Sunday, July 22, 2007

Raven II Rides Belgium!

Sunday July 22 2007

Friendly people, beautiful countryside, thick green wet forests, old well-preserved houses and castles, perfect lighting, not least the mild weather... Belgium has grown on the Raven quickly.

We're staying with Leonard and Carole, who live in a little village, Gesves (say “zhev”) 70 km from Brussels, putting them in the southern region of Belgium, the Wallonian French-speaking part. Leo's lovely old house probably originally dates back to the 1800's – he's lived in it for 10 years. There's a few old stables and several paddocks rich with grass for his 4 horses. Many of the village dwellers rebuild the houses from the 1700's and 1800's in the old stone style. Many were big old farmhouses, half of which the family lived in and half which was the stables for the animals. Belgium has more castles per square mile than any country, and I saw a number of them driving to Leo's house from Brussels (“Oh, there's another castle”). Most people keep up their old places in meticulous condition, taking much pride in landscaping them. Brilliant, bright-colored flowers inhabit many brick and stone windowsills everywhere.

It's lovely and cool at night, and not-hot during the day, although if you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes and it will change: sun, clouds, rain, rain and sun, wind, storm, not a breeze. It usually starts off perfectly clear every morning and starts clouding up by noon, and by evening, you can hedge your bets that it's raining somewhere in Belgium. And always, at about 8 PM for about an hour, brilliant golden evening light filters through either haze or clouds or moist air, accenting church steeples and castles, highlighting the folds of hills and the leaves on trees. Even if you're not a photographer, it makes you stare with your mouth open in amazement.

The wet forest is much like the Pacific Northwest: wet, green, thick, ferns, moss, mud, slugs.

The Raven rode in the home forest a couple of times, and once over the groomed track and trails through the forest just outside Brussels.

One day, riding along the old racecourse near Brussels, there, right in front of us on the grass... a hawk feather! (From a Common Buzzard, central Europe's most common bird of prey; it looks similar to our American Red-tailed hawks or Swainson's hawks.) The feather was a gift from the hawk to the Raven.

The Raven rode Carol's young horse Bicai, Leo's 6-year-old qualified horse Dario, and, the star of Leo's stable, 18-year-old Orfeo: a horse that's been to 2 European Championships and 4 World Championships.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Raven in Brussels

Monday July 16 2007

On to Brussels, Belgium!

Belgium, a country the size of Maryland with 10.5 million people, is a country rich in history and culture, art and architecture from Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque periods. There are more castles per square mile in Belgium than anywhere else in the world.

And then there's the world famous cuisine, and the beer and chocolates and desserts!

There's hundreds of Belgian beers – Belgium lays claim to having the most varied and numerous collection of beers in the world. Beer-brewing in Belgium originated in the monasteries in the Middle Ages, a fine occupation for monks, eh?

Three leading chocolate makers are headquartered in Belgium: Neuhaus (founded in Brussels in 1857!), Godiva (founded 1926 in Brussels) and Leonidas (founded by a Greek living in US in early 1900's, but he subsequently moved to Belgium).

The Raven got a ride into Brussels and took a walking tour around the city.

Besides the sweets in Brussels, The Raven most enjoyed one of the parks where he made the acquaintance of a raven.

The main centerpiece of Brussels is the Grand Place , with its Baroque and Gothic guildhouses (house guilds of bakers, carpenters, archers, boatsmen, haberdashers), most built in early 1700's. The Town Hall (Hotel de Ville) dates from the 1200's. The Grand Place as been the commercial hub of the city since it was built as a market in the 1200's. You can gorge here at the cafes, chocolate stores, and souvenir stores. You can visit any number of museums, theatres, luxury and designer stores, historical monuments, art galleries, markets, cathedrals (the St Gudule and St Michael’s Cathedral dates from the 1400's) here. You cannot, however, visit a Starbucks!

Which is why The Raven and I partook of our friend's expresso machine and had some serious Belgian coffee at home.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Roses on the Mediterranean

Monday July 9 2007

We're in the very northeast corner of Spain, on the Bahia de Roses (Bay of Roses) on the Mediterranean. It's a nice touristy little sea-side resort town, not too obnoxious.

It's a fun place to walk in the evening, past many beach clothing stores, restaurants, and gelato places (it's best to sample a few), and the boardwalk along the beach . The sunsets are quite spectacular – as most Mediterranean sunsets are – the rain clouds and sun clashing on the horizon and painting the near hills and the far mountains different colors, with, of course, a rainbow for dessert. The restaurants are crowded, and many people are out strolling, late into the night. This strolling about, sitting in restaurants late into the evening is a fine European pastime.

We're staying here while we visit a horseman at El Bagual Farm.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Raven II Rides Spain!

July 2 2007

We're visiting Bernat and Neus Cassals' farm Vilaformiu (old Catalonian language, meaning “beautiful house”), perched on side of foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, the “pre-Pyrenees” foothills, in Catalonia, the very northeast corner of Spain

The grooms working for Bernat saddled up the chestnut gelding Amazhig for us, the Raven hopped into his bag on the saddle, and off we went for a ride in the pre-Pyrenees mountains of Spain!

We started up the 'logging roads,' part of them connecting with a hiker trail that runs about 100 miles, and will take you through the Pyrenees into France.

Our horses had a good climb up, some of it steep, some of it on trails through the green rich forest, and when we got back onto a dirt road, we started trotting, switching-backing up and up, and the last few stretches we picked up a canter. My horse loped smoothly along, both of us squinting from the rocks flying up from the feet of Bernat's mount as they pelted us in the face. Up to the top we cantered, the top o' the world, where we had 3 directions of the compass spread out far below us – it was hazy/smoggy, but bello – beautiful!

The Raven enjoyed the view, and we saw a couple of vultures hanging high in the wind updrafts.