Six months ago, I would have never dreamed of lifting off a mountainside like bird.
But today, I will be doing just that! You see, I have this habit of impulsively adding things to my bucket list. And once something is on there, I cannot back out before completing it. Doing a tandem paragliding flight was one of those things because it would nicely fit into my ongoing run of riding as many different modes of transportation as possible... The idea started growing and on a sunny Saturday morning in June, it was crunch time. We picked Ticino for this adventure because of the usually beautiful June weather.
FlyTicino offers tandem paragliding flights throughout Ticino.
So in the beautiful setting of Lake Locarno with its surrounding mountains, we are about to do our first tandem flight. Needless to say, the excitement is mounting as we meet up with our paragliding pilots at the future landing site. On this former airstrip just a short walk from Ascona, Federico and Stefano welcome us with a friendly hug.
The two are co-founders of FlyTicino, a paragliding firm based in Gandria near Lugano. And as we will later find out, one of them has a rather special profession: he is not only up in the air, but also frequently "on air"...
Our getaway car is already stuffed with backpacks and equipment, and there is enough space for Mamiko and me. After a ten minute drive up a curvy road, we arrive at the gondola station in Orselina above Locarno. Here, just footsteps from the Madonna del Sasso cathedral, we unload all the equipment. And we are surprised at the amount and volume of the backpacks.
As guests, we are not really supposed to carry anything to the top. That's courtesy of the pilots, but we cannot help it and each grab one of those oversized bundles weighing... 5 kilograms?!? While they are gigantic in size, the paraglide umbrellas inside weigh barely nothing. But you should have seen Mamiko with the load on her back! From behind, it looked like a walking bag with a pair of legs!
Our take-off site is the scenic mountaintop of Cardada.
After a brief transfer on what is likely Switzerland's most scenic chairlift, we arrive at the top. At an altitude of 1671 meters above sea, the sweeping views are simply majestic. Cardada is a popular spot for hiking, downhill biking and paragliding, so there are many reasons to return.
But first, it is time to get ready for the tandem paragliding flight. On this warm summer day, I am wearing long pants, a fleece sweater and a windbreaker. But better be safe than sorry, because it can be chilly up in the air. So I hop into a proper paragliding onesie, strap on the helmet and listen to the instructions. I will be paired up with Stefano while Federico is giving Mamiko a spin.
"When I say RUN, you RUN until I tell you to stop." Got it! We get strapped to our glider wing by way of seemingly dozens of colorful lines. Mamiko and Federico lift off first, and then it is our turn.
Stefano expertly interprets the moment's weather condition, the wind direction and strength. And without prior notice, he says "Run!" Just a few seconds later, our wing has filled with air and has lifted above our heads. I can feel the resistance of the wind, and I run until there is no more ground to run on...
We fly above the forest canopy, pass by a touristic lookout point and slowly descend above the Maggia river delta. I try to make out buildings or piazzas that I have visited, such as the Hotel Eden Roc in Ascona, the Brissago Islands or the Piazza Grande in Locarno.
One time, the two paraglides are in close enough proximity for Mamiko and me to exchange some shouts of joy. Sharing this experience with someone else is very special and is sure to form lifelong memories.
The world below seems so small and far away - both literally and figuratively speaking. Because during the half-hour I am airborne, my thoughts are in the moment. It's my adrenaline that's speaking and I live in the here and now. I soak in the views and the wind, pick up the subtle changes in direction and altitude.
And once in a while, I look straight down:
Look at me, soaring like a bird:
The entire descent from Cardada to Ascona takes about 25 minutes. This is the average flight time for a tandem given that the glider drops about one meter in height per second of flight. (On the other hand, a single person could easily stay up in the air for hours at a time on a day with opportune thermal winds.)
Throughout the morning, we talk about the ins and outs of paragliding and it becomes apparent how much Stefano and Federico respect this extreme sport. As humans, we are basically grounded by gravity. But thanks to this special equipment, we get to feel like a bird on a playground where different rules apply. Thanks to the pilots' profound knowledge of Ticino and its weather conditions, as well as their decades of experience, I feel totally calm in my comfy passenger seat.
A brief moment before the landing, Stefano announces: "Let's have some fun!" And before I know it, we start spinning like a tornado to land safe and sounds on the airstrip. (It's called a Helico landing - Google it.) Check out the scene towards the end of the video...
More information about paragliding with FlyTicino
Weather permitting, FlyTicino offers tandem paragliding flights every day of the year. We've lifted off from Locarno, but they actually have take-off points on seven different mountain tops from Bellinzona to Lugano.
For reservations, submit a form on the FlyTicino website. I would strongly suggest you follow them on social media as well for inspiration; Stefano and Federico regularly post their GoPro snapshots on Facebook and Instagram.
And as for Federico's other profession, we simply cannot read his mind until he reveals it after landing: He is a well known mentalist!
(For the purpose of this review, FlyTicino has generously invited us to try a tandem flight.)