Travel: The Languedoc at a gallop and a trot

A week of riding, camping, French food and wine, and the World Cup - the closest Laura Ivill has been to heaven
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The Independent Travel
FROM THE farmhouse, Bastian emerged at a run, his fist held high. "Goaaaaaaaal," he shouted. Later, when the game was over and the rest of us were tipsily singing the Marseillaise, cheering and swaying, I noticed he had quietly slipped away. A bottle of champagne had gone too - and so had Fiona, one of our party of riders. Meanwhile, my boyfriend, Tim, had his arms wrapped around Katty, one of the two Belgian girls, who had been having a bad time at home. Everywhere there was emotion, passion, camaraderie, and it wasn't just the World Cup final. Nor was it the easy manner with which our host and leader, Roland Bec, had brought us all together during the past week of riding in the Languedoc. It was the horses.

Roland, who has been in the business nearly 20 years, escorts all his trips personally. Five of our party had been with him before, and three were back for the third time. In spring, early and late summer, the accommodation is in gites near Roland's farm, which is around 20 minutes' drive from the town of Bedarieux. In the middle of summer, it's in tents. I'd chosen the camping trip because I wanted to look after the horses on site, and because I enjoy living outdoors.

Our first morning was warm and sunny, and Roland allocated each of us our horse for the week. Mine was called Frisquet, meaning "chilly". He was an eight-year-old chestnut around 15 hands. Roland had had him and his brother Bijou, Tim's ride, for about four years. Frisquet was alert, fit, eager, thoughtful and, above all, a happy horse - which could truly be said about all the animals, although by the end of the week, some had more energy than others. Roland showed us the tack - folded blankets under Western-style saddles with a very simple single-strap girth tied with a knot, bitless bridles and a bit of rope for tying up the horses at lunchtime. It had all the elements of the Romany life. There was, too, the elegant simplicity of the really stylish, and Roland was sufficiently Gallic to insist that we never - never! - fall off.

As we rode each day from place to place, our support crew, two of his grown-up foster children, Bastian and Jelly Bean (as we nicknamed Vincent), took our luggage, resupplied the mobile kitchen, and went ahead to set up the evenings' camps. The catering was in true French style - a propane- fed, six-burner, full-sized gas oven meant Bastian could treat us to homemade patisseries as part of our four-course suppers around a circular table in the Berber-style mess tent. They filled and refilled bottles with local French wine from an enormous barrel, announcing with a certain horror on day five that we had drunk 60 litres between us - a record.

It was over these suppers, fuelled by good food and good wine, with the horses close by, that we became an intimate group. It was like dining with a huge group of friends, which indeed we did become. The first day's ride, from Roland's farm along tracks of red earth and through pungent bushes of rosemary and thyme, was easy going. He has refined his route over the years so that for the first day or two the horses have a chance to loosen up, and so do we. Then the pace gets faster and more exhilarating. The ground is rocky for most of the distance, and the trail moves from a Mediterranean landscape, up on to the Larzac plateau where it's fresher, and there's a sense of real remoteness, eventually coming back down through the pine-scented hills of the Monts d'Orb. On that first evening, before we pitched our tents, Roland introduced us to two essential items we would get to know well: the solar showers and the entrenching tool. The solar showers lived up to their promise - 12 individual packs had been laid out in the afternoon sun ready for our arrival. They were heaven.

The entrenching tool, however - a sharp spade with a roll of loo paper over the handle - might easily be most people's idea of hell. The thought of striding off purposefully with it in broad daylight to dig your own lavatory might be daunting even to hardened campers, but on the plus side, you left no trace, and could choose a spot with magnificent vistas, if you were so bold.

Our wake-up calls in the morning were ingenious. At 7.30am, our sleep was stirred by the delicate sound of Roland's flageolet drifting across the countryside. In fact, so haunting was it that I once heard him play to wake us after a siesta, only to be told that Roland was fast asleep in the grass.

We usually rode from about 10am to 6pm, with a long lunch break for the picnic we were carrying between us and a siesta. Once up on the Larzac plateau, we could feast on miniature wild strawberries and delicate raspberries from the hedgerows, and there were swarms of butterflies that would make you start as they fluttered towards you. Wild pink orchids and lilac- coloured chicory, yellow broom, cow parsley and ragwort grew in abundance.

In the winter months, Roland lets the horses - Andalusian-American crossbreeds - go wild again and fend for themselves in the mountains. This means they are incredibly surefooted on the rocky mountain paths. In the whole week, not one horse cast a shoe nor injured a leg - and it wasn't always easy riding. If Roland rode up to the front of the group, the horses sensed the impending excitement, and we jostled for position. The trot got faster, broke into a canter and the race was on. This wasn't for the faint-hearted nor the inexperienced - huge rocks were sent flying towards me like a meteor shower.

Our last supper together that 12 July ended the week as it had begun - watching the World Cup, this time the final. We celebrated long into the night - French, English, Belgian and Dutch alike. We all swapped addresses and promises. It's easy to see why people go back for more.

FACT FILE

horseriding in france

Getting there

Laura Ivill paid pounds 455 for the eight-night camping trip with Ride World Wide (tel: 0171-735 1144). Or contact Roland Bec (tel: 00 33 4 67 95 09 97); e-mail: becholiday@aol.com.

Gite-based trail rides cost pounds 520. Beginners are welcome. Tours take place from March to October, with a maximum of 10 per ride.

British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) offers scheduled return flights to Montpellier from pounds 211. Ryanair (tel: 0541 569569) offers return flights to Carcassonne for pounds 119. By train, return tickets from Waterloo to Montpellier cost pounds 129 (Rail Europe, tel: 0990 848848). By bus, the journey from Montpellier to Bedarieux costs pounds 6 each way. From there, Roland picks you up at set times.

What to take

If you want to wear a hard hat, you must take your own, though this is not compulsory. A wide-brim hat is important to protect you from the sun. Other essentials include waterproofs and a fleece; short riding boots and half-chaps; a change of jodhpurs/jeans; a supply of wet-wipes (the going can get very dusty); a water bottle; sun-protection cream; and a case for your camera. Ride-Away (tel: 01347 810443) does a good mail-order service for riding clothing, and next-day delivery is available. Phone for a catalogue.

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