Here is what Kristen Mitchem of Morrisville, North Carolina, says about her balloon ride and stay in Montisi. Mille grazie, Kristen!

I took an incredible hot air balloon ride over the Crete Senesi, about an hour outside of Siena. I was travelling in Italy via their rail system, so I was a little concerned that I wouldn't be able to make my balloon ride because Montisi didn't have a train station. I contacted the balloon pilot, Robert Etherington (the company is Ballooning in Tuscany), and he was more than helpful in giving me options for places to stay near the launch site and for the nearest train station. He and his wife are both English and they fell in love with Tuscany and decided to make it their home.

I stayed in a small village called Montisi. It was beautiful: some incredible views and just a beautiful quaint little village. Besides a restaurant at the village entrance, there isn't much to do here, but it was a perfect rest point for my 18 day stay in this wonderfully hectic country!

I stayed at La Locanda di Montisi, probably the NICEST hotel I have ever stayed in, ever! The rooms were huge, the view was great, and Roberto (the owner) was so welcoming and such a perfect gentleman! He offered to pick me up at the train station, gave me a tour of the village, and introduced me to some ex-pat Americans who were willing to show me around and share a meal. It was brilliant walking around the village in the evening, it was so charming. The old men sat at the front of the village outside a little store playing cards, while the old women sat at the other end of the village and gossiped thru the early morning. They were all so friendly and like most Italians, were willing to show me good places to take photos (even though I didn't understand all of their Italian). I think that Montepulciano is not too far, but Montisi was a perfect spot because it was just a short walk to the balloon launch site.

My balloon ride was fantastic! Seeing Tuscany from a hot air balloon is not an experience that I can easily describe. I took my ride on the morning of July 4, 2005. Aside from myself and Robert, there were two other Brits. At first, I was a little nervous in a hot air balloon with 3 brits (with the war and it being July 4!) but they were so pleasant, so funny and the balloon ride was very smooth - they even wished me a Happy Independence Day! I'd never been in a hot air balloon before and was somewhat nervous, but there was no reason to be. Robert didn't just have us in the air the entire time. He took us up, and down in the valleys and nooks and crannies, then we'd rise again. The scenery was so beautiful. He said that in the spring, it is best because you see all the different greens and various colors from the crops. I thought it was absolutely perfect then. Robert really knows the area. He told us different stories about the farmhouses and villas that we passed, about various Sicilian parties and weddings that have taken place. He was very entertaining! We passed over a field of sunflowers and again, he dipped down in them and told us a story of 2 sons that brought their mom on one of his balloon rides. He said that the wind sent them towards the same field of sunflowers and one son held his brother by the ankles as he reached down and plucked a sunflower for their mom! Robert looked up and saw the farmers looking at them..he just waved! I got some great shots, some of the best from my trip. At least, these are the ones that people ooh and ahh over the most.

The flight lasted for about two hours, and after the flight, Liz met us for a champagne breakfast at our touch down site. Champagne, red wine, orange juice, pizza, cookies and the best cantaloupe I've ever had. It was wonderful. They then took us to a small village called, Buonconvento and shared some of its history about their Moor leader. It was here that I had my first, yes first, Italian cappuccino. We then went around with them for a bit as Liz had to drop off some fliers, so I got to see more of the Tuscan country side which I would not have been able to do because I was traveling via Trenitalia. When we got back to their villa, were were presented with our flight certificates and we were told that we were always welcome back at any time for a visit or to see their updates to the villa. This was the best day of my trip to Italy.

That afternoon, Roberto from La Locanda di Montisi drove me to the train station (the right one this time) and I headed for Siena. He made sure I purchased the right ticket and saw me off. Though Montisi is small and not as flashy as some other spots in Tuscany, it is the place that I remember and cherish most above Venice, Florence, and Rome. The people made it great and the scenery made it greater. The cost for the balloon ride was 200 euros, this was my splurge, as my room was only 50 euros! This is an exciting way to see this beautiful Tuscan country side and I highly recommend it, from the village people, the cozy and relaxed setting, the tremendous scenery from a birds eye view. Montisi is an Italian must for me.

From Rick Steves' Europe: Guidebook Feedback, October 14, 2006.

Sandi (aka Bugalu) is an experienced southern (USA) cook. Her family owned the WhistleStop Cafe, and they are still involved with the food product business. She has written two cookbooks, and runs the WhistleStop Cooking Blog. Mille grazie, Sandi!

I am sending y'all a postcard from the basket of a hot air balloon, floating over the hills of Tuscany. You just have to see this to believe it. It has been a once in a lifetime experience...just let me tell you.

We were staying in the little village of Montisi with Gail's Great Escape in our beautiful villa with a view of the Tuscan hills. Our great escape included an opportunity to ride in a hot air balloon. I jumped at the chance. Gail helped us book with Robert Etherington from Ballooning in Tuscany, taking care of all of the details. Two other slow travel buddies, Jerry and Paul, were braving the basket as well.

Robert is a professional balloonist, who has been written up in several publications. National Geographic said, "The best pilot is Robert Etherington, a Briton who has toured Tuscany by balloon for 15 years." If I am getting in a hot air balloon, I am only riding with the best! His wife Liz Graham-Yooll is a wonderfully talented artist and an author of children's books- in addition to being his right hand helper and driver of the chase car. Our ride was scheduled for Tuesday morning bright and early. Robert is very careful about the weather, and he will only fly when the air conditions are perfect. We had to call Monday evening, for him to give us the thumbs up. Luckily we got the good news while at dinner in Pienza. We had a reason to toast with another bottle of wine.

The next morning I woke up singing 'up up and awaaay…' We were ready to go. We had a quick cup of coffee and headed to Robert's home, a 13th century mill just on the outskirts of Montisi. He was dressed in a very official looking yellow jump suit. Our instructions were to bring a jacket and shoes that could easily be washed off. They passed out bright red ball caps for us to wear (when he hit the flames I knew why!) With a British accent, he went through a list of instructions… my favorite was "Notify the pilot before you leave the basket." I hoped there would be no reason to leave that basket once we started! A part of the adventure was helping in every phase of the sport of ballooning; we helped lay out the fabric and hold the gap open to fill it with air, and then heat. When the balloon was inflated we up righted the basket and hopped in. The basket itself is small, but there was room for six of us to pile in with Robert at the burners.

The lift-off was slow and gradual, accompanied by the sound of the flames blasting just over our heads and the sound of the dog chasing along the ground. Robert did a beautiful job of guiding us over the hills of Tuscany. The colors of the poppy fields and the yellow ginestra, the greens and golds of the pastures, the sheep and cattle scattered as we flew overhead. He pointed out landmarks and told stories of this area he knows so well. We were at times high above the hillside towns, other times close enough to touch the flowers. All the lift and flight controlled simply by the blast of the flame. We glided along for about an hour, although the time passed so very quickly. The soft landing was just as gradual as the take off. Our pilot had prepared us for the soft bump as we slid along the field. Once we were stopped in the field Jerry volunteered to grab the rope and guide the big balloon to the ground. Again we were all a part of the team, securing the basket and folding up the yards of fabric to stuff it into the carrying case. Luckily there was no need for those mud shoes, Robert had picked a freshly mown field to set down. Just as we finished up, Liz came bouncing down the dirt road in a jeep, pulling a trailer behind.

Before we loaded up the basket, the back of the trailer served as our picnic table. We had a wonderful breakfast of Prosecco, orange juice, pastries and vegetable foccacia. Each of us toasted to a successful flight. They had even brought an extra bottle of wine for the landowner. Again Robert entertained us with stories of ballooning adventures over the years. Our ride home in the back of that jeep was longer and bumpier than the balloon by far- in spite of a stop for gelato and a cappuccino!

The culmination of our day was spent back at the farmhouse where we received our certificate of flight. Luckily mi amici, Jerry, floated me the € 200 to pay my way until I could get my purse from the villa (leave it to me to forget that one small detail). If not, I may have had to slop the pigs, or work in their garden. We also bought a couple of copies of Liz's precious children's book 'Timothy Tib.'

I cannot imagine a more beautiful area to ride in a hot air balloon. The rolling hills of Tuscany are really magical from high up in the clouds. I wanted to send y'all this postcard just in case you have the chance to take that that ride~ Slow Travel at its best!

Carolyn Bishop-McLeod flew with Ballooning in Tuscany in February 2008. Mille grazie, Carolyn!

So Much More than a Balloon Ride!

"If those tarps have been removed from those pig shelters when you arrive tomorrow morning - then you should not go up!"

This was the advice of my sweet little Southern Belle mother upon leaving Robert and Liz's 12th century working farm. Not quite the adventurer that I am, Momma was somewhat overwhelmed with the authenticity of this Ballooning in Tuscany setting. Having just arrived from the States to Tuscany, we made the decision to locate Ballooning in Tuscany the day before our booked flight. As we ventured down the dirt road to the launch site, it reminded me of many dirt roads that I have traveled in the Appalachian Mountains.

The similarity abruptly ended when we came upon Robert and Liz's medieval era home/farm. It is (by their own admission) a work in progress that will never be finished. Liz, who was outside tending her hogs, greeted us warmly with an invitation. I believe her first words were "Do you want to see something tiny?" She then show us a very tiny and cute pig. How spontaneous and alluring it all was. My husband, who holds an animal science degree from Clemson University and is experienced with all aspects of hog farming never expected to strike up a conversation in Tuscany with an English artist about helping baby pigs survive the elements! But that is the magic of Robert and Liz - they love their life and they love people.

My husband, step-father, and yours truly returned the next morning for our flight. We assisted in the preparation and inflation of the balloon, (which has far as we can tell did not double for a hog shelter!), all the while being entertained by Robert, Liz and their dog. The lift off was gentle. My immediate sensation was that of serenity. We tickled the tops of the trees and then ascended into the glorious Tuscany blue sky. We flew over quaint hill top villages. Robert shared colorful stories about the villagers who waved and called out to him as we floated above their roofs and gardens. We watched the deer run through the forest, viewed impressive estates, learned about unwelcome development, and ultimately helped pick out our landing area. After a little bump up we sat down in a pasture. A bit tussled and roaring with laughter we eventually climbed out of the basket. After helping with loading the balloon, we lifted our glasses to our landing success with the "Survivors Toast". As we departed, Robert thanked the (stunningly attractive and young) Italian farmer for this unexpected pasture intrusion with a bottle of wine.

Now we begin our ground adventure. Robert and Liz took us to their favorite coffee spot. We argued politics and religion with my step-father (the only conservative in the crowd) until I used that old cliché about not discussing politics or religion - to which Robert replied "If you can't argue about politics and religion, what the bloody hell else is there to argue about!"
After enjoying our espresso Robert wanted us to meet Brian, an AMERICAN. This young artisan from Boston is working as an apprentice hand-making harpsichords. He luckily was in his studio and came out to greet us with his dog. We shared Boston stories and expanded Robert and Liz vocabulary with the term "wicked pisser".

We eventually returned to Robert and Liz's and received more surprises - among them a signed Ballooning in Tuscany certificate, bottles of wine and red caps. After pictures and hugs we make our way back up the dirt road. The ballooning was incredible, the ground tour unforgettable, but Robert and Liz are the real adventure. I will forever treasurer this experience and yearn to return.

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