The first thing I should say is, this isn’t a sponsored post. No-one has paid me, given me a reciprocal link – or, sadly, bought me a horse – in exchange for me bumping my gums to the world. (I should also say that I am open to the option of someone buying me a horse, however. I am particularly fond of palominos.)
Barcelona’s uncanny ability to land me in unforeseen situations that, on occasion, gift lifelong memories, surprised me again this weekend. Living here feels like being interred inside one of those folded paper fortune tellers, that, depending on your dexterity, yield up four different corners of fate on a regular basis. Whatever else it is, life here is never predictable.
In the lap of the gods
Sitting due north of the coastal town of Masnou, about 20km away from Barcelona, the Club Hípico Vallromanes is a riding school, livery yard, and hotel resort, complete with pool, gardens and the most amazing views you can imagine. I had been invited by the owner, Antonio, to come check out the facilities and see the flamenco horse show that takes place each week.
It had been a while since I’d been out of the city, and the first thing I noticed on stepping out the car was that even the air smelt different. The kind that makes you want to inhale deeply. Set in the midst of a national park, the whole area seems to have been carved out of the hillside, and Antonio tells me proudly that he planted many of the trees as saplings himself.
The next thing I noticed was that I couldn’t stop smiling. The sort of smiling I haven’t done since I wielded a blowtorch at some unsuspecting crema catalana in a Barcelona cooking class. In a sort of helpless, hapless, demented way. “¿Te gustan los caballos entonces?” asked Antonio, receiving an ear-to-ear grin in return.
Making old friends
Given my palpable enthusiasm for all things equestrian, Antonio obviously decided I was harmless enough to let loose around the yard. The show itself wasn’t due to kick off for another couple of hours, and Antonio seemed a bit concerned that I might be bored hanging around. When he clocked the fact that within the first three minutes I had actively taken photos of each horse in its box (there are around 70) and was starting to memorise their names, he quite wisely left me to it.
“You’re one of the family now” said Antonio gamely. And, true enough, my guides were Antonio’s granddaughters, aged from four to 12, who were the most polite, cheerful and knowledgeable kids I have met in Spain ever. Little Aitana, aged four, eagerly appropriated her role as profe, teaching me the essential Spanish vocab and doing a great job of disguising her disdain at my ignorance.
“Sudadero” for saddle-pad. “Tijerillas” for martingale. The sort of words that don’t appear in Word Reference, and which sizzle on your tongue as you savour them. “Crin” for mane, and I start remembering some poem or other of Lorca’s, and Córdoba, distant and alone, with the olives in the saddle-bag. A whole world of associations with Spain that always bring me back to horses, poetry, and even Saint John of the Cross.
The flamenco horse show
Anyway, I diverge. My point is, the whole day was almost otherworldly.
The show itself, in the massive competition arena, would have been impressive enough, as riders from all over the world took turns at showcasing their talents. Classic dressage moves combined with displays of gaucho daring, but the common denominator that I could see was the riders’ attitude to their horses.
I had hung out beforehand in the practice arena, watching the warm-up exercises agape, struck by the respect with which the riders treated their mounts. Many ‘horsey’ people in the UK are out-and-out swines, in my experience, so to see the genuine relationship between horse and rider was a revelation.
My favourite was the plucky little Argentinean, of course.
Learning to improvise
Given the setting, sunshine and equestrian derring-do, the day was already complete for me, but throw in some glasses of vino and a live salsa band in the gardens and we’re talking a whole other level.
Salsa oozed softly around us as Antonio’s granddaughters (there now seemed to be even more of them) combed through my handbag and looted my makeup. “What does this do?” they quizzed me, brandishing mascara wands into the afternoon sunshine as horses nearby failed to bat an eyelid.
Makeup perfectly pulchered, we followed the sound of the band, who seemed to segue effortlessly from one Latin standard to the next. A young woman, shoogling in her seat herself, thrust forward her one-year-old baby, who mimicked a few steps on the table. Seamlessly, the band entered on cue: “Un, dos, tres, un pasito pa’lante María, un, dos, tres, un pasito pa’tras”.
I laughed, sat back, and counted my blessings.
If you’re a rider, you will adore this place. There are two outdoor schools, both big and set against a cliff, a massive indoor arena, and an even larger outdoor show ground. The tack rooms are replete with every conceivable kind of kit, while the stalls, stables and yard are immaculate. Given the setting, as you might imagine, the club offers hacks as well as formal lessons.
While everyone was still tucking in to the barcebue, shouting out requests to the salsa band and generally having a great time, I snuck away, beckoned by a whispering Aitana in the corner of the garden.
She wanted to show me her moves. Aged four, armed with a riding hat, protective waistcoat and the fearlessness you only have at four years old, she showed off her agility, guided by her older sister on the lunge. “What do you want to do now?” asked older sis. “¡Galope!” was the unequivocal reply.
And not for the first time that day, I was transported back to a different time, remembering other ponies and other places, and Ayrshire skies of a more leaden nature.
What the smell of bales of hay can do.