Well, we did it! My Kindle's bell alarm got us up at 5am and we got ready as quick as possible to get on the road. We were actually a little early for our flight so 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.
A handsome, outdoorsy smile greeted us and said to jump in her car for the drive to the launch site. A tumbling roller coaster of a ride through the woods and we spilled out into their hidden field. It's there we 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 in New York City back in the early Eighties. In another age you could picture him as the aging flying ace putting all the younger pilots though their paces. In fact, he has trained most of the current crop of competing balloonists.
Stefano, Gianna and a young assistant pilot, Roberto, 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, inflate. 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 north of Tuscany... 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. Looking down on villas and peasant farmhouses alike.
After about 1-1/2 hours, Stefano 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!)
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, proscuitto, cheese, fruit, amazing thick millifiori honey (tasted like jam), a Tuscan raisin bread, rustic bread, foccacia, orange juice, and more..
All this, plus great conversation (Stefano is a bit of a philosopher), 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, one of the best experiences of my life... we went to over 2600 feet high. Lucas and Lisa feel the same. Thank you Gianna and Stefano!
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