Well, we did it! My Kindle's alarm got us up at 5am and we got ready as quick as possible to get on the road for our hot air balloon flight over Tuscany.
I had programmed the location in my GPS before we left the States, and as we drove to the location, I spied their storage building that I had seen on Google Earth's ground view. We were actually a little early for our flight and the balloon crew hadn't arrived yet. A phone call and a few minutes later, Gianna pulled up to the side of us in her BallooninTuscany.com shrink-wrapped Range Rover and waved for us to follow her car to the launch field about a quarter mile away...
We pulled off the road and parked our Fiat 500L under a tree in a small spot under some trees and unloaded our still-tired bodies. Gianna's bright, outdoorsy smile greeted us and said (in wonderful English) to jump in her car for the drive to the launch site. We went on a tumbling roller coaster of a ride through the woods, spilling out into their hidden field. That's where we finally met Gianna's husband, Stefano, the burly, smiling Maestro of Ballooning, having just arrived with his balloon trailer in tow.
He made us feel confident right off... his cigarette and smile seemed to go with each other. His generous frame spoke of loving life and pasta. He spoke English charmingly well, having had lived and worked as a photographer in New York City back in the early Eighties. Having my studio in Manhattan for over 25 years, I was surprised we never ran into one another. In another age you could picture him as the aging flying ace putting all the younger pilots though their paces. In reality, it is Stefano who has trained most of the current crop of competing balloonists that you might hire in Italy. Personally, I was happy to be flying with their Maestro--although Lisa had been ballooning before, for Lucas and myself, this was our first flight.
Stefano, Gianna and a young assistant-pilot, Roberto (he prefers Robert) Trandafir, set up the balloon methodically... first the basket, then pull and stretch the balloon along the ground, straighten out the lines and cables, then the burners, fire them up, test the flame, begin inflation... The first test blast of the burners spooked all of us. The thing sounds like a jet. The whole process took about 25 minutes.
We then climbed aboard--Lisa did a great job getting her aching knee on board, Lucas climbed right over, and Babbo climbed up and slid in. Before we knew what was happening, Stefano had us up and away within seconds. In a minute we had already risen higher than any trees and were enjoying a misty Tuscan sunrise.
I can't describe the peacefulness of it... the gentlest motion you can imagine... the occasional sound of dog barking or a hunter's shots far below.... the far off layers of high mountains in northern Tuscany with the white marble mountains of Carrara looking like snow... the Towers of San Gimignano off in the distance... the textures and geometry of vineyards and olive groves... the hovering and drifting wisps of smoke as farmers all around were burning their olive tree prunings. You could smell the smoke even from up high. We were looking down on chic villas and peasant farmhouses... A real bucket list item checked off. What a wonderful experience--I'm glad we could give this to Lucas.
While in flight, we had interesting discussions with Stefano... finding out he was a photographer in Manhattan for a short time in the 1980s; discussing the Italian concept of being "furbo" and cheating the system (which he disagrees with); hunters in Italy--we passed over 3 hunters in their large treetop blind, with their pigeons sitting on a rail, waiting calmly to be released in flight--only to have these so-called "hunters" shoot them. Stefano said it's the reason song birds and most other small game are becoming scarce. "They shoot anything for this sport of killing. They will even kill hawks." He told of times when he was young when there were many more birds, rabbits and foxes in the fields. Stefano exudes a zest for life, confidence in his craft, and a strong connection to the land and customs of Italy and a desire to share it with Voyagers like us
A real show of a balloonist's choreography. After about 1-1/2 hours, Stefano hunted for a landing site... he aimed toward a field and we saw Roberto down below with the chase car & trailer driving through three fields trying to get to us as we descended. Interestingly, we also saw a farmer's car come racing into the field, jump out and confronting Roberto. We heard the yelling from 500 feet up. Stefano told us that this is one of the problem farmers that doesn't like any balloonists landing on his fields--always claiming damage to his crops and looking for money. Traditionally, balloonists will offer the farmer Prosecco or a round of cheese and all is well. In fact, this landing field was bare--already harvested--no damage would be possible. Roberto talked him into letting us land in peace. He drove off just as we were coming in for the landing.
Then Stefano did something that amazed us... He took note of where Roberto would enter the field, then skimmed the tall grasses to slow the balloon down, then up a bit, then skim again... seemingly timing the chase car's arrival. He then proved his skills by not only putting the balloon down in exactly the field he wanted, but by actually landing the basket right behind the balloon's trailer (so Lisa could climb out easier right onto the trailer's bed!) It was a balloonist's well thought-out choreography. Obviously, Stefano knows his stuff--and cares about people. Bravo Maestro!
The other reason I chose Stefano and Gianna as our balloon hosts was because, unlike the folding tables in the landing field with cheap wine, cheese and fruit, we were driven back to their 600 year old country home for a brunch with a quality Prosecco. Sausage, prosciutto, cheese, fruit, amazingly thick millefiori honey (tasted like jam), a Tuscan raisin bread, a rustic Tuscan loaf of pane, focaccia, orange juice, and more...
All this, plus great conversation, 4 little dogs for Lucas to play with, and a tour back in time--of their house... with the most amazingly authentic Tuscan kitchen!
Overall, this was one of the best experiences of my life. There wasn't much wind, so we didn't travel all that far, but we went to an elevation of nearly 2700 feet and had amazing views. Lucas and Lisa feel the same. Mille grazie, Gianna and Stefano!
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Copyright 2014-2017, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved