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Merri Travels

Welcome to Portugal: Golegã and Alpiarça

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Friday April 18 2008

Golegã, Portugal: "Capital of the Horse" - as signs at the city limits to the city will attest, and home of this year's Campeonato Nacional de Resistencia Equestre - the CEI3* 160 km Portuguese National Endurance Championships.

If you are a fan of the Lusitano horse, (and even if you are not), you will want to come here in November. Every year since the 18th century, the "Feira de San Martinho" - dedicated to the Bishop of Tours (later St Martin) - has been held in honor of the horse - www.horsefairlusitano.org). It is still one of the most important horse fairs in Portugal, and features the Lusitano breed in equestrian games and competitions. A million visitors are expected this year.

The Lusitano is the result of selection over some five thousand years, according to Manuel Viega, one of the early 20th century breeders. It was primarily used in battle; today it is competitive in a wide range of sports, and is the primary horse breed used in bullfighting. For those of you squeamish about bullfights, in Portugal, the bull is not killed. Several hundred years ago, Queen Marie of Portugal forbade killing of the bull; that tradition still continues today.

In the center of Golegã is a town square surrounding an open sand arena where most of the horse sports take place during the fair. This also serves as the setting for other horse events... such as this weekend's 2008 Portuguese Endurance Championships.

To Alpiarça: I arrived in Lisbon on Thursday, rented a car at the airport, and headed to Alpiarça, 1 1/4 hours from Lisbon, and 20 minutes from Golegã. When Steph and I came to Portugal for the European Championships last year, we got so lost at times, that this time I brought a stack of Google maps with me (maybe one reason my suitcase is so heavy), and I had an easy and lucky time making it where I was going. Easy because it was almost straightforward, and lucky because at times the highways seem to mysteriously change numbers, or the signs guiding you to another road just lose interest in continuing to direct you - they just disappear. The signs on the last bit of my route to Alpiarça lost interest in directing me there, but I happened to be stumbling along the correct path, and without any trauma, arrived at my destination, a little village in the Portuguese countryside.

In Portugal, I'd be a guest of Vasco Lopez Avo - who met Steph and John in Abu Dhabi at the President's Cup in 2005, and again in Malaysia in November 2007 - and in Alpiarça, I was a guest of Vasco's friend Luis Almadas and his family's
Hotel Rural Quinta de Torre
, a farm hotel in a beautiful charming vine-covered working farm and guest hotel from the 1700's. It has a restaurant/bar and common room, and a swimming pool for the summer - not for this visit, as it was quite cool and rainy. I wandered about the grounds and of course found and investigated the barn - a thick-walled row of cement stables, in which (I found out later) were a few of Luis' horses, including an old gray eventer of his. I also found a baby lamb in one stall, bleating for his mama. He ran to me thinking I might fit the bill, then changed his mind when he got a good look at me. I was fascinated with the thick vines completely covering the old buildings - seemed to emphasize the old stateliness and homeyness of the place. The Portuguese Junior Championships will be held in Alpiarça on May 24th... the perfect time to stay here with the Almadas family (it will be warm enough to use the pool!)

In the evening I met Vasco, (who'd be crewing for Antonio), Antonio (who'd be riding his stallion Saturday), Luis, and Manuel, their groom ("we are training him"). Luis took us to a favorite restaurant of his for dinner; I stuffed myself with a huge plate of beef, plus salad and potatoes. They don't seem to believe in small servings here in the southwestern part of Europe, and I don't seem to be able to not stuff myself. I discovered another dessert to (almost) rival the delectable Creme de Catalon - some caramel dish that put me over the top. Most of the evening talk was, of course, what it most often is with the endurance people I meet: horses. Vasco and I found out that my Thoroughbred ex-racehorse Stormy, and his Anglo-Arab are distant cousins via the Northern Dancer line! Vasco talked enthusiastically about endurance and horses, and even Antonio noticed: "He's always talking horses. You see his eyes light up when he talks about them!" which was exactly what I noticed. Antonio jumped up to get the dinner bill - "the jockey is paying for dinner!" It was a very enjoyable evening with new friends from Portugal.

Tomorrow we are off to Golegã to settle in Antonio's stallion and vet in for Saturday's ride.

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