I do realise that a good chunk of you are probably gagging on the glitterbomb of glory that has been my birthday proceedings so far, but I’m not quite done yet so I completley understand if you want to click away now.
To take my 30th birthday to epic levels we’re adding cycling through lavender fields and a hot air balloon ride over Provence. I did warn you.
Happily, there were bonus sunflowers.
We wait until mid-afternoon to begin cycling because the thought of going out in this sun is pretty much giving us instant heat stroke. I’m a bit befuddled by the hills on the first part of our cycle from Valensole as I’m pretty sure this locale is called the “Plateau of Provence”. It’s not so hilly that I’m taking my bike for a walk but just hilly enough that I repeat my vow to buy a bike with more than three gears next time. When we spot some lavender we pretty much just trundle into the fields along the rocky dirt farm roads and feel like we’re just wandering into private property. I have no idea if we’re allowed to do this but I don’t really give it too much thought.
It also happens to be nearing Mike’s grandmother’s 80th birthday so we spend some time holding imaginary balloons amongst the rows of lavender. The balloons are from a painting of mine.
I have so much fun taking these photos. It’s silly and creative and makes the whole sight-seeing thing so much more interactive. Mike has a deep-seated distaste for posed photos so we’ve taken very few in our three years on the road, however I’m now a convert. As I kneel amongst the bees and the lavender Mike sets up the shot then hops over to join me. We do this a couple of dozen times with and without the imaginary balloons.
There’s really nowhere to sit for a picnic but we manage with a patch of earth that’s slightly more grass/hay than dirt. Lunch is, very appropriately, a delicious mediterranean salad.
We wanted to do something we wouldn’t otherwise have done for my birthday and as brilliant as everything has been so far they don’t actually meet that criteria, hence the hot air balloon ride.
After a phone call to the hot air balloon company the day before, I’m convinced that we won’t be going up as it has been super windy. We cycle to the meeting point at 5:30am and arrive to see everyone looking up to the sky — they’re watching a helium balloon to assess the wind situation. When the English speaking South African pilot joins the group we learn that we’re waiting for the sun to rise. The wind will pick up when the sun rises but there is a chance that it will settle down at some magical point immediately after. I’m sure there are good sciencey wiency explanations for all this. We’re both stunned when, sure enough, wind materialises as if it’s being carried to us on sun-beams. Convinced as I am that this is going to be a bust, I’m not even feeling any anticipation or excitement. When we’re told the outcome of the latest weather balloon (in French) and see the happy French faces surrounding us I’m so stunned it doesn’t quite register immediately.
We’re all driven to an empty field and the staff get down to setting up the basket and balloon. Having never seen a hot air balloon up close, it’s all very interesting. As soon as the balloon is inflated enough to bring the basket upright the passengers need to get in as soon as possible to stabilise it.
When the pilot “steps on the gas”, so to speak, in order to get us off the ground, the heat from the open flame is intense. I’m pretty sure if I lifted my eyes up to take a look they would be cooked. We start wobbling, then one of the staff unties the ropes tethering the basket to one of the trucks as we leave terra firma. The ground begins to get further away. It’s a bizarre sensation to feel no motion of any kind yet have our eyes tell us that we are moving. It makes me laugh. This is the first time I’ve floated, I say to Mike, completely bafflingly. It might even be the first time I’ve heard silence too.
We drift ever upwards, with the sporadic hot roar of the burners above us. When our pilot Max releases the valve, the following silence is immense. Only the odd morning noises drift up to us — the odd rooster crowing or dog barking, far beneath our feet.
The gentle breeze pushes us westward over the labyrinthine streets of Forcalquier and beyond. We start drifting downwards, sometimes at an alarming pace, before Max hits the gas and we go soaring back upwards for a time.
Then we’re falling again for the final time. Max directs us to be seated for the landing, but the wind has different plans and we’re whisked onwards away from the target field. We drift low over a wheat field and the roof of a farmhouse, before making a second attempt.
The landing is astonishingly smooth. I’ve always wondered what that bit’s like. We’re all recruited in helping pack up the balloon. It reminds me of playing group games in primary school. We’re rewarded with a glass of bubbly for our efforts. Once we’re home I find that I’m also rewarded with a foot swollen to the size of a hot air balloon. Apparently cycling and packing up a hot air balloon on a foot that was stung by a bee the day before makes said foot angry.
All in all, a pretty magical birthday month! Big smooshy thanks to my man for making it all possible, for being silly and cute enough to pose with imaginary balloons with me, and for pulling out bee’s stingers.