Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sicily in the Saddle

A horseback ride in the heartland of Sicily

Antonio and Pepe against a backdrop of the Sicilian countrysideAntonio Carlotta and his horse, Pepe, against a backdrop of the Sicilian countryside. My mount danced up to the crumbling lip of a 1,000-foot drop. She didn't seem inclined to stop.

I yanked repeatedly on the reins, yelling "Whoa!" in what I meant to be a stern, controlled voice but came out high-pitched and panicky. My brain, often of little help in these situations, suggested that perhaps "whoa" wasn't how you made a horse stop in Italian.

Antonio Carlotta, my guide, gave a short, low whistle, and my chestnut mare immediately put on the brakes, kicking loose dirt and pebbles over the cliff as my heart pounded away merrily in its new home halfway up my throat.

"Got a little closer than I expected there," I said suavely, adding, "Ha, ha" to show Antonio I wasn't fazed and, in fact, quiet enjoyed the bitter taste of adrenaline on the back of my tongue. I tried to convince Katy to back up a bit, but the dark chestnut mare seemed content to perch on the edge of doom and just enjoy the view.

"Don't worry," said Antonio, a big grin evident in his voice but not, out of politeness, on his face. "A horse wouldn't go over a cliff." Relaxing a bit, I took a moment to focus on the breathtaking panorama below and not my fear of becoming a part of it.

The Heart of Sicily

Horse stables this-a-way in SicilyHorse stables this-a-way in Sicily. We were somewhere very close to the geographic center of this vast Mediterranean isle, our perch ringed by a 360-degree vista across the hinterlands of Sicily's interior.

The forested Madonie Mountains rose to the northeast. To their south, atop a flat-topped mountain, squatted the provincial capital of Enna.

Below it: the green spot of Lake Pergusa, on the shores of which Demeter's daughter Persephone was picking flowers when Hades kidnapped her to become his Underworld queen. (I know: that's a Greek myth—but Sicily was once part of Magna Graecia.)

The hilltops all around were capped with pastel cube villages. The crazily quilted fields far below were stitched together by low stone walls, forming irregular patches of post-harvest browns, grays, and gold. Here and there ran green copses of eucalypts and pines, foreign species planted in an ill-conceived reforestation initiative of the 1960s.

Antonio pointed out Alimena, his own village, and Petralia, where he worked in the salt mines for 13 years while training for his equestrian license.

"I like this job much better than the mines," he said matter-of-factly. "Up here there is air you can actually breathe."

Coughing Katy

The ancient farmhouse of Monaco di Mezzo is now an agriturismo in the geographic heart of SicilyThe ancient farmhouse of Monaco di Mezzo is now an agriturismo in the geographic heart of Sicily. Marquis Ettore Pottino and his brother Vincenzo have turned their family's 18th century farm into the agriturismo Monaco di Mezzo (tel. +39-0934-673-949, www.monacodimezzo.com). Full story Reserve it

Chef/manager Mauro's dinners (€15 for guests) are to die for, made entirely from the organic farm's own veal, grains, olives, cheeses, and vegetables. Double rooms cost €90–€100. Horse rides with Antonio run about €15.

As we ambled past fields flecked with brown-and-white faced sheep, I admired Antonio's horse, Pepe, a slim-flanked stallion dappled silver and charcoal, sired by an Arabian. Katy came from local stock, and she only had two gears: trot and full stop.

I dubbed her Coughing Katy because she had gotten a bit of grass stuck in her throat that kept launching her into sneeze-like coughing fits whenever we picked up the pace. This had the side effect of breaking her gait irregularly. Normally, at a trot you do a sort of bouncing two-step with your pelvis, hip-hop-hip-hopping rhythmically in the saddle.

But Katy's coughing kept interrupting my hip-hop, causing my posterior to come to unexpected and quite painful stops against the saddle. Add to this the fact that I was wearing not tight riding pants but slacks and loose boxers and, well... Let's just say this wasn't the best day to be my unborn children.

We were riding along the bottom of a steep, stony hillside when Antonio said, "Let's go up here. There is a great vista."

Pepe forged up the 15-degree slope in a straight line. Katie and I split our differences—I want to go up, she wanted to go sideways with frequent stops—by switchbacking our way slowly up in serpentine fashion, occasionally engaging in some impromptu sidestepping dressage. Once we got to the top, of course, Katy suddenly didn't want to stop, which brings me back to the edge of that 1,000-foot drop.

Down from the Mountaintop

The old chapel on the property of Monaco di Mezzo, a lovely agriturismo offering horseback rides in the center of SicilyThe old chapel on the property of Monaco di Mezzo, a lovely agriturismo offering horseback rides in the center of Sicily. "When there are no clouds," Antiono was saying. "Over that way you can see Etna, clear as day." I glanced at the horizon indicated, then nervously back down at the chasm beneath Katy's hooves.

Antonio suddenly decided to amend his earlier statement about horses and cliffs.

"No, the horse wouldn't jump—unless, of course, she got scared, like when the wind makes those whistle." He pointed to some old ceramic telegraph line breakers jutting out of a crumbling cement wall beside us that must once have been part of a small hut. "Then, a horse will do crazy things."

Antonio clicked his tongue and Pepe turned as if on automatic to pick his way nimbly back down the perilously steep slope.

I sat there, at the edge of the cliff, wondering where they hid the reverse gear in an English saddle, begging the wind not to make any sudden whistling sounds, and working out how to convey to the horse, in Italian, the concept, "I would like you to take a step now, but—and I can't stress this enough—please make it a backwards one."

Related pages


No comments:

Post a Comment