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(Sorry, I had to interrupt my travel series with a lament about fire. Now I’m taking you back to France with me.)

After sleeping straight through the dark, star-laden night on a simple bed, in a simple room with a toilet at one end and a shower and sink at the other end, the day begins at Domaine des Garennes (DdG) at 8:15. Guests muster for breakfast: coffee or tea, juice, bread and croissants with a variety of homemade jams, Nutella or cheese, and optional cereal, served farm-style around a long table in the dining room. Half an hour later and about two blocks away, riders greet their mounts and begin tacking. After owner, Annabella, has checked everyone’s gear, riders mount from an ingenious mounting ramp and, like a family of ducklings, head out behind Annabella.

Breakfast in waiting

Tacking

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Mounting setup

The ride proceeds along a two-track dirt road, sometimes ker-klocking through narrow cobbled streets that meander through villages dating back to the 1700s and earlier. Occasionally the path narrows to a single track through forests of tree limbs reaching out to scrape daydreaming riders from their saddles.

IMG_4273With about 25 horses to choose from, no horse is overused. They are all sleek, fat, and carefully tended. The gear, while not fancy, is meticulously cared for, as are the stables.IMG_0808Bambi (Bombi, in the local vernacular, named for the sprinkle of spots across her wide rump) was my mount for the week. She, like all the horses, is calm and gentle, with nice gaits and a willing attitude. Although the rides are sprinkled with short trots and canters, the pace is slow and relaxed, geared toward success for the inevitably inexperienced riders who want to experience pastoral French landscapes from horse height. On our rides we saw birds—mostly hawks and swallows—roe deer, fox, beef and dairy cattle, sheep with their donkey guards, and of course there are always busy body dogs who lie in wait to roar out of the bushes, hoping for a mailman to chew on.IMG_0977Old stone fences, crumbled and moss covered, line some of the trails, mute testimony to the labor that cleared land for lovely meadows and fields we observe today. Deciduous forests are thick with small oak and chestnut trees, and a dense undercover of ferns, ivy, and thorny, berry bushes. The largest oaks are no more than 18 inches in diameter, with mostly only 6-8 inches.IMG_0903

It is July 2015 and France is well into a drought that threatens the livelihood of dry land farmers without access to the Dordogne and other regional rivers. The grass is yellow. Thirsty deciduous leaves droop and crumble. Fields of stunted corn stalks wither under the punishing sun. Water rationing is in effect. Distant, dark clouds advertise a mixed blessing; maybe precious rain, but more likely, lightening strikes to ignite tinder dry grass. Unproductive clouds further the discomfort by blanketing the heat and adding just enough moisture to the air to cover every inch of skin in a sheen of sweat.

Cornfields resemble failed hair implants

Cornfields resemble failed hair implants

All crops are languishing

All crops are languishing

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Yellow grass scalloped with thirsty trees.

Yellow grass scalloped by thirsty trees.

This muck puddle is all that is left of several ponds on the ranch.

This muck is all that is left of several ponds on the ranch.

During this hot period, rides end around noon. After rinsing down the horses and putting away the tack, lunch is laid out in the dining room.

All waste water is captured and dumped on dying bushes.

All waste water is captured and dumped on dying bushes.

First comes a variety of salads, then a hot main dish like quiche, veggie pizza, or a pot pie, then a cheese plate, and finally a bit of dessert pushes the belt out another notch.IMG_0897Lunch is incomplete without wine.

Lunch is incomplete without wine.

After lunch, guests are on their own to loll around the swimming pool or visit the local attractions: castles, caves, sanctuaries, and exquisite formal gardens near the rivers. I will highlight some of the tourist sites I explored in future posts.IMG_1999Before sunset, it’s time for the five-course dinner, during which copious wine and/or beer lubricates tall tales of the guests’ afternoon adventures till long after dark.