Walking with donkeys is all about enjoying the journey. Tranquil country trails, rustic, home-cooked food, rich landscapes and magnificent views. But it’s a beguiling long-eared friend, with a soft muzzle and big brown eyes, that will really steal your heart…
Mark and Victorine live in Zeist, a small town in the middle of the Netherlands, near Utrecht. Victorine is a film maker and Mark runs a learning and development company. Their daughter, eleven-year-old Janna, loves being at home with her two guinea pigs, funny girls Pluk and Saartje. After walking with animals, she also fell in love with Angelina, a donkey.
In 2015 the family went on a 5-day trek in La Mulattiera in the Umbria region of Italy, bordering Tuscany, Lazio and Le Marche. Known as the country’s green heart, it’s famous for its medieval hill towns, dense forests and local cuisine, including truffles and wines. In 2016 they returned for a whole week, walking with another family for the first few days. I asked Victorine about it…
What made you decide to go trekking with a donkey?
I had always wanted to do it. I love donkeys. They’re beautiful and, although they can look a bit dim, they’re really very clever. Their eyes are the sweetest eyes in the world. I managed to persuade my husband, who’s afraid of horses but not too nervous of donkeys. My daughter didn’t need any convincing. She loves animals from here to the moon.
Did you have any previous experience of looking after donkeys?
We once went walking on Terschelling, one of those beautiful Dutch Waddeneilanden, with a donkey. Just for a few hours.
What was the accommodation like?
We stayed in different places; a nice hotel in Preci, a wonderful farmhouse in Castellucio and a very touristy but funny place in Norcia. The people who worked there were really kind and helped us feed the donkeys. Everywhere we went the food was amazing. A real taste of Umbria and just what you need after a hike.
At the hotel in Norcia, we had to ‘park’ the donkeys in the car park and unpack them while people were checking in. Some of the guests found this quite amusing.
Did you receive training in how to look after the donkeys?
On the first day we had lessons, which we enjoyed. The donkey owners were patient and helpful. We had time to get to really know our donkeys, as well as how to brush and feed them – and encourage them to walk! You also learn how to pack the donkey.
What were your donkeys called?
We walked with Angelina, a small female donkey who became Janna’s girlfriend, and Mark and I had a large male donkey called Mozart, who carried our bags. He was the boss but the kindest boss in the world. The following year we had the same donkeys again (you do fall in love) and the other family had Toto and Luna.
Did the children enjoy it?
They loved it. Sometimes they’re not keen on walking long distances but with a donkey they feel responsible. They have a best friend they are really proud of. When they get tired they can even sit on them for a while, which made us very jealous!
Did anyone in the family form a special bond with the donkeys?
Our daughter Janna had a strong bond with Angelina. In the morning she took her from the meadow to feed, brush, kiss and so on. My husband Mark, not a big animal lover, became really close with Mozart.
When we had to split up after four days, we found it difficult to say goodbye to our friends but even harder to leave the donkeys behind. When we left, they stopped and didn’t want to walk on without us. They brayed for half an hour. Our hearts broke.
Were there any difficult moments?
Donkeys feel how you feel and they seem to know what you’re thinking. If I was tired and wanting to stop, the donkeys stopped! If we were in our stride they were happy to walk.
At one point, Mozart refused to go through a small opening in a fence. After fifteen minutes of trying we gave up and had to open the gate by untangling the chain. It took a while but we succeeded. Eventually, when Mozart was satisfied, he walked!
We also came across some sheepdogs. There quite a lot of them and they came quite close. The donkeys were frightened and began backing off. That wasn’t nice.
Just like Eeyore, donkeys love thistles, really love them, and sometimes they are everywhere! If you pass an apple tree, they have to eat apples and apples and apples and it’s really difficult to go on.
And you need to keep a close eye on your food at lunchtime. If you’re feeling tired and your eyes wander for a moment to take in the view…they approach very, very slowly…and it’s bye-bye lunch.
What was the best thing about the holiday?
Being together (you don’t see more than about ten other people on the trail all day), the bond you have with the donkeys, the beautiful mountains, using a map and even getting lost. Sometimes you stay two nights in the same place, which means a shorter walk and a bit of a break for the children. Otherwise it can be too much.
Did being with a donkey make it better?
There’s more to do when you’re with donkeys. In the morning Janna would run to the donkey and it made her want to walk. Donkeys are so special. You have to stay calm and be relaxed, otherwise they won’t listen to you.
What advice would you give anyone thinking about going donkey trekking?
Just do it! (And take enough food with you for the day.)
Victorine, Mark and Janna went trekking with Happy Donkey Tours. They have ten years of experience leading treks throughout Italy, the French Alps and Corsica. You can hire a professional guide or go unaccompanied. Treks range from 3 days to 8 days.
For a full list of donkey trekking options in Europe, from afternoon ambles to treks lasting two weeks or more, with information and links, visit my Donkey Trekking Europe page.
Copyright 2017 Amy Swift