Ballooning in the Loire

Crewing for Balloon Revolution

Crewing for Balloon Revolution

No chance for a sleep-in today. In fact, our get up time was as far from a sleep-in as it is possible to get, and not be staggering into bed in the previous night’s party clothes! We had to be at the collection point for our balloon ride at 5:45am! Luckily this meeting place was just across the river on island in the centre of the Loire, Ile d’Or, which we could see from our bedroom window. The pre-dawn stroll across the Loire River on the Pont du Maréchal Leclerc was quite perfect – nearly everyone still abed, just one small early morning delivery truck heading east along the main road towards Blois.

We arrived on the tiny island with about 5 minutes to spare, but became concerned when we could not see another soul anywhere. There was a camping ground nearby and an open field, but no other passengers and certainly no balloon or crew setting up. Then a car arrived and a family of four unfolded themselves from its doors, the two young girls with tousled hair, rubbing their eyes that managed, even at this early hour, to dart about with excitement. Loved that my good fake French accent and smattering of words received a full force of French from our Quebec fellow travellers, but my look of intense concentration in an effort to respond resulted in a quick revert to English, much to my relief.

Our chat about ballooning, our excitement and trepidations was halted by the arrival of a large 4-wheel drive with trailer attached, and balloon basket aboard. Our pilot, Nicholas (who lived just down the lane), his one-member crew (whose name escapes me – sorry!), and 2 more passengers were already ensconced. So after introductions we climbed aboard and drove to the take off point on the other side of the river away from the houses.

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This was only our second hot air balloon experience (our first being over the temples in Bagan with Balloons Over Bagan) and it was a very different set up and ambience. The group we chose to fly with in Amboise was Balloon Revolution, a much smaller company with a more intimate ballooning experience and excellent value for money. On this flight, we were also the lackeys, which was actually huge fun – we helped unroll the balloon ‘silk’ and helped lift it when it was first filling with hot air. The kids loved the involvement, and we all had big grins on our faces posing for photos as though we knew what we were doing in the preparation for flight!

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This gliding journey over the Loire Valley was a unique and wonderful experience. It was overcast this morning, and after floating over Amboise pointing out our various accommodations (including our pilot’s house!), Nicolas took us up through the cloud. This was a little disconcerting at first, as you are completely suspended in white nothingness, with no sense of direction (for us, of course – the pilot had a GPS!). But then the most magical thing happened…we drifted up above the misty veil into the most glorious sunlight, and cloud spread out infinitely before us, like a cross between a white Sahara dessert and Antarctica! So peaceful and zen – incroyable!

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After the surreal (but chilly) cloud surfing, we descended at the perfect moment to drop in on Château Chenonceau – surprising passengers and pilots in 4 other balloons. Already we felt we were having the superior ballooning adventure! We even managed to sight a deer leaping through the undergrowth at the edge of the Amboise Forrest as we passed Chenonceau and drifted along the river east.

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The hot air empowered nylon and basket floated along the River Cher until Nicolas found a satisfactory landing spot…ironically, on an actual turf landing strip. Two other balloons landed not long after us, so after we helped pack up the gear (this company is a team of 2!), we joined the other groups in a corner of the field for champagne and croissants. Although, honestly, we didn’t really join them – we, and our fellow ballooners, enjoyed the company of our own little group so much that we just chatted merrily amongst ourselves. We were all pretty awestruck by the skill of our pilot and pleased with the more intimate nature of the set up – a maximum of 8 passengers on board, while other companies have larger baskets and up to 16 passengers.

We were also suitably impressed with the 19 kilometres we travelled, which is apparently a decent distance by balloon in an hour. One of the competing companies takes off at Chenonceau and lands just over the other side of it! Ripped off! While ballooning is not a cheap activity, we definitely felt we got value for money with Balloon Revolution and our pilot, Nicolas. As a second generation balloonist, it’s in his blood – both his father and uncle are champion balloonists, and he himself has competed many times in the Balloon World Championship.

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After we were returned by car to our original meeting point in Amboise, we bid our new friends farewell, revelling in a shared escapade; a piece of adventure that is on the bucket list of many, but one that few ever get to experience. We strolled back across the bridge to our B&B and shared our story with the other guests over breakfast.

After gliding over some of the châteaux of the region we were itching to have a much closer look, so we started with the ones on our doorstep…or, more precisely, in our backyard! The once gigantic, but still impressive, Château d’Amboise presides over this truly delightful Loire River town, once home to the French court. It owns many intriguing footnotes in history, including being the home to Mary, Queen of Scots, for much of her early life (she SO should’ve returned to France instead of turning to her cousin, Elizabeth I), and having D’Artagnan as a visitor when the king was in residence.

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What remains of the château itself is still worth a visit. There is an ingenious tower containing a circular ramp for horse and carriages to ascend from the level of the river to the heights of the castle, but it is quite steep and would’ve been difficult work for the steads. The tiny Chapel of Saint-Hubert (built 1491-1496) that sits in the grounds of the castle atop the town, houses the remains of Da Vinci, who died in Amboise in 1519. Francois I was so impressed by Da Vinci that he convinced the inventor and artist to move to France in his final years, supplying him with a charming house just down the road from the royal residence, which is now home to the prototypes of most of Da Vinci’s inventions.

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Château du Clos Lucé is the museum that was once the final home of Leonardo, and it’s exhibitions of the vast array of his ideas and drawings brought to life in these prototypes is staggering – that this 16th century artist was also hundreds of years ahead of his time in science and invention is very difficult to fathom. He had detailed plans and drawings for flying machines, bicycles, tanks and hundreds of other things, and these ‘blue-prints’ have been used to build the prototypes to show that his ideas were pure genius.

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For lunch - French onion soup

For lunch – French onion soup

Our lunch was quite low-key – we ate at one of the many café/brasserie/restaurant options along the tourist strip beside the château, L’Ambacia, where we had some pretty ‘full-on’ onion soup (because in France, it’s not ‘French onion soup,’ it’s just ‘onion soup’). And it was ‘full-on’ because this supposedly ‘petite’ entrée is, in fact, filled with bread and topped with grilled parmesan – gratuitously filling and delicious! Our dinner was even less glamorous – we grabbed some spinach and goat’s cheese tart at the local boulangerie and a bottle of local red from the cave at the base of the château, and dined in our private drawing room, with views of the château.

We stayed at Les Fleurons B&B and used Balloon Revolution for our balloon adventure in the Loire.

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About bontaks

Nic is the the 'Bon' part of 'Bontaks.' Together we are Nic and John - two travel-addicted teachers who enjoy every opportunity to go places, meet people and experience life.

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