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Air ballooning taking off in Lithuania

Air ballooning in Lithuania is 20 years old this year and has come a long way since its birth. There are a total of 11 clubs in Lithuania that fly over the country and all around Europe. Rising up from the ground, I saw my friends disappear along with the launch area as the flames sprang to life above my head. They shouted something to me but I couldn't hear it above the roar of the fire. Within no time I was up in the air and I could see out and over the city. Underneath me was the carpet of green known as Vingis Park. Air ballooning has become very popular in Lithuania – people are increasingly having their wedding parties, birthdays and other occasions in a basket high above the earth.

Gintautas Mockaitis is the club president of the Antis Balloonist's club in Kaunas. He said that air ballooning is a form of freedom and that people in Lithuania love to fly in any and every form. "Sky diving has a much longer tradition because you could do that in the Soviet Union, but air ballooning has only been here recently," Mockaitis said about the short but bright history of the sport. Despite its short history, air ballooning has grown quickly and there are races and competitions in Lithuania that happen yearly. There is one major competition and a few smaller ones that punctuate the year. This year's four-day competition happened in May. As of yet there is no big prize for the winners of the Lithuanian competition except pride.

The world championships are also held every year – this year's championship was held in September in Austria. When the balloon flyers aren't battling it out for pride or prizes, they make their way by charging people to go up and survey Lithuania from the clouds. Air balloon rides can be purchased in most major centers in Lithuania all year round. Flights in different seasons offer new perspectives on the country, which changes masks every season. Flying over the forest in summer can be nice because it smells fresh and piney, but an autumn flight over the same forest would be like looking at a Magic Eye painting – full of intricate hues and shades.

The buildings and streets too change the way they look in each different season. Winter is on its way and soon the trees and buildings and streets will be under a white blanket. Most of the air balloon trips in Vilnius start in Vingis Park and end somewhere outside of the city. The air balloons hold up to six people including the pilot, who treats you to views of the best parts of the city. During the flight you will climb high enough to get a good view of the park and the surrounding area of Zverynas, which means "menagerie," paying homage to its royal hunting ground status. Next comes the New Town and the Old Town.

It is amazing how low the balloons can be lowered in the cityscape – at some stages you get the strange feeling that you would be able to climb out of the balloon and walk away. This is not recommended by the pilots. After that you are whisked up and pass by the Old Town to get classic photo opportunities fit for guidebooks and FaceBook. Security restrictions stop air balloons from going over places like the Old Town and the presidential palace, but you will still get amazing panoramic views of the city, whether its Vilnius, Klaipeda or Kaunas. It's not hard to see why there are so many people getting into air ballooning clubs after experiencing the ride. There is a feeling of elation up there among the clouds and silence. The only sounds in the world are breathing and the blaster. As Mockaitis said, "you can laugh and be free. This is free time."

By Adam Mullett