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Destination: France

Tour de Horse : Back in the saddle again--riding over the fields and into the quaint villages of Provence

August 18, 1996|CAROLYN MILLER | Miller is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles

SAINTES-MARIES-DE-LA-MER, France — It was just before sunset, and we were riding at a fast canter, cutting through a field that ran beside a saltwater lagoon. We were trying to make it back to the mas, or ranch house, before dark, but we were losing light fast. Already the clouds were streaked with pink and scarlet, almost the same improbable shades as the flamingos wading in the lagoon.

In the distance was a herd of ghostly white horses, the mysterious wild horses of southern France that I'd read about since I was a little girl. All at once my horse spotted his untamed cousins, tossed back his head and joyously greeted them with a deep, long, spine-tingling whinny. In that exhilarating moment, I too felt infused with the liberating wildness that is so much a part of the character of this unspoiled, protected marshland.

I was in the Camargue region of southern France, a part of Provence seldom visited by American tourists. Seeing it this way, by horseback, is a rarer experience still. It is an intensely visceral and sensual adventure.

This riding trip had been set in motion months before, when my friend Linda Seger mentioned to me and several other riding friends that it might be fun to see some of Europe by horseback. The idea caught fire, catalogs were sent for, and in almost no time at all three of us--Linda and I plus our friend Carol Davies--signed up for this nine-day journey through Provence.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 25, 1996 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Horse trek--Due to an editing error, a photograph of a French chef was miscredited in a story on a horseback tour of Provence ("Tour de Horse, Aug. 18, 1996). The photo was taken by Carolyn Miller.

We picked the trip because of its appealing destination, with a varied terrain, and its ranking by the tour operator we chose as a "moderate to fast ride." It required intermediate to advanced riding skills; that meant we wouldn't be impeded by novices.

The trip was organized by FITS Equestrian, a Solvang-based travel company that specializes in riding trips all over the world. The itinerary described a route beginning at Avignon, the former papal capital on the Rhone River, and terminating 160 miles later at the walled seacoast town of Aigues-Mortes. We would stay at country inns along the way, with trail-side picnics at lunchtime prepared by our own chef. Though there would be some time for sightseeing, we learned we would be spending as much as seven hours a day in an English saddle.

Seven hours. A sobering bit of information. To spend that long on the back of a horse without pain would require training, especially for Linda and me, since Carol had her own horse. So Linda and I began a program of private lessons to polish our skills and long weekend rides to build up our endurance.

Reaching Paris three days ahead of Carol, Linda and I felt confident and ready for anything. But as the ride loomed nearer and nearer, we started to develop butterflies. We both knew the risks: High speed riding over unfamiliar trails on an unfamiliar mount can be a recipe for a serious accident.

Needing a morale booster, and fast, we set out for Notre Dame Cathedral. Once inside the cavernous interior, however, we weren't sure where to go. And then, through the dim light, I spotted an altar blazing with candles, illuminating the marble statue of a saint. It was the perfect choice, none other than that fearless equestrian herself, Joan of Arc. With hands slightly trembling, we lighted the largest candles we could find and beseeched her for protection and courage.

Two days later, we clambered off the train at Avignon, lugging duffel bags bulging with tall leather boots, bootjacks, steel helmets and saddle covers. One by one we discovered the other members of our party at the station. First there was our leader, Paul Bontemps, big and burly and sizing us up quickly. Then there was our chef, Andre Sessiecq, as short as Paul was tall and very round, with twinkly eyes and little English. And then the three other riders--all women and all American.

Each of the other women had formidable riding experience. One was a regular on the East Coast fox-hunting circuit. Another was mastering the challenging series of maneuvers called dressage that is practiced in an arena. And the third rode her own horse in competitions called "three-day eventing," combining dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping.

Judico was to be my horse and friend, companion and confidant, for the entire ride. A bay gelding with a white blaze and some Arabian blood, he had a sweet, sturdy nature, but he wasn't dull; given the opportunity, he could go like the wind.

It was a sparkling autumn morning, and as we headed out to the trail, my apprehensions melted away. Everyone in the group, even the aristocratic-looking fox hunter, Rebecca Brooks, turned out to be friendly and supportive.

It was like riding through a three-dimensional picture gallery of Provencal landscapes, complete with scent, sound and taste. Spreading out from both sides of the trail were purple and green fields of lavender and mint, rosemary and thyme. As we followed Paul on a shortcut through the fields northwest of Avignon, our horses' hooves crunched the herbs and filled the air with a pungent aroma.

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