When you think hot air ballooning, most people would think of the picture-perfect sunset backdrops of Cappadocia, Turkey or Bagan, Myanmar. When I think of it, I picture the crisp autumn morning fog slowly rising from the red rooftops in the base of the Baltic states; Vilnius, Lithuania.
Vilnius is one of the only European cities where you can fly over top of the buildings. In late-September, I joined 10 other hot air balloons full of eager passengers waiting to take flight above the red roof houses of UNESCO listed Vilnius Old Town. We went with a company called Smile Hot Air Balloons, and had pilot Vytas, who I would definitely recommend. The whole tour lasted for 2.5 hours and only cost 90 euros, which compared to other places is really cheap! They also have a great safety record.
I woke up at 6am to meet our pilot in a small field smack in the middle of the town. Being my first time ever hot air ballooning, I assumed take off for the flight would be in a spacious area outside the city walls. Instead, I was surprised to see a tiny patch of grass filled with at least 10 other balloon crews inflating their giant patterned canvases. Our little green space was quickly filled with heat and the smell of kerosene as the balloons were preparing for their passengers.
Watching as one-by-one, each balloons’ designs were unveiled by the heat from their burners was a magical experience. Once we were ready to become airborne, I climbed into the thick wicker basket and held on! Slowly, one-by-one, all ten balloons gently rose into the early light of the morning. As we climbed, we could see some other balloons off in the distance as the red baroque architecture of the city shrunk underneath us. Being in airplanes gives you a bird’s eye view of cities as you fly into them, but rarely do you get to experience rising above it.
The twisting, cobblestones alleys that only hours before I had gotten lost in, now looked like the most navigable paths.
My basket held seven curious passengers in it, all from Lithuania. We stood in awe as the capital drifted away and the landscape of the countryside came into view. I listened and tried to pick up any form of the Lithuanian language that sounded familiar but I was completely lost. Lithuanians are very soft spoken and the language sounds very similar to the other Baltic dialects, none of which I understand!
Our guide would translate important landmarks out to us, like the Vilnius airport which was only a few kilometres away. We floated over winding riverbends, evergreen forests, industrial areas, and finally started to descend overtop of a residential area. As it was only around 7:30am, people were slowly waking up to the sounds of frantic dogs barking as this massive balloon sailed past. I can only imagine it looking like a scene out of the Disney movie UP!.
I asked the guide where we were going to land as each balloon had gone off into their own direction. He replied, “I never land in the same place twice! It’s always an adventure!” Variety is the spice of life!
We had a van following us around down the back roads of the capital trying to keep up with us in order to help pack all the equipment away in a hutch. As we were flying over a clearing between a subdivision and the edge of the forest, a family of deer and some wild bunnies started darting in and out of the trees trying to find shelter from the orb in the sky!
When we landed safely, our guide told us about the first hot air balloon flight that ever took place. Two French brothers built a balloon out of paper and managed to get it to take flight with them in tow. They were so excited about their invention that they accidently caught their hair on fire from the flames used to ignite the aircraft! All they had available to put it out was a bottle of champagne they were intending to use after the successful flight. Because of this, apparently, it’s tradition that each rider must have the same experience. Our guides took a mini lighter out of his pocket and lit a tiny strand of our hair on fire, and dosed it quickly with some bubbly – which we obviously got to enjoy afterwards!
I don’t think I would necessarily classify this as an ‘extreme sport’ but it helped make my Lithuania adventure one of my favourites from 2016.
Have you ever flown in a hot air balloon? Was this tradition enforced on you too? Write in the comments below, I’m curious to know!
For more pictures from my time in Lithuania, check out my Instagram.