May 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Italian Idyll IX: On Horseback in Ciocheria

“I can’t believe it’s almost time to go home!” Jake remarked to Belle, as they prepared to begin to pack up their belongings at the end of their seventh day in Fiuggi.

“I’m not sure we have enough room in our luggage or carry-ons to bring home all the gifts we’ve bought,” replied Belle.

“Don’t worry so much, we always manage to fit everything in; you’re a great packer, so I’m sure it’ll work out. We’re leaving day after tomorrow very early, so let’s plan something to do around the hotel today, in Fiuggi itself. What do you think?” asked Jake.

“Well, Marissa and I still want to go into town and try some shopping.”

“Not for me,” responded Jake quickly. “I was told at the front desk that I can go horseback riding nearby and that seems like quite the adventure, gallivanting around the Italian countryside like some knight-errant!”

Belle couldn’t help stifling a laugh at the thought of Jake, mounted on a mighty steed like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. For his part Jake, was also imagining himself in the saddle, armed to the teeth alongside Clint Eastwood in some spaghetti western, riding hard through the countryside bringing, in this instance, Italian desperadoes to heel.

“Watch yourself!” Belle shouted as Jake nearly tripped over a pair of shoes he had missed on the floor in front of him. He caught his fall.

“I’m going downstairs to see if I can arrange a riding lesson or trail ride for today or tomorrow. I’ll see if Marissa wants to come along. She can go shopping with you also if I arrange it right.”

There was a short line ahead of Jake at the concierge’s desk, but soon Alena was calling the local horseback-riding establishment—Alvaro’s—to arrange an appointment for Jake and Marissa for the next morning. After several futile attempts, Alena got Lorenzo Alvaro, the bosses’ son, on the phone and confirmed a 10:00 slot for an hour’s ride. Jake thanked her and went straight to lunch where he told Belle and Marissa that the ride was on for the next day.

Now, over the years, Jake had some history riding horses, in such diverse, far-flung places as Colorado near Pike’s Peak; in the Lower Galilee near the banks of the Kinneret; in the Catskill Mountains near Windham, New York; and in the dense sugar-cane country of Miami and Orlando, Florida. Also, his neighbor down the road in New Jersey had owned the 2017 Triple Crown Winner, American Pharoah, so horses were not completely foreign to him. To be sure, Jake was by no means an expert horsemen, but, by this time, Jake knew enough from his dozen times on horseback to know how to undertake a comfortable trail ride. What he wasn’t prepared for was to undertake such an excursion in the mountains surrounding Fiuggi, among “cowboys” who spoke no English and atop a mount that “spoke” only Italian.

The cab arrived on time at the hotel the next morning to drive Jake and Marissa to the horse farm. It took only 10 minutes to enter and exit the town of Fiuggi proper and another 10 to reach the valley where the Alvaro ranch was located. The cab circled the large complex until it reached the entrance road to the main stables. Dogs barked in the distance as they drove by, chickens and roosters fluttered busily in coops that lined their path. At last they emerged onto a broad, dusty entrance road that led directly to their destination. Jake and Marissa descended from the cab and walked slowly toward what appeared to be the main stable. Nobody was stirring in the sun-filled yard, so they headed for the stable entrance.

“Hello, buongiorno!” Jake attempted. “Is anybody around?” No one answered. Jake tried again. Finally, he heard from inside the stable the sound of a horse whinnying, followed by someone’s steps, and soon Lorenzo Alvaro appeared before him, looking in every respect like a character from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Unfortunately, Jake could have used subtitles, because Lorenzo, bearded and grimy, did not speak one word of English! Soon he was joined by two or three assistants, similarly attired in jeans and/or chaps, each equally ignorant of Jake’s tongue. For a brief moment, there was a standoff between Jake and Marissa and the Italians, a face-off between two ancient Judeans and four formidable Roman cavalrymen. Jake attempted to bridge the language gap between the two groups by repeating the name of the hotel several times, until finally Lorenzo seemed to acknowledge that the Rabinowitzes were there to take the scheduled trail ride.

“You pay now, before ride, OK,” Lorenzo, suddenly fluent in English, said.

“I’m not certain I want to go, Dad,” began Marissa. “Are you sure it’s safe?” she asked no one in particular.

“That’s how they make their living, Marissa,” offered her Dad weakly.

Lorenzo eyed first Jake and then Marissa a little more carefully, obviously part of his process in choosing a suitable mount for the ride.

Lorenzo disappeared into the darkened stable with one of his assistants. He emerged five minutes later leading two horses, that to all sad appearances had carried riders on many occasions in the past. The first, a roan-colored mare, stood almost 20 hands high, hardly towering over Jake who had inconveniently forgotten on which side of the horse he was obligated to mount. The horse—we’ll call her Fabiana—had the good sense to shift at every feeble attempt by Jake to mount her. This maneuver continued for about 10 minutes, frustrating Lorenzo, Jake and the cowboys no end. At last Lorenzo motioned to Jake to ascend an adjacent crate, which raised Jake to saddle height. At last he could swing his right leg over the saddle and sit comfortably atop Fabiana. Lorenzo secured Jake’s legs in the stirrups and thrust the reins with little instruction into Jake’s hands. Fabiana wore a look of inevitability on her face as she adjusted to the reality of Jake’s weight.

Marissa, much lither than her father, had no problems mounting her smaller horse and in a matter of five more minutes, one of the cowboys appeared atop a lively stallion and, as their guide for today’s ride, pointed out the road ahead that the Rabinowitzes were to follow. Lorenzo and the remaining two cowboys entered the stable to be seen no more.

Without so much as a word, the guide proceeded down a well-worn road through the ranch grounds, around stables and silos, past broken-down farm machinery and groves of sun-ripening fruit, with the verdant hills of Ciocheria in the distance. The sun was their constant companion as the cloudless skies provided no respite from the late-morning heat. Beads of sweat formed on their faces as the horses plodded along on their very familiar path. How familiar was it? You can safely say Jake’s mount knew every plant on the road intimately, so much so that Jake quickly guessed that the Rabinowitzes trail ride was in reality a luncheon trip for the Alvaro ranch horses on which they rode. Fabiana made at least a dozen “munch” stops along the trail to select particularly flavorful branches or sprigs to browse on.

Both Rabinowitzes were in general command of their mounts as the ride continued; from time to time, their guide turned around to check on them but he basically left them alone to fend for themselves. Throughout the ride, there were other travellers who accompanied the three mounted riders; these were known in Italian as le mosche—not the biblical leader—but the homely fly. They bedeviled Fabiana from start to finish, oblivious to the swishing of her tail, rustling of her main or vain efforts of Jake to swat them away. Ultimately, all efforts to prevail over le mosche were unsuccessful.

As the trail ride came to an end, as is usual the horses instinctively sensed the nearing comforts of the stable and each began to speed up in an imaginary race to the finish line. Jake, by now a true Jewish-Italian cowboy, pulled up last at the entrance to the stable, Fabiana and company posing for souvenir photos with the Rabinowitzes.

“We had a great time, Belle,” was all Jake, slightly sore, would say when they got back to the hotel. “Have fun shopping in town.” And she did!

By Joseph Rotenberg


Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for more than 40 years with his wife, Barbara. He has spent most of that time searching his surroundings for signs of intelligent life. His first collection of short stories and essays, entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment,” will be published by Gefen later this year.

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