When I’m lost, I attempt to recall a time when I had sincere joy. With its surrounding hills obscured by clouds and the Severn flowing old and wise at the foot of my property, I frequently get lost when I leave my house in Shropshire. The land and sky coloured my childhood summers with the black and red of Spain, where black is as red as passion and light is defined by shadow. I can still recall waking up to a sensation of the soil, which was pungent, salty, and parched, while the sky stretched like blue silk at dawn.
My family’s farm, Albardanera, was tucked away behind the mountains between Alicante and Valencia, its name’s Moorish lilt reflecting the undulating camel-saddle of hills rising to the east. It was there that I first learnt to listen to Spain. Because we lacked power, water was carried from wells tucked away in the shade of fig-scented patios and private gardens. By sluicing water from the mountains down to the lemon, Muscat vines, peaches, and almond fields, we rinsed off the salt from the sea in icy-green irrigation canals.
When we were kids, we were wild and free, roaming the mountainside on paths made of wild thyme that were covered in thorns and spider webs. I awoke to the sound of the goats bellowing as they descended the stone steps, the call to prayer from the minaret beyond Denia, and the rhythmic beat of bamboo sticks as José and Maria, our housekeepers, gathered their harvest of almonds on sheets placed beneath the trees. And I dozed out among stars that seemed to be touching me. Until I made my trip back to the country of my spirit in June of last year, I had not been back to Spain since 1981.
Swifts were screamin’ like kamikaze scimitar swallows as they flew between the sparkling decorative spires when I landed in Seville at dusk. The jasmine-filled evening slowly simmered. It was time to start my George Scott Safari. I spent the morning rediscovering the mysticism and splendour of Spain at the Hermandad de la Macarena, however, as my meeting point for the transfer the next day wasn’t until 4pm and was deep within the untamed Sierra Morena mountain region in Andalucia. I knelt here before The Virgin of Hope, the patroness of matadors and gipsies, first in wonder and then in prayer. Her veils appeared to be woven from a silken light, shimmering and moving as though she were breathing. The bravest of the matadors had given her five emerald brooches, which twinkled at her breast. Beyond the grandly ascetic but also dark aristocratic stoicism, the Moors taught the Spanish that there was something wonderful in life itself. I was drawn to the Casa de Pilatos and found comfort in its cool, tiled chambers with tessellated patterns typical of the Mudéjar style, which opened into rose and fountain gardens. I could hear the castanet and the melancholy elegy of the gypsy quarter-tone, the cante jondo, which is a haunting castanet rhythm.
It was time to locate the minibus parked in a plaza while the heat shimmered with the cicadas’ crescendo. I panicked because I thought I didn’t have enough experience as I was travelling with three other people—two stylish Texans wearing stetsons and a Franco-Irish lawyer—who were seasoned safari riders. But eventually I would learn to put all of this behind me.
Even though I had heard so many friends rave about this beautifully renovated 17th-century farmhouse with a chapel, when we arrived at Trasierra about teatime, I was awestruck by its profound charm and the high calibre of the emotions that flooded through me. Mother of George Scott, Charlotte Scott, built the most exquisite house you could imagine in Spain. Juan led the way to our bedrooms (upright, graceful and courteous). Except for the cicadas and bird calls, the home was calm as the sun tipped towards the wooded hills beyond the rose and white wisteria gardens. Spain has a long history of formality, and it hasn’t really changed since I was a child. It is noble because of its simplicity or poverty. Think of meriand. It may seem antiquated to have tea and home-made dulce, but the timeliness and generosity are so charming: the small cakes prepared in the kitchen, the unnoticed hands that set the table, the careful folding of an ajouré linen napkin by a porcelain dish.
George’s trip is punctuated by this faerie-magic of enchanted dining. There was hardly enough time to take a bath and get ready for supper after swimming in the gorgeous, chilly, blue throat of the pool. However, aperitivos—tapas served with iced red Zaranda wine from the Trasierra estate or the elixir of Jerez—come first. After that, we dined royally beneath a wisteria and vine-covered roof. And awoke from their lovely sleep.
The master of experience is George Scott. You can hardly tell the difference between a second and an hour, or the pause between each step of the dance, for every moment of his expedition has been planned out with such passion and poetry, and staged with such thoroughness. You are merely the dance.
Despite the fact that we still hadn’t met our horses, breakfasts are leisurely affairs with peaches and wildflowers on the table, perfect coffee, and fried eggs and toast to fuel the day’s ride. George possesses both the horse-whisperer and shaman skills necessary to match a virtual stranger with a horse. Had he closely observed us during dinner? Had he foreseen our individual strengths or the self-doubts we needed to overcome? Horses are liminal creatures of terror and flight; they communicate on a deeply emotional level unaffected by the “shoulds” and “musts” of the modern world. They are sensitive, but they are also healers, since equestrian therapy can improve the lives of trauma sufferers, anorexics, and addicts. They can feel a single fly land on their backs and quickly swatted it away. It seems sense that they can sense our tidal emotions and white-water stress as soon as we get in the saddle.
As George introduced me to my ride, Taranto, a glitzy Hispano-Arab with a watchful eye, I made an effort to shake off my nervousness. He can dance a little, but he’s a very fine horse, George remarked. I picked up the reins made of colourful pom-poms and sat down in the saddle, thinking, “Okay.” “I’ll attempt to stop him from coming too close to another horse,” the rider said. And as usual, I gave everything too much consideration and interpreted each step too much. George has a peculiar power that allows you to just go along with it and be at one with the horse.
A five-hour or longer ride through the last of the late-spring blooms, up rocky, steep inclines, and down again through briar and oleander removes anticipation and puts you in the now. We cantered through lush holm oak, chestnut, and pine forests as we travelled along ancient cordelas, or former cattle roads, and felt like jousting knights. We saw ibex and amazing cork trees that resembled charred warriors because the honeycomb upper layer of the trees had been torn away, exposing the inner bark, which was turning black as it regrows. We noticed tables had been put up beneath the trees as we rounded a bend in the sunny ride. The tables’ vibrant tablecloths were piled high with bowls of delicious Jamón ibérico, melon, and lentil soup. We dismounted, gave our horses to George, Heloise, or Jaime to tie, and let them graze in the shade before being welcomed to wash our hands and faces in a bowl of water filled by a dark-haired sylph of the woods, who also gave us linen towels and tipped fresh water from a pitcher. Both exhaustion and magic. After lunch, we spread out on tartan carpets for a sumptuous nap after being guided into a mystical grove.