When most people travel to Greece, they visit ancient ruins, island-hop by sailboat or lounge along sandy beaches. But to get away from the tourist traps and really experience the countryside as the villagers do, it’s hard to beat venturing on horseback.Greece’s Pelion Coast Ride is one way to do just that.In eight days, seven nights with six days of riding, those who participate on this ride are spoiled by their handy guide, the food, the scenery and the excellent horses assigned to them for the week-long journey from village to village. The accommodations on the ride are near the coast, in guesthouse cottages and bungalows along the way.”If you’re looking for antiquity, you will not find it on this ride,” said our guide, Eric Lefort. “This is more of a coastal, scenic ride, mostly riding by the sea.”A farrier by trade, Lefort has taken guests along this trail for more than 30 years. A native of Paris, France, Lefort moved to the small fishing village of Katigiorgis, with the view across the Aegean Sea of Skiathos Island, just two miles away. Mythic proportionsIn mythology, the Pilio was inhabited by kentavri (centaurs) – creatures, half-man, half-horse, who took delight in drinking wine, deflowering virgins and ripping up the countryside.The Pilio, or Pelion Peninsula, lies to the east and south of Volos, about four hours north of Athens.The large eastern flank consists of high cliffs that plunge dramatically into the sea. The gentler western flank coils round the Pagasitikos Gulf.The interior is lush and green, where trees heavy with fruit stand among wild olive groves and forests of horse chestnut, oak, walnut, fig and beech trees.The villages tucked away within the foliage are whitewashed, half-timbered houses with overhanging balconies, gray slate roofs and winding cobbled paths.Although the ride is somewhat leisurely and slow paced, the terrain provides a slice of danger and intrigue.
Coastal rideThe ride begins along a sandy trail in Katigiorgis through pine forests, olive groves and cultivated fields. Often, the ride follows narrow, cobbled streets and whitewashed walls through villages along the coast or hidden through the mountains. The trails traverse through wooded forests and olive groves to the coastal villages of Lafkos, Lefokastro, Afissos. The climb heads toward the handsome mountain town of Vizitsa, which clings to the wooded mountain slopes, with narrow, cobbled streets ascending steeply from the main square. And finally, we enter the high, rugged coast of Mylopotamos, isolated Neohozi and the rolling hills of Potistika. Villages cluster along the coastal, rocky outcrops, where the villagers greet guests with a simple, pleasant smile.”Kah-lee-MEH-rah (Good morning),” a phrase that lasts until dusk.Most of the villagers know Lefort because of his many travels throughout the summer months, and several of the taverna owners prepare their meals around his visits.”Hippos, hippos (horses, horses),” cried several little girls when they heard the horses’ hooves clip-clopping through the streets of the village Argalasti.”All little girls are the same, it seems. Worldwide. They all love horses,” said Rebecca Schimelfenig, of Wenatchee, Wash., one of three of us on the ride. Because only three of us signed up for the trip, Lefort agreed to do the ride. And I was a solo traveler. Schimelfenig and friend Sally Power of Leavenworth, Wash., both nurses, signed up for the trip after a professor friend suggested Greece as a destination. But the professor backed out of the trip at the last minute. Power traveled to Iceland two years ago for her first equestrian vacation. Greece was my first equestrian trip, but it won’t be my last.”Becca needed a little adventure,” Power said to me along the ride.The four of us rode through the thick of the woods, the villages, the rocky coast, legs clinging tightly to our horses’ sides. At times, the trails followed steep, cobbled paths with the horses sometimes slipping on the rocks. The horses are steady and sure-footed local breeds from Thessaly and can go all day. Even so, the terrain can be a little unnerving; this isn’t a trip for equestrian beginners.The first day of the 130-plus mile trek, as we legged up an open meadow with the view of the sea at our side, Power paused for a cry.”Oh, the tears are coming, girls,” she said. “Tears of joy. Good tears.”Although I didn’t get teary eyed like Power, I still felt the emotion. For two hours that first day, I rode with a smile across my face because I was finally living a dream … that dream of riding horses along the beach, feeling the power of these animals as they move underneath you and smelling the ocean air. That postcard image come to life.
After a while it wasn’t just the experience of riding along the golden beaches that moved me, but the camaraderie with the two girls whom I had just met strictly for this journey and the connection we formed, not only because of our love for horses but because of the thrill of the adventure.The days began around 8:30 with breakfast: coffee, tea, fresh bread, eggs, pastries and yogurt. Then, it was off to the open meadows or fields to gather the horses, tack up and head onto the trail toward the next village. The morning rides usually lasted about two hours, with a combination of riding and hiking, dismounting and mounting.The afternoons were made for stealing naps under the shade, swimming in the sea or basking on sunny, golden beaches.When the air cooled in the late afternoon, the ride began again until dusk, arriving at the next village between 7-8 p.m., with enough time for a quick refresher and then a solid dinner. We feasted on fresh fish caught that morning or hearty, heavy meats such as wild boar, lamb in lemon sauce or tenderloins, pork, chicken … grilled, broiled with local spices and sauces. In the coastal regions, fresh fish is in high demand, while in fish tavernas, seafood and local wine or aromatic tsipouro, a local favorite, can be savored by many who dare to try it.”First aid,” Lefort called it, pouring bottled water into a glass.”I feel like all we do is eat and ride, eat and ride,” Schimelfenig said.The weather in the Mediterranean usually ranges in the 70s and 80s with the wet, rainy season beginning in late October. But we were met with some unsettled weather a little early this year.Stormy weatherThe middle of the week in mid-September, the longest hiking day ahead, I was peeking through the crack of the curtain in the guesthouse in Vizitsa, and noticed the sky turned gray. Thunder and lightning kept all of us awake from about 4 a.m., with a blackness in the sky off the western shore, heading inland.”It’s only a little rain,” Schimelfenig said.We shook our heads, but not necessarily in agreement.Lefort recommended we start the day a little earlier because of the unpredictable weather forecast. After the horses had been saddled, we sauntered toward the summit of the mountain, traveling into the heart of the forest – and the storm.About 45 minutes into the ride, clashes of thunder split the sky. A casual rain might have cooled the horses down, but after a few pelts, Lefort warned us that a brutal, windy storm lay ahead and that we had better wear our raincoats.The particular trail that day was narrow, with thick brush and thorn bushes in the way. Often, we rode along steep sections with rocky drops and slick from the fresh rain. The downhill sections were taken with extra care, on foot and slowly.
“Keep your hands behind you, hold the reins back and watch your step,” Lefort said. A picnic lunch was prepared before the journey, but because of the downpour we decided it was best to continue traveling toward the next village, stomachs growling slightly.When the next village appeared, we all sighed, soaking wet from head to toe, aching muscles tightening. We pulled into the patio of a local taverna, unsaddled the horses. I hopped off first and raced inside the taverna, shivering from the cold and wearing a forced smile. Inside the taverna, men sat drinking wine, laughing and telling jokes. All stopped short and looked at me, standing in the doorway with a puddle of water surrounding me.One of the men raised his glass, a smile spread across his face, and said in English, “Did you forget your umbrella?” The room filled with laughter. Their jovial embraced alleviated some of the otherwise tense feeling I had when I first walked into the taverna. It also could have been that they were completely pie-eyed by the time they noticed me. One of them moved his chair over and helped me arrange a table in the back for the rest of the group.Later, after leaving the taverna with a pool of water under the table, the men followed us outside and watched as we left. ‘Are we ready for some happiness?’Less than two hours later, we reached the Faros Hotel in Mylopotamos, with a faint breeze in the air and the sound of the waves crashing along the rocky crags. The storm headed east toward the Aegean Sea. The following morning, sunny but breezy skies.The terrain that day was mostly paved roads, with an occasional soft path. In the afternoon, we came across a wide, soft dirt road.”Are we ready for some happiness?” Lefort asked.The girls knew what this meant. After walking the horses along the paved roads, the soft red earth was a pleasant surprise. The leisurely pace ended as we eased the horses into a steady canter along the stretch of the road. Around the path, Lefort stopped at a gate. Behind the gate, a soft dirt road twisted through an olive grove.”Everybody, I need you all to stay close to me,” Lefort said. “Do not separate.”After riding through relatively sketchy terrain, I was a little nervous about his cryptic warning. Later, we asked him why we needed to stay so close together.
Lefort pursed his lips, paused, then slowly said, “Because we weren’t supposed to go through there.”Innocently, Power replied, “So we were trespassing?””Yes.”The final length of the trip was about a three-hour ride, split in the morning and then the afternoon, an hour-and-a-half each. This was to be the “fun day” of the trek, spending the morning on the beach, and the day the horses would be swimming in the Aegean Sea with us, then rolling in the pale sand, a treat for the horses before the journey back to Katigiorgis.Lefort told the group he would be moving back to France within the next three to five years. “Come do this again with me when I am in France,” he said. “We can ride across the French countryside. Imagine what you will find there.”For more information about this ride or other equestrian vacations, visit http://www.ridingtours.com.===================Equestrian travelWhether you are an experienced rider or a novice trail rider, equestrian vacations provide an opportunity to see the countryside in a new light. However, for more of the trips, you must have a good knowledge of the basics and some experience in riding cross-country. Almost anyone can learn to ride well enough, but one must be prepared to make the effort. Some important factors to take into consideration are: * Do you ride in English or Western tack? * How much riding can you realistically do to prepare for the ride? * Will it be in the controlled conditions of an arena, or on trails with varied terrain?
* What is your level of physical strength and stamina? There are rides according to the level of equitation skill and physical fitness required to participate, as well as the pace. For example, the Pelion Coast Ride in Greece requires stamina because there is a combination of riding and hiking at altitude involved with this ride. Otherwise, weight limit of 200 pounds applies. English-style saddles are used on the majority of the overseas rides. But, there are numerous exceptions. The Pelion Coast Ride requires participants to be intermediate riders, which means a rider has a firm seat, confident and in control at all paces, but does not regularly ride.Custom rides can cost upward to $2,999 and as low as $995, depending on location. The high-end rides usually last 11 days, 10 nights with eight- to nine-days of riding or so. The Pelion Coast Ride costs $1,315, with a $210 single supplement. This does not include airfare. It includes three meals per day, the horses, tack, guide, accommodations and transportation to and from the airport.Riders are expected to bring riding boots, jodhpurs, gloves, a helmet, a raincoat, swim wear, soft shoes and clothes to change into for the evening. After the summer heat and humidity, the weather in the Pilio can be unpredictable. Sweaters, long-sleeved shirts and heavy raincoats are advised. And, most importantly, bring an appetite.For more information, visit http://www.ridingtours.com.-Christine Ina Casillas===================Leadville Chronicle Editor Christine Ina Casillas can be reached at email@example.com.Vail, Colorado