The only good thing about flying is going to new places. The argument helps me survive whip-quick work trips where I’m allowed sleep only on the flight. An invitation to the Red Bull Air Race in Rovinj, Croatia, was the universe’s way of trying to get me to appreciate those flying machines. A visit to Croatia has been a long-held dream, and a Google search on Rovinj showed it to be one of the quaintest Mediterranean seaports, with a colourful history of being shuttled between the Roman, Byzantine and Frankish empires.
The RBAR is a sort of Formula 1 of the skies. I am a guest of Breitling watches, the official timekeeper and backer of veteran pilot Nigel Lamb.
I am flown to Munich, Germany, where a private nine-seater plane is chartered to fly us to Pula in Croatia, the airport nearest to Rovinj. It’s an hour’s ride over Venetian canals and Italian Alps. The two friendly pilots allow us to steer the plane mid-air, make announcements and fall in love with the very modern King Air B300. I am flattered to know that George Clooney sat on my very seat just the week before.
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Rovinj, pronounced Rovigno, is a half-hour drive from Pula. It is a beautiful medieval town by the Adriatic Sea with a population of just 15,000. It’s a small but popular seaport and can be traversed by bicycle. But many streets in the Old Town, including the famous Carrera Street, are for pedestrians only. Everything surrounds the egg-shaped bay — streets, churches, art galleries and scores of restaurants and bars face the sea, many even dipping into it. Valentino is one of the more popular bars; most of its seating is on cerulean square cushions placed on ivory rocks. The disarming farmer’s market sells truffles, olive oil, asparagus, sea salt and local seafood. Rovinj’s proximity to Italy (Trieste is an hour away by road, Venice is a two-hour yacht ride) is reflected in its cuisine.
Our first trip (in April) is to the makeshift RBAR airport where the pilots are readying themselves for the races. Lamb is here in between practice sessions. His suit weighs a ton; it’s filled with fluid to stop blood-flow leaving the pilot’s head when he spins. “It’s uncomfortable, but it keeps me alive,” he says.
At lunch on the terrace of Hotel Monte Mulini, one of Rovinj’s two five-star hotels, the practising planes hum over our heads. If it wasn’t for the comely local red wine, the Teran, and the giant sea bass we were served, I’d have you believe that I know what it’s like to live through WWII with drones zipping overhead.
The RBAR venue is a luxurious seaside set-up. Spectators from nearby Slovenia, Austria, Italy and Germany have driven down. The ticketed seats are full; spectators line the pavements. The top nine places earn World Championship points and the pilot with the most points is the winner.
Last time, Lamb finished third. He’s unlucky today, his plane doesn’t start. Austrian Hannes Arch gets pole, Paul Bonhomme from the UK is second, Japanese Yoshihide Muroya comes in third. (In the next RBAR, in Malaysia on May 18, Lamb went on to win the pole position for the first time ever.)
At Kantinon, a 200-year-old tavern, the happy pilots move from one community table to another, with no room for competitiveness or ill-will. This is what a bird’s-eye view does to you.