Well my 2014 round-the-world winter trip consisted of teaching in Canada, and the UK - I think I counted 65 lessons in the first two weeks of my "holiday". Then I flew to Portugal to make the most of four short but action packed days of Lusitano horses before heading to France for the World Equestrian Games.
So on a warm Wednesday night in August I found myself yet again flying into one of my favourite places on earth courtesy of Ryan Air. It is hard to describe the feeling I get when I step onto Portuguese soil and breathe in the balmy Lisboa air. Portugal is the antipode of New Zealand - literally the opposite side of the earth, and I feel a strange magnetism or pull to this place every year. Maybe it's a past life experience, maybe the Iberian Peninsula is somewhere back in my history, or maybe it's just the Lusitano horse pulling at my heart.
I was greeted at the airport by my agent and good friend Nicole Giger - she is easy to spot - a tall elegant blonde Swiss woman amongst all the smaller dark haired Portuguese. Nicole and I have always hit it off since the first time we met three years ago. Not only had she visited New Zealand in her youth, most of her time was spent in Raglan, at a horse farm just up the road from my abode. Small world huh?
Nicole had booked us a table at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the 25 de Abril Bridge which crosses the Tagus. The imposing Christo Rei statue of Jesus with his outstretched arms towards the city creates an imposing feature in the background. Eating on the waterfront in Lisbon is always wonderful and that night was no exception
The next morning was day one of my quick trip. It starts with a short drive from Nicole's apartment on the outskirts of the seaside town of Cascais to Campo Dom Carlos where the famous Pedro Torres has his stables. Pedro is the World's best rider of Working Equitation and also rides dressage to Grand Prix level. He is certainly one of the most beautiful riders I have ever had the pleasure of watching. I love going to his stables. The now familiar heads of Oxidado (multi World Champion) and Ahoto (by Ali Baba's sire Hostil) amongst other famous horses greet me over their stable doors. Nicole keeps both her horses here and I first watch her exercise her lovely mare Bailarina before the talented young rider Vasco puts Nicole's beautiful stallion Vidago thru his paces. These two horses are the lovely greys in the first few pics of this blog.
Then it was off to lunch in my favourite restaurant in Portugal, down by the waterfront in Estoril. I love the fact that there are Pohutokawa trees outside in the car park - but of course they flower in July here and are not a "Christmas tree" - but a little slice of Aotearoa none the less. Nicole and I were joined for lunch by Joao Crespo who is the vet I use for all of my vetting work in Portugal. He's a great guy and very easy on the eye so that lunch date was defiantly no hardship!
Then it was off to the stables of Goncalo Carvalho the Portuguese Olympic rider famous for his stunning performance on Rubi at the London Olympiad. Goncalo has recently been given the ride on the world class mare Batuta das Figueiras - an 8yo Lusitano mare already scoring over 70% in the Grand Prix test. Her breeding is very exciting for me as she is bred by and carries the same brand as Ali Baba. Her sire Quixote is the sire of the broodmare we imported from Portugal Energia da Ferreria. To say I was honoured that Goncalo took time out of his schedule to give me a private viewing of the mare is somewhat of an understatement. I didn't take any photos but instead choose just to watch this stunning partnership who I firmly believe will be placing in the top few at the next Olympic Games. This mare showed such quality and ease of movement along with beautiful correct training in the classical style Goncalo perfected in his time at the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art. I really think she rivals Valegro in terms of talent. Truly the best competition mare I have ever seen. You read it here first... Her's is the first photo of the blog with photo credits to Catia Castro.
On the way home we visited two wonderful young colts, sons of Ali Baba and Vidago - and both were stunning in their own right. As if that wasn't enough excitement for one day we finished my first day off with a dinner top 3 course meal in Cascais before heading for a night out at the Casino Estoril with dancing and a top Portuguese rock band giving a free performance.
Day two dawned bright and sunny which is more than typical of Portugal in summer. We had two main things to get through this day - first a two hour drive inland to the beautiful Quinta da Ferraria stud farm where my two mares Gypsey and Energia (owned by Erin Mortimer) were born and bred. I wanted to see a lovely young Cremello stallion that I had seen the previous year and I was also keen to see what other mares and young stock they had coming on to the market. I really love the modern looking horses that Luis Meneses breeds here - and the movements of them are spectacular. Once again I found some special young horses but at this stage none will be coming home with me - I need another cash injection!
On the way home from the stud I got to call in to see Carlos Thomas who was the ex owner and rider of my Lusitano stallion Ali Baba. It's so funny whenever we get together we just talk non-stop about Ali Baba, what he is doing now, his funny habits, how he must simply love his new life in New Zealand. I got to meet Carlos' gorgeous wife and children too, and a lovely 4yo daughter of Ali Baba himself. Being back there makes me remember the sad day when I took Ali Baba away for good, but I also revel in the improvements to the stables and property that were in part contributed to by the sale of such a wonderful horse.
Saturday was my third day of this all-too-short holiday. Nicole very generously let me ride her lovely mare Bailarina and I got to practice on a few of the working equitation obstacles in one of the outdoor arenas. She is a lovely mare to ride and is a credit to her owner. We then headed for the local farmers market in Cascais. The fruit and veggies there were to die for - so fresh and so cheap. The fish market I found fascinating - being of good fishmongering stock myself I am always interested in different kinds of fish and the way they are presented at the markets. Plus of course we couldn't leave without some sweet treats.
Dinner on Saturday night was a Vegetarian affair - I think it is the first time I have ever been to a purely vegetarian restaurant. Oddly this restaurant is run by a Brazilian guy who upon hearing I was a Kiwi, proceeded to tell me how much he loved New Zealand lamb! The food from the buffet was delicious and the company was hilarious - three lovely retired Portuguese men who were friends since high school days decided to join us and much fun was had. We stayed up into the wee small hours dancing the night away at an open air nightclub on a rooftop overlooking the sea.
On the fourth and final day we headed back inland to see three 3 year old son of Ali Baba under saddle. He will take a wee while to mature but has plenty of talent and charisma and a super work ethic. I just loved seeing the similarities between him and Ali Baba in looks, temperament and that cheeky personality!
Close by where this colt is stabled I saw road signs for Mafra. I knew the name and knew it was a famous place so I managed to persuade Nicole to make a day trip out of it. And wow - just wow! As you pull into the town it seems like any normal small inland Portuguese town, till you round the corner and a giganormous Monestory /Royal Palace and Cathedral all rolled into one appears as if from nowhere. It was breathtaking. The front facade of this building is over 200 metres long. But of course we weren't just there to be tourists! Mafra is the home to the Portuguese Military base that houses all of their horses. We were desperate to learn more about the facilities and the horses used, but ummm, well it's a Military base and it's a Sunday afternoon to boot. But then again, you don't know Nicole! Nicole has a certain way with Portuguse people - she seems to be able to use her Swiss charm to wiggle her way into and out of all sorts of places, so this was going to be no effort for her at all. We went up to the armed guards at the checkpoint Charlie barrier arm and asked if it was possible to come in. A very cute Senior Sergeant told her that in half an hour it may well be possible and to come back and find him. So we went for a delicious lunch out on the pavement in front of the palace and then came back to find our man.
We were treated to an hour long private guided tour of the stables (where literally hundreds of horses are kept), arenas, veterinary hospital and park like surrounds - all with our very own armed soldier! Those of you who know my "thing" for men in uniform will understand how exciting this was!
Nicole and I then went on to be tourists proper and look through the Palace. It was never the home of the Royal Family - more like a holiday bach. We got to look through the Kings quarters at one end before walking 200m along huge hallways, past magnificent artworks, ceilings and windows, before reaching the Queen's boudoir at the other end. I take it they must have met half way for nights of royal passion. The library housed in the Palace is meant to be one of the largest and best in Europe housing some very rare collections of centuries old books. I was fascinated to hear that at night small bats fly into the library through a small hole in the wall to feast on small bugs that would destroy the books if it wasn't for the bats needing dinner. My other favorite room was the hunting trophy room - the antlers of deer from the surrounding parklands adorned the walls in quite spectacular fashion.
No sooner had we driven back to Cascais, when Nicole had me showered and ready to head out to the Arabian Night Market in S. Pedro da Sintra - an ancient town which has long been the home of Portugal's monarchs. The mansions and palaces here are breathtaking, and are set against wonderful hillsides. The Arabian Market had it all - belly dancing, sword swallowers, Arabian musicians, even a camel! There was plenty to choose from food wise and the atmosphere was fantastic - a great way to round off a fabulous four days.
It was with a heavy heart that I left Portugal the next morning - my four days having come to an end. But I know it will not be long till I am back enjoying the hospitality and wonderful horses of the Portuguese.