Trail-blazing saddles

Six days in the stirrups on a ride across the south-west corner of Portugal left Victoria Pybus feeling sore but euphoric
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The Independent Travel
''We have about six weeks of rain a year but it usually comes in showers," is how our leader on the Alentejo trail ride apologised for the deluge in Portugal's "sunny" south-western corner. We were completely awash, our horses sploshing through rivulets and sinking into bogs which should have been sandy woodland and valley tracks. Forcing ourselves to think positively as the rain seeped down our necks, we assured each other that we would have been colder, if not wetter, had we stayed in northern Europe.

That meteorologically unwelcoming first day of our week's trail ride turned out to be a blip in the customary weather pattern. From then on we plodded, titupped and thundered across the undulating countryside, in brilliant sunshine tempered by Atlantic breezes.

Our sturdy mounts were native Lusitano or Lusitano crosses. In times of derring-do, the Lusitano was a sought-after war horse - as its qualities of endurance, agility and its strong personality attest. Our leaders, Sheila and Robert Lee, were astute at matching the personality of horse and rider; though I did wonder why they gave me a bumptious character called Tango, who always wanted to be at the front. One essential Lusitanian riding technique is that of standing in the stirrups while going uphill.

This allows the horses' short backs unhampered movement. Our bottoms bobbed up like a chorus line as we approached every slope.

The Alentejo starts north of the Algarve, from which it is divided by the Monchique mountains. The Alentejo coastal strip (about 80 miles long and 10 miles wide), is a protected area, ensuring unobstructed vistas of land and sea and an abundance of wildlife, of which storks and egrets are the most evident. The latter ride on the backs of the cattle, as if in curious mockery of trail riders. The landscape is dotted with small, whitewashed, red-roofed farms, all with their motley contingent of barking dogs and a variety of free- ranging fowl. Once, a raggedy clutch of children took great delight in "ambushing" us and a group of gypsy women with their infants waved to us from the wayside.

Herds of brown cattle, sheep and goats, all with jangling neck bells, grazed the open land, some accompanied by a shepherd. Travellers in Portugal have the right of way everywhere and are allowed to water their animals at any farm.

On our second day we slithered our horses down through dunes to a bleach- white beach and paddled them through the veil of tide, watching the great Atlantic rollers crash towards us. After this cathartic experience we lunched on a cliff-top.

On day three the euphoria level was matched by the ache of stretched muscles. The 38km riding from Milfontes (our base) to Odeceixe on the Alentejo/Algarve border seemed the hardest riding of the trip, but the magnificent coast views and another clifftop lunch more than made up for this.

On the fourth day we headed inland towards the Monchique mountains and we finished riding at 2pm, following this with lunch of goat's cheese omelette in a cafe at Odeiceixe. Niamh, one of our guides, accompanied us on an afternoon coastal walk.

Day five saw us turning inland through cork forests, in which we stopped for lunch. The invaluable bark of these virtually indestructible trees is stripped from the trunk in half-cylindrical sections. The bark grows back in a few years and the process can be repeated, sometimes for two centuries or more.

I was feeling pretty saddle-sore on this penultimate day of riding. Especially by the end of the day, as we pottered into the Communist-run town of Odemira, where murals on the facade of the people's palace celebrate the glory of the workers. We stalled the horses near there for the night.

An urgently needed massage had been arranged for the evening with Carole, a mobile masseuse who arrived at our hotel room complete with a fold-up bed and oils. Luxuriating under the effect of magic thumbs that had once pummelled Jeremy Irons and Antonio Banderas (when the Alentejo stood in for Chile in the film The House of the Spirits) I vowed not to wash for a week.

On the sixth and final day of riding, a strained muscle meant arriving unheroically at the lunch spot in the back-up vehicle. But restored by pampering and half a bottle of lightly sparkling Vinho Verde, I finished the home run in the saddle, though that final 188th kilometre of the trail was like being put on the rack. I fully understood the maxim that there is no pleasure without pain.

And yes, wild horses would drag me there againn

Tickets to ride

Victoria Pybus bought her trail ride through CDA Portugal (Apt 116, 7645 Milfontes, Portugal; 00 351 83 99106); it can also be booked in the UK through Equitour (01865 511642).

Riders need to be fit and experienced. There is a maximum of eight riders per group. There are two trail possibilities: the two-week "Trail to the End of the World" down to Sagres on the south-west tip of Portugal, from pounds 500; and the eight-day "Blue Coast Trail" (six days' riding), from pounds 468.

Prices do not include travel or dinner (except on the first night). A scheduled return flight from Gatwick to Lisbon with AB Shannon costs about pounds 135, including tax, while charters from various UK airports to Faro cost pounds 150-pounds 200. Pick-ups from Lisbon or Faro airports are free.

A massage from Carole Dyson (bookable through CDA) costs about pounds 16.