Note: All photos taken by the author, Lynne Gerard, unless otherwise noted.
Traveling with my German friends Hardy and Rose Oelke made for a unique way to see Portugal and offered experiences that were sometimes prearranged and other times a bit more spontaneous. Their many years of visiting Portugal as part of research and conservation efforts for the Sorraia horses means they have a marvelous familiarity with particular regions of the country and I was quite fortunate to be taken to so many fabulous places.
On the last full day of my great Portuguese holiday (October 3, 2011), though the Oelkes had no contacts or acquaintances in Valada, a riverside town in the Ribatejo region, we were adventurously hoping to find someone at the marina willing to take us to an island in the Tejo river where the Fundação Alter Real (formerly the Coudelaria Nacional) pastures young stallions.
After parking the rented Opel, Hardy--never lacking in determination and self-confidence--went in search of someone who might comprehend enough English to assist us in finding a boat charter. The marina appeared to be empty of people, so Hardy walked over to the town center to try his luck, while Rose and I wandered along the riverside.
The Portuguese people seem very happy to try to help tourists who do not speak their language and Hardy has an earnest, forthright way of making himself comprehendible, a skill that served us well many times over. After several exchanges with locals in town, Hardy learned that there was a woman with a tour boat business that was currently docked here, but it was not certain that she was presently on site.
Hardy located the Ollem Turismo tour boat and to our good fortune Madalena De Mello Viana (who spoke fluent English) was aboard. After discussing what we had in mind, a deal was struck and in short order we found ourselves boarding a smaller vessel that Madalena adeptly piloted away from the dock and out to the middle of the mirror-like Rio Tejo.
And down the still waters of Rio Tejo we went!
The Rio Tejo (Tagus in Spain) is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula beginning its flow after first tumbling down the Albarracin mountains in Spain, crossing gracefully through Portugal and emptying out into the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon. Both countries have a long, poetic relationship with this majestic river and it continues to enchant and inspire authors, painters and musicians, with an especially rich offering of the arts in Lisbon. Though my little boat ride was rather short and focused on getting to just one destination, there are many opportunities for more elaborate cruises up and down the 1000+km of this impressive waterway.
Valada from a distance and closer up
It was another searingly hot day without even a puff of a breeze for relief, so it was quite splendid moving at a high speed out there on the Rio Tejo. Here and there Madalana would slow to point out some place of interest or direct our eyes to a bird on the shore and in less than a half hour (by my guess) we were pulling the little boat up onto the sandy beach of a 54 hectare island referred to as "Potril da Azambuja".
Madalena de Mello Viana our guide to the shore of Potril da Azambuja
Madalana stayed with the boat while Hardy, Rose and I climbed up the bank with great anticipation, for it is here where yearling colts bred at the Fundação Alter Real are sent to live a semi-wild existence until they reach the age when saddle training commences. There is a caretaker who boats to the island on a daily basis to check on the horses and bring extra feed as needed, but with the exception of the occasional visit by photographers and other interested parties, these Iberian steeds are left to themselves to live according to the natural rhythms of their wilderness landscape.
This island of bachelor horses was pretty special place for me to visit and gave me an appreciation for the experience of freedom the breeders provide the young stallions for several years before being brought back to the world of human exploitation, box stalls, restricted movement and imposed routines. Having experienced here at Ravenseyrie the way this type of autonomy for a group of young horses in a wilderness setting facilitates independence, pride, intelligence, hearty constitutions, sure-footedness and important equine social skills, I can vouch for how horses who have lived in this way have an enhanced essence about them that if respected and appropriately channeled can remain vibrant even when they are brought into a more traditional horse-keeping setting.
A young Sorraia stallion dozing along the Tejo river, noble looking even as he sleeps
I don't know how many young stallions were living on this island during the time I was there, but of those I saw, there were a few groups hanging out together in shaded areas while others were scattered over the dry grassland searching for tidbits to eat.
These semi-wild youngsters were very accepting of our presence among them on their private island and a cluster of the lads were curious enough to approach me and make my acquaintance, which I always take such great delight in!
Hardy, Rose and I each wandered to different vantage points to look for the Sorraia colts and take our photos, though we didn't travel too far away from where we had left Madalena waiting in the hot, humid autumn heat...nor did we stay too long after spotting a good number of Sorraia horses-- though if I could have been left there all day and fetched in the evening, I would have easily lost myself in just hanging out with these fabulous horses.
...as does the author of the Journal of Ravenseyrie, Lynne Gerard
(photo: Rosa Oelke)
Because I feel much more at home among free roaming horses and the wilderness than I do around well maintained stables and highly groomed saddle horses, both on the island in the Tagus and in the Vale de Zebro I felt a longing to more deeply connect with the horses and the land (through enhanced interaction)...until at least I could finally board the jet that would take me back home to my own free roaming horses and spectacular landscape ...but this was not within the scope of this particular trip to Portugal.
I am certain Hardy was aware that while I truly enjoyed all the people and places he had shared with me, I was overall homesick and as a rather cloistered Canadian unaccustomed to travel, I was definitely overwhelmed by so many wonderful things to see and experience in Portugal. Perhaps he knew that offering to take me back to the Vale de Zebro later that day would be just the grounding balm my wilderness soul needed? (I think the Vale de Zebro is a balm for Hardy's soul, too!)
And so it was that we were once more hiking the terrain of the Vale de Zebro hoping to see again the family bands of Sorraia horses and maybe even sight the two bachelor colts who thus far we had not come upon on our prior visits.
First we were able to locate one family band shading themselves in the woodlands.
And then we found another group seeking a relative coolness (it was probably +30°C in the shade) provided by the Cork Oak and Stone Pine trees.
Hardy began hiking down one of the valleys while Rose and I took a higher service road where an occasional, blessed puff of a breeze helped to cool and dry our sweaty brows. And then, like a mirage, I was sure I could see some horses ahead and said to Rose..."I think the bachelors are here!"
We continued to walk closer and sure enough, the two colts were dozing in the shade, head to tail fashion, swishing flies off each other and looking pretty comfortable.
Without sharply shouting, I called down to Hardy that the bachelors were up on the road, and as he began to make his way up the hill to join us, I took photo after photo after photo.
At first those dozing young stallions were unaware of humans approaching, but they soon detected us. This series of photos shows how they reacted, by first gathering information regarding our intentions and then feeling the urge to move away from us--yet too curious to break into a full flight retreat.
The boys were once again proudly standing their ground when Hardy gained the road vantage and began taking his own series of photos. A bit of time was spent with us marveling over these exquisite colts as they quietly appraised us. I believe if we had decided to sit nearby in the shade, these young, wild stallions would have once again taken up relaxed, companionable positions and resumed their late afternoon nap without feeling disturbed by our presence among them. But there was one more group we were hoping to see before evening time and Hardy suggested we remain on the road and stride purposefully toward the bachelors to stimulate them into fleeing (Hardy prefers the Vale de Zebro Sorraia horses have as little contact with humans as possible and so discourages making any deliberate connection with them beyond a certain point.)
This next series of photos shows what the colts thought of such a palpable shift in intention:
We eventually left the road as well and went over the next hill and the next and the next, hoping to spot the other small family group, but finally decided to call it quits and return to the car so we could be sure to get back to town before the shops closed. There was a shoe store in Almeirim where Rose had hoped to purchase a pair of boots (most everything is incredibly inexpensive in Portugal) and I wanted to poke around in an antique shop to see what aged souvenir I might find to bring home for Kevin.
While Rose tried on various styles of hiking boots, I was delighted to find an old wooden wine box caddy in the antique shop which I knew (along with my bottle of wine from day six) would be just the perfect gift for Kevin as well as an authentic cork hewn from a Cork Oak branch.
We then walked over to the O Forno restaurant for my last dinner in Portugal where another fine meal was enjoyed while Hardy, Rose and I reflected on the many fortunate experiences of the past week. With great anticipation of heading home to Canada and Ravenseyrie and Kevin in the morning, I put my wine-mellowed mind and weary body to bed.
I will write one more journal entry (only after a few updates on what has been happening this winter at Ravenseyrie!) summing up my thoughts on what this trip to Portugal meant to me, as well as sharing a little about the difficulties this "unfrequent flyer" experienced while trying to catch all my flights home.