Continuing from Getting There
Sunday, June 28, 1998
Brian slept well, but Annie, Lisa and I didn't. I guess we were out of whack from the escapades of our journey. Robin and Stephani, who had traveled more successfully, fared well in the sleep department. By coincidence or conspiracy, the three of us non-sleepers all seemed to open our eyes at about 1:30 am. Of course, each of us assumed ourself the only one awake, so we each stared silently at our respective ceilings. After such a long journey, we should have been exhausted. Perhaps we were simply filled with too much anticipation.
Our wake-up calls from Buddy came at 5:00. Since Annie, Lisa and I had all been up, more or less, for hours at that point, the early hour did not trouble us. It was good to have something to do other than simply waiting for the time to pass.
The Park Hotel's breakfast service ran from 7:30 to 10:30. As a special accommodation to early-rising balloonists, however, a continental breakfast of juice, coffee and rolls was set out for us in one of the dining rooms. We had our quick breakfast at 5:30, and we headed out at 6:00 to meet the waiting crew.
Today's launch site was about fifteen minutes away from the hotel. Because the Previas were full, I rode in the lead vehicle, a Rover sedan, with the four pilots: Buddy, Mike, Steve and Arnie. I sat up front with Mike; Buddy was immediately behind me. This seating arrangement added an extra element of excitement to our trip, for Buddy was our navigator. He kept looking back and forth between his map and the back of my headrest: He was unable to see the signs that indicated our appointed turns until they appeared in his side window ... just after we had passed them.
We made it to our launch site without much difficulty nevertheless, and the pilots and crew performed the usual preflight rituals. Steve released a blue helium-filled balloon, and the burner jockeys watched with keen interest as it climbed higher and higher. Wind currents vary at different altitudes, and observing what's happening a thousand feet above the ground is vital to hot air balloon navigation. Our chariots won't go in the direction we want unless there is some air moving in that direction, after all.
It takes the test balloon a few minutes before it rises to the most informative elevations. Unfortunately, the height at which it enters its area of primary importance is also the height where it has become very small and difficult to see. Look away for a second, and it's lost. But with several experienced balloon watchers staring intently into the sky, the secrets of the wind were divulged to those who needed to know.
The pilots signaled the crew, whereupon the trucks circled the field and deposited the balloon baskets in their pre-launch formation. As the passengers watched, the balloons changed from flat fabric on the ground to colorful orbs of transportation.
We had an absolutely beautiful flight. Seven of us, plus Mike the Pilot, were in Corkscrew-Balloon I, and Buddy Bombard had three of his "tulip" balloons full of other clients. We started upwind of Siena, and we drifted over the town and the surrounding countryside. It was just perfect.
We had some good views of Siena from high above, so we were able to get a global perspective on the region. The Piazza, where the Palio would be run, clearly appeared as the central hub from which the spokes of the city's streets spun outward. We couldn't get too close: Suddenly, there were some horses in the square, no doubt engaged in some pre-Palio activities. The balloon burners would be an annoyance to the horses, who surely had enough on their minds already. All the balloons quickly increased their distance from the Piazza.
We drifted north of the city, past the new hospital that, while modern, managed to convey a classic Siena look. In addition to the color of the stone, it conveyed a "wall" motif, and it was perhaps no coincidence that the wall faced the city's ancient enemy, Florence.
Then we were back in the hills and the countryside. The countryside is so beautiful here, with vineyards and olive trees all over the place and magnificent estates dotting the land.
At the appropriate time, our trusty crew appeared in the field below us. We landed and had our traditional champagne toast (plus some breakfast pastries) with a local farmer who joined us. It was not yet 9:00, but we'd already had a great day!
Our next agenda item was a mini-tour of Siena. We took the Previas into town and wandered toward the Piazza di Campo, where the Palio would be run in a few days. As we walked toward the center of the city, we heard the drumbeats of a parade. This proved to be a procession of the Onde contrada (the "Wave"). In the days leading up to the Palio, activities such as this became quite frequent. We watched them pass, and we headed onward toward the Piazza
We had just seen the Piazza from the air, and it was interesting to compare the perspective from above with the one at ground level. We found a little restaurant facing the Piazza, and we sat down at the tables outside -- actually, on the track where the horses would run -- and we quaffed some beers to stave off the midmorning heat. Buddy did arrange for an actual tour of the city, led by a wonderful local woman named Donatella. Buddy's tulip passengers followed her off, but most of us on the Alf Modified Tour just sat down and ordered another beer instead of walking out into the hot sun.
Eventually, though, we did get up and wander around the city a bit. In particular, we checked out the Duomo, the local cathedral. This is one of those great places that took decades to build, so the architectural styles actually changed as the building progressed. It's extremely ornate, replete with Gothic touches. Although it's huge, the 14th Century Sienese actually grew restless with it and developed even more grandiose plans: They thought they'd make the existing building into a mere side wing, and they'd throw out a huge new central chamber that would make their cathedral the biggest in the world. But, what with the bubonic plague and the solid drumming the town suffered at the hands of the warring Florentine neighbors, along with the discovery that the ground wasn't solid enough to bear the planned weight of the structure, the place was never quite finished. They did built a couple of walls, though, so we can see just how impressive it would have been. After we sat admiring this for a while, it was time to saunter off to lunch.
Lunch was at a gorgeous apartment owned by Marisa Cardini, a woman who had lived in Siena all her life. She and her very lovely and delightful daughter Fiamma hosted us, with assistance from Buddy's friend John Dore Meis. We began with white wine and some delicious smoked salmon. As we savored these treats, we also savored the spectacular views the apartment's windows offered of the Siena cityscape. What a wonderful place to live, having this view every day! Except for the antennas and cables that now occupied many rooftops, the sight is almost exactly what it was five hundred years ago.
John Meis, by the way, is the author of a wonderful book called A Taste of Tuscany. It contains a wide variety of recipes from the region, but it also captures the "flavor" of the region in the non-gustatory sense of the word. The book is presently out of print and not available through amazon.com, although it might show up there again soon ... or you might be able to find a copy somewhere else.
For the meal, we began with some marvelous pesto-covered pasta. This is the heart of olive oil country, and pesto has got to be olive oil's greatest feat. We all had seconds. We also had some fine Chianti, which was a perfect accompaniment. The main course was a buffet featuring all sorts of delightful selections. Our primary challenge was arranging the items so they would all fit on our plates. Luckily, we were given very large plates.
Fiamma joined us at our table, and we discussed the upcoming Palio with her. She was associated with the Eagle contrada, which was not running in this July's race. Her main concern, accordingly, was that the Eagle's enemies, the Pantera, not win the race. Simply discussing the Pantera caused a visible rise in Fiamma's temperature. Although some of us were still undecided as to which contrada we would adopt, we entered into blood oaths with Fiamma that we would not consider supporting the wicked, low-life Pantera.
After lunch and, of course, dessert, we bid a fond and very satisfied adieu to Marisa, Fiamma and John, and we headed out into the street.
We returned to the Park Hotel, where we investigated the process of re-acquiring our luggage. We were now getting pretty ripe: We had been in transit since Friday morning, and it was now Sunday afternoon. Four of us did not have clothes to change into. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. At around 5:00, the desk called to say that the airport had called, and that our luggage was in Florence. It looked like we might actually regain our belongings, but it that proved to be just an illusion. Upon receiving this message, we made repeated unsuccessful attempts to call the airport back. First the line was busy every time, and then it simply went unanswered. My guess is that the "customer service" [sic] people at the airport just take the phone off the hook and lay it on the desk while they're there, and then when it's time to go home they replace it in its cradle and run for the door.
We spent the afternoon lolling about the hotel, napping or hanging out at the pool or whining about our missing luggage. Eventually we had dinner at the hotel. It was delicious, of course. Some sort of appetizer that featured mushrooms, followed by some thinly sliced pork with vegetables. Then we went to bed.
Monday, June 29, 1998
What a magnificent day this was!
I woke up at 4:24, feeling absolutely wonderful. This was something of a surprise, since I only had five hours of sleep, after getting about three the night before and practically zero the night before that. But the adventures of the trip seem to eliminate the need for sleep.
Anyway, Buddy's wake-up call was due in six minutes, and rather than going back to sleep for that short time and risking that I might receive only that meager sleep supplement and then somehow wake up feeling rotten, I decided it was better to grab the good and get up at once.
It was still, as far as I could tell, pitch dark outside: From appearance, it could have been the middle of the night. But dawn was surely approaching. In any event, the reason for our earlier rising today was that we had a longer drive to make in order to get to today's takeoff site.
Today's basic schedule, as I understood it, was to have another flight through the Tuscan countryside, then to visit some ancient torture chamber, then to have lunch with a Princess. Annie, Lisa, Brian and I also fervently hoped that today would bring us our luggage, but it was hard to retain any optimism about that, given the mind-numbing indifference and/or incompetence of the people at the Florence airport. But we can't give up hope, right? Right??
We received some emergency sartorial help in the form of additional Corkscrew-Balloon polo shirts that were intended for the crew. Stephani and Robin had brought a dozen over for Alf, and the four of us quickly depleted the crew supply to eight. We were scraping by, if only barely.
I had packed my power adapter plug in my luggage, and so my ability to use my Compaq notebook was initially limited by the charge in its batteries. Last night, though, I managed to forage for a couple of adapters. When both were used in series, they combined to form a satisfactory segue into the world of Italian electric current. The expensive phone adapter that I bought for Italy proved to be entirely unnecessary, as my room was equipped with good old American RJ-11 connectors. Thus, I suffered no luggage-related problem in that respect.
I was getting very low on film. Although I had carried a few rolls with me, most of my stock was in my luggage. Thus, this portion of the journal will briefly "go dark," at least somewhat, and I'll have to resort to my descriptive skills. Imagine one picture for every thousand words: That's the going rate, I hear.
Buddy's call came just a bit late, at 4:48. (I assumed this was because he had to work his way through a list of many passengers.) I headed over for coffee and for the adventure that the day would become. Unfortunately, the croissants disappeared early this morning, but there was still some bread to go with the juice and coffee. It would be enough.
After breakfast, we climbed into the vans and headed for San Gimignano. This was a farther drive than yesterday's take-off site, but it was worth the trip. San Gimignano -- or "San Jimmie," as we came to call it -- was a gorgeous little medieval town that appeared to be even more frozen in time than Siena.
We set up the balloons -- Alf's and Buddy's three -- on a small hill slightly upwind of the town. Buddy had said that there would be "some tall grass" on this hill, and he wasn't kidding. This was NBA-grade grass. But the setup went fine, and we were soon rising into the Italian morning.
We drifted low over the city, waving at dozens and dozens of people who peered out their windows to see our balloons. The navigation worked beautifully: We were able to drift right along the rooftops, and even to change directions and drift along some other ones. This place was much smaller than Siena, and it looked even older.
After we cleared the town and drifted into the countryside, Mike made an amazing landing alongside a field of grapes. We landed so smoothly, there was absolutely no way to tell when we touched the ground. I would not have thought it possible; I'm still not sure I do.
We had our ceremonial champagne, sharing a small amount with the woman who owned the estate where we'd landed. She didn't want any more than a small amount of the bubbly ... something about it being only 8:30 in the morning. I don't understand these Italians. On the other hand, she did go back up to her house and retrieve for us a lovely chilled bottle of white wine. In our appreciation for this exceptional and kind gesture, Alf pulled out a Corkscrew-Balloon pin, and Michael ceremoniously inducted her into the Order of the Screw by pinning it on the top of her long t-shirt and kissing both cheeks. It was a very moving event.
As we lounged around the vineyards at our landing site, we continued to review the various contrade so that we could select our champions. I had pretty much narrowed my selection down to either Bruco (the caterpillar) or Istriche (the porcupine). The slogan of Istriche -- "I prick only in defense" -- was a major element in its favor, plus their flag is quite lovely. But Bruco's little caterpillar is awfully cute, too, and my leanings grew more toward that choice.
We headed into San Gimignano in the Previas and wandered around town for a while. I picked up an extra roll of film and an extra battery for my camera, so I was now ready to snap again. The tiny square in the center of town was filled with activity: Franco Zeffirelli was there, shooting a scene for his forthcoming film. "Tea With Mussolini," I think that's the name. It stars Cher, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, and all of the extras who were in the scene we saw them set up. Zeffirelli was running around with a megaphone and causing all sorts of confusion.
Alf and I, along with Lisa and Brian, left the glitz of movie making just as they were about to shoot, and we headed for the torture museum. What a place! "Creepy" is surely the best word to describe it. There were all sorts of nasty devices that the medieval mind had come up with to dispatch people in painful ways. A common theme was putting things into orifices and then expanding them. Weights and fire were popular as well.
Then it was time to head out into the country for lunch at the Princess's estate on the top of a nearby hill. This place was amazing. It was built hundreds of years ago, and had a history that ran deep. For starters, it was huge. The crew parked the Previas, and we milled about getting organized. Then we went to the garden for champagne and hors d'oeuvres, while the crew continued milling around. The area beside the mansion, where we sipped and nibbled, had a lovely swing and a very nice hammock. Down the hill was an actual maze, fashioned out of shrubbery.
After our champagne in the garden, we had a wonderful lunch in the house. We all sat at one large table, with the Bombard Standard Tour participants. Once again, we had a fabulous repast. The first course of lasagna would have probably been enough, but none of us stopped with that. On with the second course! After lunch, we had dippable little toast things, dipped in some sherry (or something like sherry) that came from grapes within sight of us.
During lunch, we noticed that Brian bore a striking resemblance to the subject of one of the paintings on the wall -- some Italian guy from a a distant century. Perhaps we had some sort of reincarnation thing going on here? We decided to keep an eye on Brian for the remainder of the trip, in case some medieval knight started channeling through him or something.
After lunch, we went back outside and relaxed for a while, and then it was time to be on our way. Today's plan included ... getting our luggage! (Hooray!) The four of us had to present ourselves in person at the airport in Florence, since we hadn't yet gone through customs. Thus, Mike and Steve and a couple of the crew drove us there and back. It took nearly three hours, but we were happy as clams to have our little belongings.
While we were gone, Stephani and Robin went into town and bought us all scarves for our selected contrade. We were, of course, thrilled by this most thoughtful gesture ... and the scarves were quite beautiful. We had finalized our selections, and now we could wear our colors: Lisa and I had our caterpillars, Brian had his giraffe, Stephani had her porcupine, and Annie and Robin had their rams. Mike was a caterpillar, too; Steve was a wave. None of us, of course, would associate with the panthers.
Dinner at the Park Hotel was marvelous. (Aren't all the meals? Forgive my repetition.) Ravioli for a first course, then salmon for the entree. Delicious.
We headed to bed so we could be awake for Buddy's 5:00 am call.
Tuesday, June 30, 1998
Buddy's call came right on time. I had awakened at 4:17, and I got up about twenty minutes later, so I needn't really need any "waking up." Today, the hotel had put out plenty of rolls and croissants. They also had more coffee than usual, plus several bottles of water. They were definitely getting their act together for our early rises.
We drove out to a field outside Siena and inflated the four balloons. Unlike yesterday's launch site, today we had a very smooth one, with very little vegetation. We had a nice flight, drifting over the countryside. There are some very nice villas in the hills outside Siena, and we had an excellent vantage point for checking them out. We floated higher and lower, to the left and to the right, exploring the Tuscan hillsides. Steve's balloon stayed close to us for the most part, while Buddy and Arnie went off on frolics of their own.
After about an hour and a half in the air, we found ourselves quite close to our hotel. It took a while to find a good landing spot, but ultimately Mike selected one that was crew-reachable and without valuable, squishable crops.
Our landing was unexpectedly hard, however. Not "hard" as in "difficult," but "hard" as in abruptly hitting something that was very solid: the earth. It all happened very fast; we had very little warning and thus very little time to get into our crash positions. A big part of the problem was due to our landing on an uphill slope: Mike dropped the rope to the crew, and they caught it at the foot of the hill ... but meanwhile, the balloon basket was just barely above the ground at the top of the hill.
We were dropping fast, and when the crew grabbed our rope, our forward progress stopped abruptly. We made a severe vertical hit against the hill, more intense than any I've had. Indeed, it was a harder landing than Alf had previously experienced, and he's been in a lot of them. Unlike the rather fun emergency landings, when the basket bounces a couple of times and then perhaps lands on its side, this one was just plain hard. Lisa wrenched her ankle a bit; my neck got a bit of whiplash (although I may have been faking that); and Alf's right knee popped right through the front of his Dockers, causing a three-inch rip. Luckily, no bones were jutting out through the flesh of anyone. We had our champagne and water and pastries, while we felt ourselves to make sure that we remained intact.
We made the short trip back to the hotel. There, it was our difficult task to make ourselves look presentable: We were going to have lunch at the Castella di Brolio, and the Baron Ricosoli was not accustomed to having jeans-clad hooligans dining in the 15th Century war room of his castle. We showered, we shaved, we put on ties and dresses. We were basically unrecognizable.
The Previas motored us to the Castle, stopping on the way for a "photo op" shot of the imposing structure. This place was truly impressive, even from a distance. We arrived at the gate and walked through the grounds to the main building. John Meis was with us again today for lunch, and he filled us in on the castle's history. It had originally been built almost 1000 years ago, although it was substantially destroyed and then rebuilt in the late 15th century. It still looked like it had been around for a while.
Lunch with the Baron and Baroness Ricosoli was incredible. After wine and appetizers in a sitting room, we entered a huge dining room ringed with suits of armor and huge Flemish tapestries. History poured forth from the walls.
The food was equal to the surroundings. We began with pasta, covered with a pesto sauce that was subtly explosive in its rich flavor. Everyone had seconds. The perfectly attentive staff kept our glasses filled with delicious white wine ... until it was time to shift over to the red Chianti wine that the Ricosoli family has been bottling for hundreds of years from the vineyards of the surrounding estate. I cannot describe how great this wine tasted. Our main course consisted of sliced roast beef with a different pesto sauce, along with stuffed fresh tomatoes. All of these dishes were just "simple local foods," but they were amazing in their balance and clean harmony.
The Baron himself was utterly charming. His family had lived in this fortress for over 850 years. Compressing that span of time into a few words of explanation is almost inconceivable, and yet he gave us a concise history of the castle and his family's role in the area. I don't think any of us will ever forget our visit to the castle.
By the time we got back to the hotel, it was late afternoon. We each went about our own business for a while, and then I met Brian and Robin down by the pool. We talked about the day, about the Palio, and about the plans for the next few days, while we sipped some beers and soaked up the atmosphere. Ultimately, it was time to prepare for dinner, and we headed back up to our rooms.
Brian, Lisa and I had a cocktail before dinner, and then we entered the dining room with Alf, Stephani and Robin. Annie joined us shortly afterwards. We had noodles with beef for a first course, then lightly fried flattened chicken legs for an entree. The chicken was accompanied by wonderfully fresh peas and carrots, cooked to perfection, and of course a few bottles of white wine.
After dessert, we went out to the patio, where we watched the waxing moon and discussed the Palio. As we talked under the night sky of Tuscany, Alf laid out some of his plans for next January's Chateau d'Oex balloon festival. Details are still being formed, but it is already plain that Chateau d'Oex '99 will be a most remarkable event for the Corkscrew Balloon fleet. Trust me, you'll want to come back to this site for that story!
Another day ended, and we went to our beds with wonderful images of the day we'd had and wonderful dreams of the day that would come tomorrow.
Next: The Palio