Saturday, November 28, 2015


Early this summer, after I had just planned my Germany trip, I happened to skype with my dear friend Andrea.  At that time she was in the process of booking her yearly horseback riding adventure, looking for a warm European destination in fall. Excitedly she told me about a tour she found that reminded her of me. The hosts are naturalists and photographers who study the Iberian Wolf, are vegetarian and their stable was located in a national park. "Too bad you are not in Europe at that time", Andrea said. Just having booked my flights I asked her about the timing and as luck would have it, it exactly matched the time I indeed was in Europe, I just had to reschedule my flight back! After a short family conference it was decided, I would join her. Woohoo!!!!

The ranch of Ecotura Ecoturismo is located in the heart of the Peneda-Geres National Park. 
About 174000 acres in size, this Park is Portugals only national park and among many other protected animals home to two of the most endangered species on the Iberian Pensinsula, the Iberian Wolf and the Garrano horse.

Upon arrival we were greeted by Pedro's and Anabela's many friendly dogs and of course lot's of horses. Pedro and Anabela specialize in two different breeds of horses, the Lusitanos and the Garranos, both are pure Portugese breeds.

We stayed at a beautiful guesthouse a few kilometers away. Every morning Pedro would pick us up at the very humanly time of 10 am. At the ranch he would assign the horses and off we were brushing and tacking up. In a perfect world the plan would have been to go daily on long trail rides with healthy lunches, homemade by Anabela, in the saddlebags. But since there is no such thing as a perfect world we got a bit of rain, well actually a lot of rain and plans got adjusted accordingly.
We just played with the weather and found almost everyday a 3 - 4 hour gap where it was not quite pouring and we could enjoy our mounts and the stunning landscape.

Here Andrea, getting Ferrari ready, a, as you can guess by the name, quite hot Garrano stallion.

The rides would lead us over wide open landscapes

Photo by Andrea Machacek
to smaller paths, 

and even through small villages.

The first day I rode Roussinante, an absolute stunning Lusitano stallion who was by far the best trained horse I ever had the pleasure of riding, sorry Fin...;-) Pedro and Anabela call him their fairy tale horse, that says it all, right?

Photo by Andrea Machacek

Every once in a while the sun would peek through, the wind quiet down and we thought we are in horseback riding heaven.

One day though, it was raining so hard, there was just no chance to ride. Instead we decided to walk a bit and Pedro led us through idyllic small villages, fabulous forests. and along remaining parts of the old Roman Geira, a road built by the Romans, as for example this bridge.

An old aqueduct, built by monks in an attempt to make the land more suitable for agriculture.

Ruins telling the story of a once more populated area.

And of course lots and lots of oaks. As we were leisuley walking along I noticed these strange "acorns". Not sure what I was seing, I asked Pedro.
What I was looking at was of course not an acorn. It was a leaf deformity, called a gall, due to a gall wasp infestation. The gall wasps lay their eggs inside the growing leaves in spring. During the egg-laying process the wasps secrets chemicals into the leaf that interfere with normal plant cell growth and these "horned" galls are formed. They are basically a wasp induced leaf tumor.

Once the gall has reached the size of about an inch it stops growing and the wasps develop inside. Once the wasp matures it escapes through a tiny hole, if it doesn't get "picked" up by a hungry bird before, what must have happened to the wasp in the gall below...nature at it's best...

Fencing in this area of Portugal constists mostly of stone walls. One can only imagine how much work must have gone into these fences.

The next day  though, saw us in the saddle again!

Usually a few of Pedros dogs would accompany us on our trail rides.

One day, we stumbled over a rather unusual companion. Click on the photo below to enlarge it...

Pedro knew who's calf it was and we brought it to an safe enclosure, but then rode to the farmers house in a nearby village. We had to let the farmer know that mother and calf had been seperated, since the calf would be very hungry after that adventure.

Roussinante was my mount for the whole week which made me very happy. At one point I had asked Pedro if I could ride one of his Gerrano horses as I was just curious how they would be under the saddle. He looked at me and with a smile on his lips he told me that I was just to tall....
Fine with me as I totally enjoyed riding my fairy tale horse!

Photo by Andrea Machacek

Finally, towards the end of the week, the weather gods took a pity with us and sent some sun.  We took full advantage of it and took a long day ride. Here Roussinante during our lunch picnic.

During our outings we never encountered either the wolfs nor one of the wild Gerrano herds that still roam the hills of the Peneda-Geres National Park.
But we saw at least a wolf paw print.

All to soon the week was over. On the way back to the airport in Porto we stopped quickly to have a look at the Espigueiros of Soaja. At first sight I thought these were fancy grave sites. 

But far from it, these buildings were used for grain and other food storage and protection. They were built all together so they could be more easily guarded.

An amazing trip with not enough time to explore everything...I guess I have to go back!!

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