Dawn in the Pyrenees is quite a magical sight to behold: the sky striated in streaks of red and blue, with the sun slowly peeking through the wispy clouds against a backdrop of imposing mountains. By sunrise, the mountains beneath us are blanketed in gold with the occasional patches of white snow and clusters of green forests amidst them. As we float higher into the skies on our hot-air balloon,we also find ourselves drifting further and further away from the dry prairies and green volcano craters.
I’ve tried hot air ballooning over the unworldly landscapes of Cappadocia, Turkey as well as the haunting desert of Wadi Rum in Jordan, but this is something else. Instead of eerie rock outcrops or vast fields of rose red sand, we see verdant greenery , magnolia fields and colorful farmland. Everything seems to come alive here. At every turn and every corner, there’s always a pleasant surprise: whether it’s a herd of cows running beneath us or a picturesque volcanic lake snuggled between craters. This is La Garnatxa Volcanic Zone in the Spanish part of the Pyrenees and we are taking in a visual feast of the area from above.
Falling in Love with Ballooning
Our hot air balloon flight had started earlier that morning, at the crack of dawn. Shivering in the cold 5 degrees Celsius air, we watched our pilots unfolding the balloon, firing it up with hot air and setting it to its take-off position. Just as we hopped onto the 11-person basket, our pilot, Xevi Port, amused us with his morning joke, “Good luck!”
Xevi has flown the hot air balloon for over 20 years but he’s never lost one bit of his childlike enthusiasm. Along with his three other brothers, he’d set up the company Vol de Coloms in 1992. Today, it’s still the leading hot air ballooning company in the Costa Brava region.
As we lift off into the horizon, Xevi tells us that hot air ballooning is an expensive business: the balloon itself costs €50,000 and it needs to be replaced after every 500 hours of flying. That is perhaps why each hot air balloon flight here costs €170 per person (including flight, certificate, cava and a brunch in their office) – which, considering the cost of the balloon, doesn’t feel too expensive after all.
Floating Solo Above Volcanoes
We find ourselves floating along with just one other balloon in the Pyrenees – there are no other hot-air balloons in sight. A stark difference to my previous hot air ballooning experience in Turkey (literally thousands of us). Despite being in a group of 12, we are struck speechless by the beauty surrounding us – so much so, there’s a soothing, comfortable silence as we let the wind take us.
Hot air ballooning is a relaxing affair. It operates by the simple fact that hot air rises and cold air sinks, so there’s a constant need to fire the balloon with blasting hot air. When the balloon is not filled with hot air, it descends at a speed of 5m/s. But with the flow of air, the movement is barely noticable and besides with the view before us, it’s all too distracting.
Above the Clouds
As we reach up to heights of 1,500m, the churches and houses below us resemble small lego pieces. Xevi points out to a fully circular sinkhole: Santa Margarita, the most well-preserved volcano crater in the area (which we would visit later on by foot). Xevi tells us that we’re flying at a speed of 100km/h, but the movement is so languid and relaxing, we can barely feel the wind in our hair.
Coming to the end of our flight, Xevi pulls out a bottle of ice-cold cava (Spanish champagne) and pops it open while we’re mid-air. In the rosy morning air, we cling our glasses and share bites of the locally-produced coca (cake) – our laughter echoing in the Pyrenees skies. We may be 1,500m above the ground, but who says that’s going to stop us from some earthly indulgence?