Floating leisurely over Lithuania

  • 2007-08-01
  • By Kimberly Kweder

UP, UP, AND AWAY: Every weekend through the end of summer, outfits like Oreivystes Centras offer balloon rides that give spectacular views of Vilnius and the surrounding forests.

VILNIUS - We stand outside the Akropolis parking lot at 5 a.m. with a feeling of excitement and wonder.  Aurimas Vengrys opens a large map, and we listen to him explain our flight direction. 
Vengrys, who has been a balloon pilot instructor for ten years, is the coordinator for the Oreivystes Centras Balloon team. Each summer the team offers brave souls the chance to soar the skies in a colorful hot air balloon, observing the sunrises or sunsets in Vilnius' Old Town or the nearby countryside.
With over 10 clubs and 60 balloons, Lithuania is the hot air ballooning center of the Baltics. Oreivystes Centras alone attracted 1,500 to 2,000 passengers last year. A lot of the activity takes place around the capital.

"Vilnius is a comfortable city," said Vengrys. "It's not too big, the airport is not so busy with planes, and it is far away from the sea."
The sea, or rather the wind, is critical in ballooning, and the team carefully monitors several meteorological sources before each flight.
"We can only measure direction, not destination, because you never know where you're going to land and how you'll land," said Mindaugus Kilikevicius, an Oreivystes Centras pilot.
The morning I went, the weather conditions wouldn't allow us to fly over Old Town so we opted to float over some forests.

We hopped inside several vans, all with trailers in tow, and had a brief ride to Dusktos as the yellowish-orange sun slowly rose behind the rolling hills and spread thin, pink lines across the sky.
Eventually the vans turned onto a bumpy, dirt path in a large meadow where we parked and unloaded the equipment. 

I helped to spread out one the three massive balloons across the meadow. A roar sounded as fans switched on to begin pumping air into the balloons. Kilkevicius tilted our basket downward and used the propane burners to shoot flames, causing hot air to circulate.
After the balloon bellied out into full form, its five passengers climbed into the basket. I started to have doubts and my body trembled in fear of the height. The basket rocked back and forth, and then the 3-ton balloon slowly floated a few inches off the ground.
A few minutes later, we were rising over a house and lake where a woman stood outside her front yard and waved.

"Labas rytas!," "Good morning!," we all shouted.
The three balloons in our little fleet twisted and bobbed up and down around each other at a comfortable distance. We were coasting about 14 - 16 kilometers per hour at an altitude of 50 meters.
We surprised a few animals along the way. Rabbits zigzagged across the meadows, farm animals scurried into their barns, and dogs barked loudly at our passing airships.
Thankfully, the basket didn't topple over when we landed in a muddy meadow, but some of us lost balance. The rest of the crew came to our rescue, and stuffed all the fabric and strings back into their original bag.

Back on terra firma at long last, we all sat down on the bag, sighed with relief, and then hauled our basket to the storage cart for our trip back.
At the end of every flight, Vengrys and the crew share an oral history of the hot air balloon, and pop open a bottle of champagne. Legend has it French aeronauts used to offer up bottles of bubbly to appease angry locals whenever their balloon landed on their property.
A ticket for a one-hour flight is 400 litas (115.85 euros), which isn't so hefty considering it covers the insurance, gas, equipment and driving expenses.

For their part, my fellow passengers said they recommend a hot air balloon ride.
"It was very interesting, nice view. We would do it again," said Zydre Kutaitiene, of Vilnius.
Vengrys, however, gave this cheeky word of warning:
"My advice is don't try a hot air balloon," he said, "... because you'll want to go again!"

Oreivystes Centras
Tel: +370 +370 5 273 27 03