Dear Blog Readers –
This post is the story of how I found myself with sweaty palms in a plane about the size of a firefly looking out over the rolling hills, green fields, and tiny medieval villages around Rome.
It all started with the French language. I have been taking an intermediate French language class at the Foreign Press Association in Rome along with a Spanish and British colleague.
Shortly after we began the lessons, the British colleague, photographer Chris Warde-Jones, mentioned in passing that “Je suis un pilote” and on top of that “J’ai un petit avion.” And, being me, I just had to ask for a trip on his “petit avion” although what I did not know is when you are up in it, it feels like a “petite luciole” (little firefly).
It took a while to organize, but finally we found the perfect sunny, clear day and we drove to a small airfield called “La Celsetta” in the Valle del Baccano. That was the first surprise….the runway was just a strip of grass! There was no one around, no air control tower, just a little red and white windsock gently blowing in the wind. Chris opened the hangar and I saw the cute little plane that he explained is a “microlight”, is called an “Allegro” and is made in the Czech Republic. (I was wondering if it might be a little too “micro” and “light” for me to be “allegro” in, but I didn’t say that to Chris.)
Inside the plane we were surrounded by an acrylic sheet (Perspex) window on all sides and we had to use headphones to communicate with one another.
There was a remarkable moment, after all the business of getting ready and the sudden rush of the takeoff, when suddenly we were floating up in the air and I looked around – the blue sky above and the ground way, way down below and I thought – “Oh Dio Mio – what am I doing up here??? I am not a bird!” Of course, I was trying to play it cool and not reveal to Chris that I was a tad nervous about tumbling out of the sky.
After takeoff we swerved off to the left over the tiny Lake Martignano and then over to Lake Bracciano. I wanted to take a picture of the town of Anguillara jutting out into the lake and we swooped down and around it twice so I could get a photo. I did not get a very good one, but here it is.
At some point Chris suggested I try to control the plane by putting my hand on the joystick. But my palms were still sweaty and it seemed to me that my slightest twitch swerved the plane to the left or right. I gave up on the joystick business and went back to something a little less life-endangering, attempting photos with my selfie-stick.
We then headed over towards the Mediterranean Coast and the little town of Santa Severa with its castle. Chris said we would be flying under the “glide path” for jets landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. I was not keen on being a “petite luciole” in the pathway of a massive jet. Chris assured me we were flying very low (1000 feet) and the passenger jets would pass high above us ( at 2500 feet).
From there we turned back and headed for Mount Soratte, which looks to me like the back of a Spinosaurus dinosaur emerging from the flat lands around it. Dante mentioned Mount Soratte in the XXVII Canto of Inferno of the Divine Comedy. I won’t quote it here because it doesn’t make sense out of context.
In 1937 Benito Mussolini ordered a series of galleries and tunnels to be built inside the mountain as an air-raid shelter and eventually military headquarters. In September 1943, after an allied bombing raid of his headquarters in Frascati, German Field Marshall Albert Kesselring made his headquarters inside the Mount Soratte bunker and stayed there for about 10 months. There are still 4 kilometers of tunnels under the mountain that are open to visitors.
We passed over the hippie hangout of Calcata, a Medieval village perched on a pile of Tufa stone.
Turning back east we checked out some of the unusual curves in the Tiber river which winds its way through the countryside outside Rome.
Living in the daily chaos of the city of Rome, it felt so strange to fly quietly above the area, observing all the fields, vineyards, hills and open countryside. Italy often feels crowded and overpopulated to me but looking down everything was green, empty and peaceful.
After nearly two hours in the air we bumped back down onto the little grassy airstrip. I jumped out of the plane thrilled with the feel of the ground under my feet but already missing the tranquility of flying around above the fray.
Some of the pictures for this post I did with my iphone, but the beautiful aerial photos were generously given to me by Chris Warde-Jones. The photos from the plane he did with a Go-Pro camera mounted on the wing and the tail. He snapped the photos with the use of a remote control hung by a cord around his neck and activated by blue tooth.
Chris’s photos appear regularly in The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, Elle, Vanity Fair and many more. If you are interested in learning more about his work and seeing some of his fabulous portraits, travel, food, landscape and news photos, check out his website www.warde-jones.net