba - 31.67 km
TOTAL: 57.76 km

All day I kept thinking, one more day, then a rest day! I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking that, because there were more than a few bleary eyes at the breakfast tables this morning.

It was a controlled start again, around 11 AM, the 29 horses escorted out of the city on paved streets by Javier and Alberto's car (with whom I was riding) and the police. It was somewhat darkly overcast this morning, and it had rained the last few nights. The officials were concerned about the mud on course, so nobody would be driving over it but the fearless man driving the four-wheeler with his passenger, Abraham the video camera man, and two jeeps with Jose Manuel Soto at the wheel of one. All of the 'outdoor' passengers were bundled up in rain gear - against the possible rain, and against the definite mud. Ines would ride her motorbike, but only on the first Fase. "The second Fase - no way!" Later I'd see why she said that!

The Organization set up the first Assistance point at 11 kilometers beside an olive orchard - no crews allowed because the road was too narrow - with a water truck. We stopped there, and as I took photos, Alberto, Javier, Antonio (driving Paula da Silva around) and the truck driver filled water buckets for the horses, hosed the horses down as they paused, handed pitchers of water to the riders to pour on horses, handed the riders bottled water to drink. Two veterinarians were also there to keep an eye on the horses.

The mud caked up on the bottoms of my sandals just from standing at the edge of a field - I wondered how it must be for the horses, with the mud sticking to their shoes.

Truly, my Spanish had improved over last year, and the Spanish people do like to help you learn. The hardest part for me (besides just REMEMBERING Spanish words) is comprehending verb tenses. Today in the car Javier gave me some verb tense lessons.

Who would have thunk it, but Javier Gutierrez is a pre-law professor at the Universidad de Jaen, and a Judge in real life, but, "this is the real planet," he says. "In my other life, I'm serious. But this is what I love: the people, this ride, this adventure." He's slowly lost his voice over the last few days so that when he speaks at the ride meetings, nobody even notices until he's halfway through with his speech. Doesn't matter anyway, because everybody's too exuberant to listen!

After all the horses had passed through and the buckets and tubs were emptied and put back in the water truck, we drove on to the second assistance point where all the crews were waiting for their riders. We stopped there just briefly before continuing on to the vet gate in a lovely meadow next to an olive orchard. It was still cool, and partly sunny, just the right light being cast on the day. A very pleasant place to pass a half hour of your vet check if you were human or horse. Several horses - those Equipos horses not in today's ride - were out in temporary tape pens. Some days those horses were hauled straight to the finish stables, and other days, they followed the ride all day, so it was nice for them to get out and graze or be handwalked during the lunch stops.

I picked up a sandwich and a couple of cold drinks, and this time I put them on the windshield right in front of Javier's view, so nobody could miss them this time. (And I had my lunch in the car when we left!)

Santiago Perez and Marlboro Yac were the first out onto Fase 2, just a few seconds ahead of Sara Hobbs and Gamera. Two horses were eliminated from lameness here at the vet gate, Daniel Maldera and Nathalie Michel. Natalie had gone back to riding Petra De Sommant, the horse she'd ridden the first 3 days, but she couldn't go on to Fase 2.

Sometimes Javier drove fast, but now we poked along as we headed towards Cordoba, Javier telling Alberto stories all the way, taking, instead of the more obvious paved roads), dirt roads between orchards that kept disintegrating and getting muddier... It looked like we were the only ones going this way - the horses had long since headed off in a different direction. I thought if we got stuck it would be a long time before anybody would even find us, because these orchard roads were certainly on no map ever made. We did finally make it out onto the highway to Cordoba, with thick mud caking our tires. Alberto put a DVD of Jose Manuel Soto in the player, cranked it up, and he and Javier sang and flamenco clapped along in stereo.

As we got closer to Cordoba, we turned off the main paved road onto a dirt road again, which again quickly turned to a slick mess that the horses would be coming along. We stopped at a "5 km" sign (5 km left to the finish) that had fallen over, and Javier got out and tried to shove it back in the mud. It didn't stay, so I got out, fetched a big rock to hammer it in, and just that quick, my sandals had 2 inches of mud stuck to the bottom of them. Surely the horses were having much the same problem. As we drove on, I kept thinking we were bound to get stuck.

We did make it to a deep muddy river crossing for the horses. It wasn't particularly picturesque, but it would be an event, this crossing. The water was really of unknown depth, the horses had been travelling through the thick sticky mud much of the day; and coming out of the water on this side, it was very muddy, which would become very slick mud. I was nervous about it - especially for the horses that would come later, once the track was really wet from the first horses' feet. In fact my heart was pounding because I could picture all those animals in Africa trying to get out of a river but it's so muddy they keep slipping and falling and get exhausted and die. OK, so that's a little dramatic, but my heart still pounded thinking about slipping and falling horses, although nobody seemed concerned about it but me.

More people came for the spectacle, including Jose Antonio, last year's Al-Andalus Binomios winner, who will ride Campanera tomorrow in a 2-star ride (over the same course as the Al Andalus trail). I asked him how Campanera was, and he just lit up.
"Campanera is the best in the world right now!" His eyes still sparkle as he speaks of his beloved mare.

A small crowd, including Dr Castejon, and one of the video crews, had now gathered at the river crossing; wine came out - an impromptu Andalusian picnic. And then a murmur passed through the crowd: the first vehicle had been spotted: the first crossing of the river!

It was the quad with the fearless driver carrying Abraham the video man... everybody crowded around the river bank for the spectacle. The driver stood up from his seat, forged into the river while Abraham held his camera way up over his head with one hand and tried to hang on with the other. The water swirling up well over the fenders of the quad... but the driver, mad grin on his face, gunned it right along and popped up out on our bank, wheels spinning and sliding, with Abraham grinning just as big, laughing to cheers of the onlookers

Next came two horses (I gritted my teeth and my heart thumped), but really, they had no problems other than a minor slip or two. I stopped worrying quite so much.

Next came Jose Manuel Soto and his passenger. He stopped on the far bank, taking in the - gulp - deep muddy river, while this side cheered and crowded close - a group of Andalucians gathering to watch an adventure: a race, a wreck, a bullfight, a horse race, a challenge... always the Andalucians are thinking, "Will he make it or won't he? I don't know, but I'm going to watch and enjoy and cheer!"

I could see from here that Jose's eyes were wide; and then he crossed himself, put the pedal down, gunned it straight at the water and plunged in. There were cheers from the onlookers as the jeep labored through the water. Jose's eyes were getting wider, his mouth forming a big O, as in, O Ssssshhhhhhiii*********** ! The buggy sloshed across the river and it reached the mud track on our side, but it started to slip sideways. Jose's mouth became a bigger O and his eyes grew ever wider as the buggy's wheels spun and the whole thing started tipping sideways while Jose steered against the skid (his passenger grinned all the way) - both of them gripping on and leaning left as the buggy leaned right upon losing the left wheels from the ground briefly... and the O turned into an O YEAH! and a fist pumping in victory in the air as the buggy righted itself and they made it up and out!

Big Andalucian cheer! Time for a glass of Andalucian wine to top that off!

One by one the horses came, none of them refusing to go in the muddy river, some of them considering it carefully before going in, but always moving forward, feeling their way. The water went above their knees but not quite to their chest, and they waded across, only a few of them slipping as they came out our side.

One more jeep came through, driving Emilio the photographer. Emilio had his feet up way over the dash, just avoiding the water, and while his driver was smiling, Emilio looked a bit pale, especially when coming out of the river on our side, the jeep almost fell over on its side... but they made it too. I was quite happy I was not on the trail today! I'd have gotten out of my jeep or quad on the other side of the river and hiked 55 kilometers back to Ecija. Just call me chicken!

Five kilometers to go after the river crossing, and the horses came into Cordoba (a World Heritage Site since 1984) escorted by police, directed by police at every crossing, right into the middle of the city, under the Meta arch alongside the old town fortress walls. There was traffic anyway in Cordoba, but the horses really slowed it down. It must be a big thing to convince the city to let Al Andalus do this!

The horses went under an arch inside the fortress walls to the vet check and stables. The horses were trotted out right under an old watch tower; the beer was flowing in the stand set up right beside the Al Andalus truck.

I'd missed the finish, but I knew who won Binomios when I got there: Salvador and Shakyra of Team Andalucia - they gave me the thumbs up and Not-John gave me a hug. That had moved Salvador into third place over all behind Eduardo and Hermes (who were still first overall with an hour lead over Otto Velez and Pal Partenon). Sarah Hobbs outlasted Santiago Perez to win Equipos. Fourteen-year-old Teresa Lozano finished 8th in Equipos, but it was still good enough to keep her and her uncle Inigo del Solar in first place overall by 1 hour. Daniel Maldera's unfortunate lameness vet out at lunch dropped him and Paulette Maldera from 2nd to 11th place overall with the time penalty.

After all the horses had arrived, I grabbed a ride to the hotel with Jose Manuel Soto, Ines, and Paula da Silva. And what another terrific hotel: the 4* Hesperia Cordoba, right above
the wide Guadalquivir river, with a view overlooking the old city and El Puento Roman, the old Roman bridge over the river. All this - and we'd be here for TWO NIGHTS!

Paula and I threw our stuff in our rooms and immediately went downstairs for a CAPPUCHINO which I hadn't had since... I couldn't remember when. (You can't count the "cappuchino" I had the morning in Montoro). Paula had me in tears laughing so hard, as she told stories and we drank our cappuchinos.

Yes, this was indeed a lovely pristine 4**** hotel for probably some exclusive clients, but I was part of an endurance ride, and I tracked the day's thick mud EVERYWHERE - into the lobby, in the elevator, into the room I didn't stay in, (they gave me and Maaite a smoking room, so after leaving mud in the room, I went right back downstairs to ask for another room), back down the hall, the stairs, the lobby, into our new room, into the cafe. (But it wasn't just me - in the morning I followed someone else's endurance mud tracks down to breakfast... they definitely weren't my tracks, as I hadn't been down there yet!).

I took an hour long shower while washing a bunch of clothes, and hung them all over the chairs and open windows to dry (once a backpacking, practical traveller and endurance rider, always a backpacking, practical traveller and endurance rider : ) .

Paula and I decided to go out to eat later as there was no Al-Andalus dinner tonight. We walked down the street trying to decide which restaurant to stop in. We looked at one menu posted outside the door then walked on, then passed another restaurant. It looked interesting inside but there was no menu outside. I noticed a menu on the table of a couple sitting inside. "There's one. Ask them to turn it around," I joked, since we were out of their sight around the corner.

I was kidding, but Paula stepped to the window and peered in at this couple, and when they looked at her, she motioned to the menu - 'turn it around.'

The lady became wide-eyed at this dark figure outside her window staring in and gesturing at her, but the man turned it around. I was petrified, between nearly falling down laughing and waiting for the lady to scream, and as Paula tried to read the menu - I couldn't see straight anymore I was laughing so hard - the man smiled and got up and brought us the menu outside. I could barely get out a thank you! We decided to come in and eat there. Once inside, I handed the man back their menu but the lady decided it was best to pretend we just weren't there.

After a decent dinner (salmoreja, cauliflower, calamari, and a cold beer) and a good time, we went back to the hotel, and I worked till 1 AM. The late hour didn't matter, because I could sleep in next morning!


Al Andalus coverage on

Monday, April 27, 2009

Al Andalus Day 5: Carmona to Ecija

Fase 1 - Carmona - Fuentes de Andalucia - 31.92 km
Fase 2 - Fuentes de Andalucia - Ecija - 30.40 km
TOTAL: 62.32 km

A new perspective today: I rode with head veterinarian Dr Francisco "Paco" Castejon and his veterinarian wife, Dr Cristina Riber Perez. They are from Andalucia and have been vetting this ride since it started four years ago. Dr Castejon is a specialist in metabolics in horses, and he also has a new research lab, and teaches at the veterinary school at Universidad de Cordoba. He is doing a study of proteins and hydration in cells of endurance horses in the ride; Cristina draws blood from the equine volunteers after they complete their ride for the day.

While we were waiting for the 11:00 AM start, we had time to walk to a cafe for coffee with all the veterinarians. Oh, this would be lovely, a cappuchino to start my morning instead of the weak coffee we got at the hotel breakfast buffets!

I ordered a cappuchino, and got a cup of hot water with the cappuchino packet poured in and not quite stirred! Oh well. Andalucia may be well known for its wines and sherries and olive oil and delectable Jamon... but it is not yet known for its cappuchinos.

We had time to linger over our coffees and then drive to the old Roman gate where the 39 horses in today's ride were being led on a controlled start out of Carmona. They headed down into the Carmona valley, crossing over an old Roman bridge. The day was about perfect, about 12*C, a bit of haze in the valley, but not a cloud in the blue Andalucian sky over the old city walls.

Dr Castejon drove us to the first assistance point, a lovely private residence and farm surrounded by wheat fields up to my waist. We caught the first 20 or so riders coming through - Inigo Del Solar LLanso on his Anglo Arabian Zafia leading the way, then drove to the second assistance point. So far in the ride, Dr Castejon was very pleased with how the horses looked overall. Some of them had little problems, but nothing big so far.

The vet gate was in the small white village of Fuentes de Andalucia. The horses came clattering into the center of town on the paved streets, with policemen again directing the traffic of cars, motorbikes, and tractors. A small crowd of locals gathered to watch the horses trotting out, being cooled down, fed, rested, then resaddled for Fase 2.

For the 30 kilometer second Fase to the finish at Ecija, Ines de Albert arranged for me to ride on the trail in the jeep with Antonio Castano. Excellent! Antonio promised to drive slowly and safely, and in fact, he asked several times if he was going too fast. He wasn't, because I wasn't gripping the handholds in terror! Accompanying us were Angela from the press for Al Andalus, and another guy whose name I didn't get. We were bundled up against the cool breeze in the buggy, but it felt good to be out there.

The dirt road the horses travelled passed over slight rolling hills, through more rich wheat fields and young olive groves, past an old private estancia where the owners were standing outside with hoses and full water buckets. We stopped at a beautiful scenic spot and I caught a group of riders coming through, including Eduardo Sanchez and Hermes, trotting steadily along with Carlos Escavias on his little chestnut stallion Yaman V, and Salvador Garrido on Shakyra.

As a photographer, when you don't know the trails, you don't know which are the best places to stay and take pictures... and other people can't pick those out for you. The spot we were at was pretty terrific for photos, so, should I stay and wait for the rest of the riders (and make the others sit and wait on me), or, should I risk moving on and not coming to another good spot? I said we could go onward and... consequently left the best picture spot of the day. Well, a variety of different photos is good anyway, right?

The final few kilometers for the riders were down a paved road into Ecija, and through the outskirts of town to the finish in a roomy field with a huge indoor sand arena. Ecija sits in a bowl surrounded by hills, and on this day it was a pleasant view and temperature. However, in the summer, it is known as "La Sarten de Andalucia" (the Frying-Pan of Andalucia). "Avoid visiting Ecija in the middle of summer. It once registered an alarming 52 degrees centigrade (125*F!) on the thermometer," says one tourist site. That's bordering on Death Valley hot - two places I won't be in the summer.

Ecija was a Phoenician, then a Roman town, and it contains a number of of beautiful baroque churches, from the 15th through 18th centuries, the towers of which we could see from the hill as we followed some of the riders down.

The Al Andalus truck/stage, the Kaliber and Cruzcampo beer stand, and the stables were already set up and attracting a crowd, and half the riders had already come in by the time we arrived.

Nathalie Michel had ridden fast again on Raimon, averaging 16.8 km/h, and had arrived first at the finish, but it was a vet gate finish, and her horse was actually the fourth one to pulse down. Lise Chambost's horse Damas El Derkouch pulsed down first for the day's win in Equipos. Inigo Del Solar and Zafia finished second, putting his team (along with his 14-year-old niece Teresa and her horse Cardhu) in first place in Equipos by 3 minutes over Daniel and Paulette Maldera.

Finishing first today in Binomios was Salvador Garrido Cabral and Shakyra. Eduardo Sanchez and Hidalgo finished second, and Carlos Escavias third. Overall, Eduardo and Hermes were now leading the Binomios by 55 minutes over Otto Velez and Pal Partenon.

Salvador and Shakyra - Team Andalusi - had been travelling steadily, and moving up a little every day (except for day 2) - 9th, 13th, 8th, 4th, and today, first. This steady pace over the five days had moved them up to third place overall in Binomios. His crew were his friends, a friendly and happy father and son, who I'd spoken a little Spanish with here and there over the last few days. They were quite prepared for the afternoon today - they had a picnic set up in the parking lot with tables full of food. Perhaps I had hesitated just a wee bit as I walked by, giving them the Famished Eye, because they called me over. Who am I to turn down homemade food and hospitality?

The whole family was there and friends too - I met about 10 people, remembered the names of about half, three of which were Maria. : ) The son who's crewing, John, was able to interpret my Spanglish for everybody. John's father who's crewing is henceforth known as Not-John, because I could not remember his name. (sorry!) One of the Marias owned a restaurant, so this was Good-Homecookin'-Restaurant food, and they kept filling my plate and bowl, with some kind of roasted green peppers, bread, and the best salmorejo I'd ever had. And we were coming to the heart of salmorejo country. It's a bit like gazpacho for the uninitiated (which I was until I had it), and it originated in Cordoba - tomorrow's destination. It's a soup made of tomatoes, bread, olive oil, garlic, and vinegar, similar to gazpacho but smoother and thicker because of the bread ingredient. It's also served cold, and is usually sprinkled with hard-boiled egg bits and some form of Spanish Jamon. It's a little different everywhere you have it, but everywhere it is delicious and refreshing.

Maria would not let my bowl empty before she filled it again (and again, and again.) I had to reluctantly peel myself away eventually! Those guys know how to have a PICNIC. In between bowls of salmorejo, Team Andalusi and Jose Manuel Soto were posing for photos with the German groups for the video cameras.

A total of five horses did not start today; and 5 were lame at the first vet gate, and 3 were lame at the finish. Many riders and crews were busy working on horse legs today at the finish. Mud, cold-water hosing, standing in buckets of ice, mud on legs, or heel wraps with arnica. Still only a handful of horses had standing bandages on, though by now, since the horses stayed in stalls all night every night, there must have been some stocked up legs in the mornings.

Argentinian rider Miguel Pavlovsky's borrowed horse was lame at the final trot-out; they immediately got a pack of ice and started icing his legs. His Belgian friend Leonard had not ridden his borrowed horse CC Blanco today because of a sensitive spot from the saddle, (he started and turned back after a kilometer, thereby receiving less of a time penalty than if he had not started at all), but perhaps he'd be able to ride tomorrow. Joelle Suavage (owner of those two horses) was still steadily riding her horse Mandchour Du Barthas; she was now in fourth place overall in Binomios.

Now is when strategy of Al Andalus really came into play. If you are in Al Andalus to win, or to come in at a top placing overall, what's your plan? Do you push your horse, especially if you're in Equipos, (with two horses to ride), knowing one will get a rest day while the other works? Or do you keep moving steadily along at the same pace, waiting for others in front of you to make a mistake, and get time penalties? If any riders ahead of you missed a day, or even a stage, a time penalty could knock them to a placing behind you, without you having moved your horse out of his trot. Would you try to win every day? Would you try to win a day once or twice to bump you up in the overall standings? Would you risk a lameness for a higher placing?

Then there was the fact to consider that we had one more day to ride, then a rest day, then the final 2 days, which would be much more difficult with some mountain climbing. Would the day of rest help, or hurt horses? Sure, you can walk them at the stables several times a day (no place to ride, really), but, would they stiffen up too much? Would you just go for it in tomorrow's ride, ride as fast as you could, knowing your horse would get a breather for a day (or two days, if you were riding Equipos)... or would you just keep steady, at the same pace?

Many riders were just here to ride and complete every day and enjoy the scenery. On the other hand, first place in each category would receive 3000 Euros (and probably all the olive oil you and your family and friends could use for life). If you had a chance... why not? Already 3 groups had dropped out of the competition, one Equipos team and 2 Binomos.

Turns out my hotel today was a good 30-minute drive away. There were apparently 3 hotels in Ecija (or so the story went), and they were all booked. Most people were lucky enough to get a room in town in a hotel just down the street from where the awards and dinner would be held. I got a ride to my hotel from Pedro, got in about an hour of work on my photos before it was time to return to town with Pedro for the reception. It started at "10 PM"... uh oh, it was going to be another late one.

The meeting itself was once again in a room too tiny for everybody, and it was too loud and noisy to hear everything, although this time for most of the meeting, Christine Pourquier translated all the Spanish to French, and some of it made it into English, interpreted by Ines. Important points were: tomorrow's trail would be similar to today's (flat); a big dinner and tomorrow's awards would be held on Thursday night, not Wednesday; tomorrow's start was at 11 AM; and, most importantly, Thursday was a REST DAY IN CORDOBA!! (So it didn't really matter how late we were up tonight, because in 36 hours we'd have a little chance to catch up on sleep, right?)

Dinner was downstairs, though we had to mysteriously wait a while (nobody quite knew why), before we were allowed to know where it was (downstairs). It was another HUGE, loud, energetic, enjoyable catered affair for over 150 people, seamlessly tended to by extraordinarily efficient waiters (and, I'm sure, many cooks that we never saw). I can't remember all the courses that were brought out, though they were the usual Spanish tapas... the lovely Jamon, the fried cheese things that don't ever have cheese in them (I kept hoping), fried calamari, more and more goodies. Then i think we were served a pork steak and potatoes. Really - the amount of food was mind-boggling, as was the swift and easy way it was served. Somewhere in there the day's awards were given out to many cheers.

Much later, fully 20 pounds heavier, I caught a ride back to the hotel with my roomy Maaite, and what with taking wrong turns in town, and not being able to find our way out (our GPS was so confused she refused to talk), we wasted a while getting back. I didn't dare look at my clock to see how late I went to bed.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Al Andalus Day 4: Dos Hermanas to Carmona

2009 Al Andalus: Day 4

MONDAY MARCH 30 2009 - DAY 4

Fase 1 - Dos Hermanas - Alcala Gra - 30.19 km

Fase 2 - Alcala Gra - Carmona - 26.40 km

TOTAL: 56.59 km

Cool and sunny at 9:30 when we arrived at the Dos Hermanas stables - nice! It was much hotter last year for Al Andalus. People think it's cold now, but I love it. Cool weather in the spring in Andalucia seems... criminal to the natives, but I do a little happy dance in my jacket.

Crews and riders were getting ready for the day's ride: walking their horses, saddling, brushing, painting and picking feet, packing trailers, planning driving strategies. A few horses had overnight bandages or mud on, but not many - I expect this will become more of a practice as the ride goes on. Vet inspections were being held for the Equipos horses that were not ridden yesterday.

At 10:35 AM, Javier's car led the 38 horses off the grounds in a controlled start. (Five horses did not go on the trail today.) Rather, I should say, 38 horses and one dog started on the trail. Somebody has 2 Jack Russells that run around at the vet gates. They are usually strapped together, and always in a pulling match because one wants to go this way, and the other wants to go that way. On Day 2, one of the Jack Russells ran 32 km along the beach (possibly the whole ride), and today he was following the horses along the controlled start. Rather, I should say, he was leading the 38 horses to the start. Completely voluntary. (I think the owner couldn't catch him.) I think he actually has a pair of wings, but he hasn't had the need to use them.

A few of the riders were raring to go, horse noses almost on our back windshield, while others spent the few kilometers walking, or walking on foot. Everybody gathered in a field on the outskirts of town and waited for the whole field to arrive. The horses grazed, the smiling riders visited. Then we led the field off on yet another controlled route, along some paved roads with a bit of traffic, with another police escort, until we arrived at a trail along a canal.

It had rained in Carmona (today's destination) last night, so Javier said he hoped the trail was good for cars - yeah, me too! I was getting a little nervous - recalling last year's crazy and sometimes scary driving - especially when we started out on the trail, and some of the men of the organization hollered to Javier, "Cuidado!" (Careful!) Oh dear!

My worries were for naught about the driving (well... today anyway...), as the trails were quite passable and dry. Equipos rider Nathalie Michel was cruising at a fast canter today on Raimon, a fresh horse. She'd ridden her other horse Petra de Sommant on the first 3 days, finishing 12th, 10th, and 10th. Today on Raimon, she was right on the bumper of our car, and in fact when we got to a creek crossing, she passed us, and we didn't see her again till she left for the second loop. She averaged 20 km/h on the first 30 km loop.

Following about 15 minutes behind her were the three French Equipos riders, Pierre Chambost, Jean Luc Chambost, and Paulette Maldera. They were only trotting, but they were coming steadily on.

Following the trail along the paved roads of a little town where people came out to watch the clatter, then zig-zagging between rich fields of wheat, and a few olive groves, we came to the vet gate near a castle, the rocky road lined with hedges and walls of prickly pear. I got pictures of a few horses coming in here, though by noon, the light is too harsh for anything spectacular.

I'd had a bit of bad luck in the daily lunch department - one day I didn't see any sandwiches (I'd just overlooked them) so I went without; another day I didn't take the time to get one so I went hungry; so today I took the time to grab a sandwich and two cold drinks from the boxes set aside for the participants. Unfortunately Javier had locked his car, and I didn't want to waste the time to find him and fetch the key and return it to him, so I set the bag with the sandwich and drinks in an obvious spot, by the back door on the driver's side, where I'd been climbing in and out.

I went back out to wait for incoming riders with Belgian Carol Gatelier, who was waiting for Leonard Liesens to come in. Leo was consistently finishing in the mid-to-back of the Binomios riders, as his borrowed horse CC Blanco was only a 6-year-old. They were averaging between 12 and 14 km/h every day.

Suddenly it was time to leave the vet gate - Nathalie was on her way onto Fase 2, off at a canter, and Javier was honking for me. I ran and jumped into the car, and we took off in hot pursuit. Ah - now time for my lunch! I looked on the back seat, and under my jacket, and on the floorboard. Not there. Javier must have chucked it in back. I reached back to find... nothing. Oh no! I leaned forward and peered hopefully over the front seat - no bag!. I was sad. Very sad. That bag of goodies was still laying in the grass right where I'd left it. I was hungry. Verrrrry sad. Well, another day without lunch. One must go on.

It was quite a rutted dirt road we sped along, but Nathalie kept at it at a canter, and once we passed her, we kept speeding along. We stopped at a road crossing to put out some new flags and make a little detour for the horses. I wasn't quite clear why; Javier said something about the police didn't want the horses going through town after all - town was too busy, or shut down, or something - and things had to change at the last minute. Javier made sure to thank all the policemen graciously for their help at each road crossing.

We dropped off Alberto at the little change in trail to finish putting out ribbons. He'd get picked up by somebody else. Then, we RACED on after Nathalie, who had passed us. When we caught her, we raced by and in front of her again - somewhat reminiscent of last year's racing up to and past the riders - and then we C-R-A-W-L-E-D, all the way into Carmona. Twice we stopped to put out extra ribbons. In fact, we drove so slowly, I couldn't even jump out of the car in time to get Nathalie as she cantered across the finish line. I'd become a Trail Ribboner again.

Nathalie had arrived at the finish, right in the middle of the old part of Carmona, at 2:30 PM; some stewards were there to take the horse's pulse (it was a vet gate finish, and he pulsed down in 8 1/2 min - there was a bit of a little climb up into the town) - but the vets hadn't arrived yet. So the groom just walked the horse around till they showed up.

Paulette Maldera finished 2nd, and Pierre Chambost 3rd in Equipos. Pierre Chambost, partners with Jean Pierre Lerisset (yesterday's winner) is back for the third year at Al Andalus. He's riding the same horse as he did last year, Mourad del Sol, and already he's decided he'll come back next year with the same horse. He comes here - like most people I've asked - for the ambience; and because it's the best, most unique way to see the countryside: it's not so touristic. Pierre has finished Florac 3 times, and he completed the Tevis Cup in 1980. I asked him why he's riding Equipos, and not Binomios. "I'm too old!" He sure doesn't look it, or ride like it!

Eduardo Sanchez won the Binomios again on Hermes. They averaged 17.31 km/h. The whole family - especially father Eduardo - were beaming afterwards. He was followed closely by Andres Velez on Pirata, and father Otto Velez was 10 minutes behind them in 7th.

It was very pleasant, 20*C, with a few clouds offering shade. I took a few photos under the finish line, and I tested the Cruzcampo beer. Either it was strong, or I needed to eat. Oh yea - probably the latter, having forgotten my sandwich today : ( . Angela saved me just then by giving me some french fries - which then made it possible to have another Cruzcampo beer. Really, the beer was so cool and refreshing. Later I discovered the beer boys had a box sandwiches left, so I grabbed one of them and devoured it.

After some more finishers passed under the line I went out on wobbly legs a few blocks into town to the Alcazar (Fortress) de la Puerta de Sevilla and took some pictures there as the horses passed. After a mostly flat ride all day, at the end riders had a stiff climb up the hill into Carmona. The first thing that greeted them was one of the fortress gates.

People have lived around Carmona for "millions of years" (says a brochure of the city); circular cabins dug out of rock in the higher areas date back to 4000 BC. Being in a strategic position controlling communication routes through the ages, the same higher defensive positions on a hill kept the town flourishing, especially around the 7th century BC. The town successively became an important Carthaginian, then Roman enclave. The Romans added three more gates to the defensive walls, several of which can still be seen. Behind the gates, you can still follow the winding narrow streets of the old city.

Every day after the ride, I was always on the lookout to find a ride to my hotel. The sooner I got a ride, the more work I could get done... but I somehow always had plenty of time to keep testing the Cruzcampo while I waited. Sometimes I went in one car, my computer was in another, and my suitcase in yet another. Today I caught a ride with Emilio, a Spanish photographer, and his writing partner. We left before a lot of the staff of Al Andalus, but there were so many one-way streets, and we weren't quite sure where we were going, so we ended up at the hotel after most everybody else.

And what a lovely hotel was the 4-star Hotel Alcazar de la Reina! One of those places you really wish you could stay a while. Emilio and I were starving, so we walked through the town looking for a place to eat. Tonight's ride meeting and hors d'ouevres were not till "8:30", and that late sandwich had disappeared long ago, and, moreover, I hadn't found Javier to get my computer out of his car, so, I couldn't do any work anyway.

We found a place that served pizza - the lady wasn't quite open yet, but Emilio charmed her into making us a pie anyway. Between my Spanish and Emilio's English, we had a decent conversation. He was new to covering the endurance scene, but he was enjoying it.

Back at the hotel, around 8:30 (you know, when the ride meeting was supposed to start) a group of us were heading out the door to walk to the old building where it would take place. Someone had just arrived who was looking for me, Paula da Silva, a photographer from Italy whose work I'd admired from afar. We hit it off right away, and in fact, she talked me into blowing off work after the meeting, and we went out after 11 PM, roaming the streets of Carmona, armed with our cameras, experimenting with night shots of the old city.

But meanwhile, the Al Andalus group slowly grew into its boisterous large crowd for the ride meeting in the outdoor patio. The beer and wine were flowing, and everybody was having a great time, talking, visiting, drinking, laughing, telling stories.

I met Stefano Chidichimo the enthusiastic, bubbling Italian, who was enjoying the beejeesus out of Al Andalus. He had visited America many years ago, and had loved everything about it, "especially Bryce Canyon." I mentioned there was a 5-day ride in Bryce Canyon, and the light that exploded in his eyes could have lit a thousand flamenco dance floors. That would be his dream ride! He almost lost his gift of enthusiastic speech momentarily just thinking about it.

Frenchwoman Marie-Christine Charlandre has returned to Al Andalus for the second time, with one of the same horses she rode last year. Like many of the riders here, she's at a bit of a disadvantage this year because it was such an unusually harsh winter in Europe that she couldn't train much. When she did, it wasnt much more than at a walk. But still she came. Why did she return? "I love the multidays, the scenery, the..." she gestured with her hands, "ambience." The most important thing a horse needed to do Al Andalus: "Strong feet. Maybe you don't have to have the best conditioned horse to do this, but the horse must have good feet." Her mare had a little puffy leg this morning, so she didn't ride today. If she does Al Andalus again, she'd like to try it as Binomios (on one horse), for the challenge.

Frenchwoman Christine Pourquier is not riding this year, but her husband Jean Pierre is, partnering with family friend Aurelie Le Gall, who rode Binomios last year, as did Christine. Aurelie is riding Lazou, the same horse she rode last year, one of the "oh, a hundred or so" endurance horses at the Pourquier's La Perigouse, a bed and breakfast, horse trekking, endurance training and breeding farm near Florac - one of the most scenic areas of France, and rich with a history of endurance, being in "Persik Land." The Pourquiers had Sirocco Sky, who, back in the days of Persik, was one of the leading sires of endurance horses, being the father of Mobrouka, the best endurance maternal blood-line in Europe.

The long distance riding is in the blood of the Pourquiers - Jean Pierre once rode the south of France to the north of Spain. "We love it," Christine said. "We'd love to ride across the US, from east to west."

With all of this enthusiastic talking and visiting going on, it turned out that at least half of us missed the ride meeting - it had happened in one of the rooms and we didn't know! Well, my main goal every night was to get the precious printed results, (I did snag a set of them), find out tomorrow's start time (11 AM), and arrange my ride with Javier in the morning (done). So, back to the visiting!

Eventually some of us headed back to the hotel. I was craving sleep (and had gotten zero work done), but who could pass up a foray into an ancient town with an excellent photographer to practice some night shots? Who really needed that much sleep anyway? There would be time to sleep after Al Andalus.


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