Into Europe

It was a busy few weeks arranging permissions before our events in Turkey. The balloon regulations are quite strict in Turkey due to there being a lot of commercial ballooning. This is a good thing, though it means a lot of work to get approval to fly or tether a balloon.
A few UNICEF staff came from Ankara to film the balloon in Kapadokya. It was quite a feat to get the permission as it has been quite a few years since a foreign registered balloon had flown there. The Director of the Civil Aviation Authority in Kapadokya was very supportive. It also made it easier that I had flown there for a couple of years previously.
I went with the UNICEF staff to get a few shots for filming and showed them the flying area.

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We arrived early the next morning at the company I used to work for, Kapadokya Balloons. We had arranged for all the company balloons and I to take off together. The weather was perfect and we all went off to find a suitable take-off place.
It was great to get into the skies above Kapadokya again, especially in a small balloon. Most of the time I had only flown a big passenger balloon for 24 passengers there. We flew for around an hour with 60 other passenger balloons over the famous Kapadokya landscape of fairy chimneys and interesting rock formations. We had people filming from two other balloons and a nice video should be coming out soon.
The following week was spent going over final details for our event with UNICEF in Ankara. It was more difficult to get the permission to inflate the balloon and keep it on the ground than it was to get the permission to fly in Kapadokya. It was just a matter of following the process though.

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We drove from Kapadokya to Ankara a day before we were due to have our event. I met briefly with UNICEF at their office when we arrived, then went to have a look at the city. Ankara is quite a hilly city with a population of around 4.2million. It is a busy place and has a typical city feel to it. It was fun to explore the inner city and see what made the city tick.
We all met at UNICEF the following morning and made our way to Ataturk Kultur Merkezi. The site is in central Ankara where Ataturk gave his famous speech for the 10th anniversary celebrating the independence of Turkey.
The last of the stage and seating was being set up as we arrived and I went ahead and helped to prepare the balloon with a few keen helpers. The wind was on the limit for inflation, so I was a little anxious. The forecast was for it to calm down as the morning went on though. Looking at weather maps beforehand I was confident that it would. It was a beautiful sunny day.
Around 150 children turned up at around 10.15pm and I started to inflate the balloon. The wind calmed as predicted, though there were a few gusts to contend with.
While the balloon was inflated, kids enjoyed making postcards for us to pass on to other kids along our route. A few musicians from a local orchestra played on stage, which added a nice atmosphere.
I kept the balloon up for around half an hour. After deflating it, I went to talk to some of the kids and see the postcards they had created. Some of the artwork on the cards was really impressive and the messages quite meaningful. The idea behind the postcards is to create a friendly global community by sharing postcards between children in different countries.

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Once they had finished their postcards, they helped me pack the balloon. Some of the kids had disabilities and were really happy to get involved. We took photos together and they thanked us, before returning to their buses and heading back to school. Everyone was very pleased with how the event went.
I stayed two more weeks in Kapadokya before making the 1200km trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. The road is good, a large part of it being a toll road. The only part where there was a lot of traffic was in Istanbul. Crossing the Bosphorous in Istanbul marked the start of the European leg of the project. It is funny to stop and think sometimes about the ground that has been covered during the project so far. It makes the world feel both big and small at the same time.
Trucks generally outnumber cars on highways in Turkey, though as I was getting closer to the Bulgarian border, it seemed the only vehicles on the road were late model BMW and Mercedes cars.

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The border crossing formalities at the Edirne border crossing were much easier than expected. The Customs officer on the Bulgarian side was very surprised I had a balloon with me. He gave me a smile and said I was OK to go. The Immigration officer asked me why I was travelling around the world. I just said “Why not?”
I stopped 150kms before Sofia, at a fuel station just outside the city of Plovdiv. It will be great when they finish the 4 lane highway from the border to Sofia. The roads are largely good, but there are some rough parts. People said the roads in Bulgaria were horrible, but I don’t think they know the state of the roads further east.
The last 150kms to Sofia was easy on a four lane highway, probably built by the Russians during the soviet period. I went directly to a hotel by the airport where my old crew member, Des, was staying.
Des had stayed longer looking around Europe and Russia than expected and had asked to join me again. I was happy to have him back.

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I arranged to park in the hotel’s carpark for my few days in Sofia. I met with UNICEF at their office the next day and we went to look at the park where our event was going to be the following day. Sofia is an interesting city and you can still see many of the old apartment buildings left from the soviet time. On one of my walks, I spotted graffiti on a railway overbridge which read ‘Welcome to Sofia – City of Beer, Girls and Graffiti’. There is certainly a lot of the latter.
The Bulgarian people are very friendly and hospitable. After I visited UNICEF, one of the project’s supporters, DB Schenker, arranged a taxi for me to go to their office, which was out of the city. The tracker I have from them needed new batteries and to be reconfigured. The workers there were great and I spent a few hours with them. I was also on the phone to a technician in Germany for an hour making sure all was OK with the tracker.
One of the workers then took me to the metro station. It was quite a way back to the airport and the last few stations of that line had just been opened the day before. Everything was sparkling new.
Des and I headed to the South Park the next morning and helped set up for the event which was due to start at 10.30am. Our focus for the event was to promote giving children a voice to be heard, especially to speak out against violence. It was a family event and planned as a school holiday activity.
The weather was good, however the wind was gusty and much more than forecast. I had confidence the wind would stabilise though. It did, but it did make for a breezy couple of inflations of the balloon. There was a dance squad there who were showing off their skills and teaching children dance moves.
We encouraged kids to come and touch the balloon and get a closer look before I inflated it a second time. The wind was completely calm and I kept it inflated for quite a while.
There was quite a bit of media coverage and the event was covered by all the main TV stations. One of them even did a live broadcast from it.
Many children, (and Parents) came to thank us after the event and everyone was very happy with how it went.

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Directly after, we drove 200kms to the town of Sopot, the paragliding capital of Bulgaria and the place where we would be flying the next morning. Some local balloonists drove from the coastal town of Varna with their balloon and met us there that night.
We all went out early the next morning to go flying. We found a suitable field and took off together. It is an easy place to fly with big fields bordered by mountains on one side and hills on the other. After taking in the scenery for around an hour, we landed just past a typical Bulgarian village. A lot of people were waving as we flew over.
The other balloonists invited Des and I to go paragliding with them, (as they were also paraglider pilots). We jumped at the chance and later that morning we were in the air again soaring above the mountains. The area is popular with paraglider pilots around Europe as there is a chair lift which takes you almost to the summit of one of the mountains. The chairlift was built during the Soviet period as an escape route for the surrounding towns. Sopot used to have the largest arms factory in Bulgaria. It is still there, but much of it is no longer in use. It still employs around 800 people.
We had a celebratory lunch in the early afternoon. Ballooning and paragliding before lunch is pretty good going. Later in the evening we were treated to a typical Bulgarian dinner at one of their friend’s houses. He was a 72 year old and quite a character. During the soviet time he was a tractor and combine harvester operator.
We said good bye to our new balloonist friends the next morning. The weather wasn’t nice, so we decided to stay in Sopot another night.

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Our next stop was Bucharest, Romania, around 300kms away. We left early the following morning and made our way across the mountain pass to the old capital city of Veliko Tarnovo.
On the way, we experienced four seasons in one day. First it started out warm in Sopot and we admired the blooming flowers, before heading into snow in the mountains, then rain on the other side.
Veliko Tarnovo has a castle with large walls around it. The town itself is set in a beautiful area with valleys on two sides of it, (the same valley in fact) with a river flowing through. In the old town the original buildings are well kept. There is a lot of interesting public art work on walls and obscure places, (a concrete block was made to look like an accordion for example).

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It was raining when we first arrived, but it stopped after we had something to eat at a local fast food restaurant. We had an enjoyable few hours walk.
Later in the day, we continued on to the border town of Ruse and managed to find a very reasonably priced restaurant. We parked up in the suburbs and had a view of the soviet-looking town with many buildings all crowded together.

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We crossed the Danube River and into Romania the next morning. The bridge is tolled, (6 Euro for us) and we passed the Romanian Immigration and Customs on the other side without any problems.
The final 90kms to the airfield we would be staying at was an easy drive. The southern part of Romania is very flat.
We met the Director of the Bucharest Aeroclub and he showed us the facilities when we arrived. A local balloonist had arranged for us to stay in the accommodation there. We were very impressed with the whole setup. We sampled the local food with one of the airfield workers later in the day.
We will do a fun flight here on Saturday. The flight will be for fun as it is Easter here this weekend and it was too difficult to arrange an event. On Sunday or Monday we will travel to Chisinau, Moldova to prepare for our next event on Wednesday, which even the Prime Minister is said to be coming to…

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About the author: Andrew Parker

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