The Great Swiss-Prague Balloon Adventure

Starring Robin and Stephani Weaver

Plus Jean Marks and Alf Erickson

The four of us joined up at about 2pm on August 17th at the Delta terminal at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida airport. After a speedy check in we made it to the past security cocktail lounge for a warm up brew ... which turned into two brews for each of us, save for Stephani, who is obviously saving room for true value calories from Swiss chocolates. That is her secret weakness, and, I suspect, the sole reason that she spends her lunch hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday on the treadmill at our local fitness center. Neither of the Weavers had a Pavlovian need for airport hot dogs, though Robin did eye the pizza at the next food station ... however, the Marks-Erickson team could not resist the temptation for grease and meat. We are going to have to do something about this or we'll have to pass on the legendary picnics that my hot air balloon crew orchestrates

After almost a 40 minute delay our flight took off for Atlanta ... with luck we shall meet our code sharing Delta-Swiss Air flight to Zurich. As I write this we are approaching Atlanta. I really hope we make it this time!! This is the second time in months that FLL originating flights have messed with us. Though, on the Italy trip, the gals were very happy to have the Concorde option ... bloody expensive option ... hope I don't have to do it again ... though it would be fun.

More later.

OK ... it is now later!

We made our connection in Atlanta and we are just about to land at Zurich. It was an uneventful (very desirable) flight that was noted for the uneventful food. Actually, the service was excellent (but what do you expect from the Swiss!).The 8mm in seat movie that Jean and I chose was DEAD MAN WALKING.A pretty damn good flick.

Good grief! It is the 22nd of the month. And, five full days have passed since I wrote the above bits and pieces about our first few hours of our journey. I have no valid excuse for this dereliction of duties. That is total proof that I am incompetent to continue this journal ... ergo, I must pass the pen to Stephani ... who, as an English major in college, will do a far better job than I could ever do.


Sunday, August 18, 1996

They say the pen is mightier than the sword. I have found in Switzerland something that rises above both pen and sword - Chocolate! So, Alf, boldly has given over the task of journalist to me - along with a large handful of Swiss chocolates.

I'll begin in Zurich. If you ever dream of what it would look like to actually walk into a postcard, I can now tell you firsthand. Alf, Jean, Robin and I arrived in Zurich a little blurry eyed. Since we are all fine, upstanding US citizens, or at least outwardly present ourselves as such, we had no problem passing through customs.

Jean and I left Alf and Robin to claim our luggage as we exchanged dollars. Naturally, they stood at the wrong luggage carousel for some time before they realized it.

After a short cab ride, we arrived at a castle suitable for a princess, the Dolder Grand Hotel. If this is what heaven is like, I'm going to be a much better person. It was here that we met up with our next two traveling companions, David and Adriana Erickson. They are delightful. I know that we are all going to have a great time.

After getting to our room, and seeing the breathtaking view, from both balconies, Robin and I took a tour of Old Town Zurich. The weather an scenery were perfect.

The day ended with all of us along with Léa and Andy, friends of David and Adriana's, meeting for drinks. After dinner we were all ready to retire. It's like a fairy tale!

Monday, August 19, 1996

We're sadly leaving the beautiful Dolder Grand Hotel. I'm only sad because this place is so heavenly. I am truly anxious to continue with our adventure.

The Bombard Balloon group met here for our trip to Bern. They seem like a nice group. Our drive to Bern was very scenic. We arrived in Bern in the afternoon and immediately went for a tour of the Clock Tower, then through town to see the bears - the symbol of Bern. We completed the tour back at the Bellevue Palace Hotel, which was appropriately named. We met again with the group at a four course luncheon. The food, so far, has been unbelievable. Although Alf and I are having a contest to see who can consume the most calories, I am secretly hoping Alf wins.

We were supposed to go for our first balloon flight this evening but the weather didn't agree. So, back to the hotel for a fabulous dinner. I was a little disappointed that the flight was canceled; but being very tired, went to bed looking forward to our flight tomorrow. It will be a virgin flight for Adriana, Robin and me.

Tuesday, August 20, 1996

With a 6:00 AM wake up call from Buddy, it's a race to get ready and meet downstairs for our second ballooning attempt. Those ballooning, along with the crew, baskets and balloons, caravaned to the fields outside Bern. The weather was perfect. We were all very excited.

Then on the process of flight preparation, where are transformed from a bag of nylon to a floating giant. The feeling that I had in seeing this transformation was similar to the one I got, as a child, walking downstairs on Christmas morning. As my mother used to say, my eyes were bigger than saucers. During this process, we all had the opportunity to actually stand inside the expanding balloon as it was being inflated.

When ready to go, it was interesting to see how everyone quickly developed their own technique of getting into the basket; some more graceful than others. The actual ride was breathtaking. I never really understood the meaning of that word until now. We flew over a pine forest and actually picked pine cones from the treetops as we brushed over them. Now I know why Alf is so in love with ballooning.

We had a three point landing directly on the balloon trailer. Words cannot describe this entire experience. Alf has assured me that Michael was one of the best balloon pilots, so I wasn't fearful the entire time. I was comfortable in the air, but Michael's expertise seemed most evident to me with this precise landing.

After the flight, we were treated to champagne, orange juice and pastries. An appropriate celebration for our first flight. All was served right on the field of the farm where we landed. Of course, we shared with the farmer.

Then back to the hotel and on to the Jungfrau region of the Swiss Alps for sightseeing. A cable car ride and, as can be expected, a fabulous lunch. We walked through the town of Mürren, framed by the icy slopes of the Eiger, Munch and Jungfrau. From here we took conventional rail which joined up with a Funicular train for the final descent. A Funicular train is an engineering marvel. To climb and descend steep mountainsides, the Swiss have built trains which are assisted by cogs mounted on the bottom of the engine and rail cars.

I was disappointed to hear that the evening balloon ride was canceled. The weather was once again our foe. But, we are trying again tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, August 21, 1996

Up once again to Buddy's bugle call. This time it was 5:40 AM. After the initial shock of the wakeup call, it's easy to get ready, knowing what's in store. On this day we ballooned over the richly patterned meadows of the Emanthal. We also floated over a prison whose exterior would be practical only in Switzerland. Inmates looked up out of their flower-boxed barred windows with envious stares. After a marvelous balloon ride it was off to Thun for a paddleboat ride and, of course, lunch. This is the most stress free vacation of my life. Buddy sees to every detail. The crew and our hosts, Alf and Jean, are most gracious and eccentric.

If I were to experience any stress during this entire adventure is with the announcement of our next stop, the Trummelbach Falls, which carry off all of the melt water of the gigantic glaciers of the Eiger, Munch and the Jungfrau. My claustrophobic tendencies peaked as I heard that these falls were located deep inside mountain rock and were only accessible by a cog train which connects with tunnels. It was for this reason that I chose, along with Fred, a fellow balloonist, to stay behind.

Back to the hotel, a short walk through town, dinner (fabulous as usual), then off to bed.

Thursday, August 22, 1996

Woke up this morning to Buddy's call at 5:40 AM. Drove out of town with the balloons through a beautiful countryside. The balloon ride today was even more magnificent than before, if that can be possible. We traveled into a mist filled gorge and over and around the ruins of a castle which sat on a cliff's end. Until today, I thought such beauty can only be viewed through the handiwork of Hollywood.

Mike made another three point landing with the help of Jamie, Tim and Mark. Drinks upon landing, then back to the hotel for lunch, an afternoon of shopping, and of course, a marvelous dinner. Tomorrow we begin a three day journey to Prague via Zurich and Austria.

Friday, August 23, 1996

If I believe the Dolder Grand to be the gateway to heaven, Robin found his today - the Feldschlossen Brewery! It has fascinating castle atmosphere, as our guide explained, "a beautiful brewery makes a beautiful beer." Our guide was gracious, but spoke mainly French. Michael, balloon pilot/tour guide assistant, was fortunately able to translate. All was very interesting. At the end of the tour we were offered samples of the product(s) along with lunch, of sorts. This was definitely the most "unique" lunch to date. It was here we experienced a phenomenon I thought existed only in American high school cafeterias - mystery meat. It was bread shaped and we all guessed at its ingredients. At this point, Jean's "meat" seemed to come alive and attempted to leap from her fork! Alf, still eager to win the calorie consumption contest, ate all of his. But, to my dismay, refused a second helping from Jean's plate. Now on to new lands ...

On the van ride to Austria, we enjoyed lush green scenery, not unlike Pennsylvania. It was during this leg of the journey that Robin fell asleep. Looking at him, I thought he looked a little uncomfortable, so I woke him. Being Robin, he laughed and found a more comfortable position for my nap. Onwards to Austria.

It was right after the border crossing that the lead vehicle was separated from the others. After some searching, without any luck, we in the lead vehicle went on, hoping to catch up with the others at the hotel. The scenery in Austria was greenery, tunnels and towering mountains, whose peaks pierced the clouds and at times, darted through reaching above them. About 45 minutes after arriving at the Hotel, Alf, Jean and the crew showed up, just in time for dinner.

Saturday, August 24, 1996

After a most pleasant breakfast, we met up with our fellow travelers and boarded the vehicles. We're off to Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg, Austria, for lunch and yet another brewery tour. On our way there, we passed through a small section of Germany (another new country for the Weavers and the Erickson Fils). Once in Salzburg, we toured the Mirabell gardens and palace. The palace was built for the mistress of Archbishop Thun. She certainly was deserving, since she bore him 12 children. Then off to lunch.

The menu was only in German. Michael, forever gracious, interpreted. The food was very good and, to Robin, a little surprising. Mike, feeding my addiction, allowed time for shopping on the Getreidegasse. Our next stop was a visit to the Weiss Beer Brewery. This brewery was a definite contrast to the Feldschlossen brewery in Zurich. It was more a basement than a castle, and the bottling process was much more primitive. The beer, however, was excellent - almost sweet.

Now on to the Czech Republic. Our stop for the evening was in Cesky Krumlov, at the Hotel Rüse. This hotel had a gothic look. So much so, that Robin remarked he expected to see Batman. Is there some irony there? After dinner, Robin, Alf, Jean and I took a short walk through town to see the chateau. We got caught in the rain. Jean was kind enough to share here jacket with me, shielding my naturally curly locks. Plan to return to the chateau tomorrow. Looks like excellent shopping along the way.

Sunday, August 25, 1996

Jean, David, Adriana, Robin and I began our morning with a walk through the streets of Cesky Krumlov. Alf decided to stay behind to work with his computer. I secretly suspected that he really wanted to eat a big breakfast but did not want to let me know because , later he made up some excuse about not being able to get online. He caught up with us just as the guys were stopping for a beer break (more calories for Alf).

Our last brewery stop was at the Czech Republic's Budweiser Beer Brewery. We were disappointed to find the brewery closed, but elated to find the beer garden was open. Upon leaving, Alf restocked the crew's beer supply. Then on to Prague, to the Hotel Intercontinental. Found the hotel to be excellent, as usual.

Monday, August 26, 1996

We all slept in a little this morning and ate a light breakfast (which would be considered a large breakfast by USA standards). Robin and I met with Jean and Alf for what I later discovered to be a two hour walk. We walked through a park located at the top of what seemed like a thousand steps. There used to be a large statue of Stalin in this park. Needless to say, the statue is now gone. Then, while Robin, Jean and Adriana went out to shop, Alf, David and I put the first journal entry on the Internet. Jean and Robin did return for me, to join their shopping expedition. Adriana and David went to work out while Alf did computer stuff. Jean, Robin and I shopped 'til we dropped. Jean and I have developed quite an affinity for Bohemian glass flowers. Robin and Alf are thrilled. Then back to the hotel for welcome cocktails and dinner with the others who will be joining the Prague ballooning expedition.

Tuesday, August 27, 1996

Today, as promised, Buddy jangled our nerves at a little after 5:00 a.m. Breakfast arrived via room service. Seems like the weather conditions were not going to permit us to take off from the Old Town Square. So, we headed to a soccer field instead. By now it is drizzling. When the caravan of three vans, three trucks and three baskets arrived at the field, we found that the gates were locked. The caretaker, after some searching, discovered that he didn't have the key but did manage to find a saw blade. Some time and a great deal of effort later, the rusty lock was removed. After such a noble attempt, were all disappointed to discover that the weather did not permit us to fly!

So, it was back to the hotel and onto a guided tour of the Jewish synagogue and cemetery. All was very interesting but the rain became more furious and the tour was cut short. So, what else could we do? We shopped!

Dinner was at a most unique cellar restaurant. The food, as I continue to say, was excellent, especially the dessert! I may be winning the calorie contest, since I suspect Alf had his sweet tooth pulled at a young age.

Wednesday, August 28, 1996

Today was a rainy, overcast morning. Buddy didn't even attempt the usual 5:00 a.m. wake-up. Robin and I slept until 8:00. We had a quick breakfast. We then began our sightseeing tour of St. Vitas' Cathedral and the Prague Castle. We had lunch at yet another choice restaurant. We returned back to the hotel to pick up Jean and Alf who had already seen the castle. I am guessing that Alf spent the morning working out.

Not to break our rainy day routine, we all went shopping. We would park Alf and Robin at a café and Jean and I would shop the area, pick them up and move on to another café and shopping area. We may have to charter our own plane home in order to secure all of our glass purchases. We ate dinner at the Blue Duck restaurant. The food was very good.

Thursday, August 29, 1996

Received the dreaded 5:00 AM wakeup call from Buddy. By now, I'm almost used to it. Breakfast was delivered but our stomachs were too tired to eat any. We went downstairs to join the others. I found that Alf did eat his breakfast. It's times like this, I believe he may win the calorie contest. But - he's not playing fair, since I found a plate of 20 chocolate covered cherries in my room last night!

We had our first balloon ride in Prague today. The weather was finally feeling sorry for us. The flight was fantastic. Prague is such a beautiful city with a true history and exquisite architectural design. We flew over the Old and New Town, then on into the country, where we experienced quite an interesting landing. This is where we all found ourselves lying on our backs, in the basket, while it rested on the side of a ditch. It was exciting and really fun. Getting out of the basket in this position was also a challenge. Through it all, Michael continued to smile. A very good time was had by all. This landing will be one that we will remember for a long time.

Lunch at the hotel. And a cab ride to meet the others for a boat tour along the Vltava river. The cab ride needs some explanation. Prior to picking us up, the driver must have received some very distressing news. Along the way, he swore in Czech, dodged in and out of traffic and barely missed hitting a number of pedestrians. Jean, who was unlucky enough to be riding shotgun, witnessed a number of his tense facial expressions. We were pleased to arrived in one piece. Jean and I were forced to do a bit of shopping to settle our nerves. Then on to the boat ride through the historical center of Prague.

We ballooned this evening over New Town and landed among a crowd of welcoming people from the local area. It was fun to see their fascination with the balloon. The children, especially, were in awe.

Discovered still another plate of chocolate covered cherries as I turned in. Thanks, Alf, I really needed them.

Friday, August 30, 1996

Woke up at 5:00 AM waiting for the phone to ring. Buddy's call. Seems my body's clock is finally adjusting to the schedule. We headed to Old Town Square, where we waited. The weather dictated that we would not be ballooning this morning. Using his usual caution, Buddy decided that we would try again this evening. As Mike has been heard to say, "It's better to be on the ground, wishing you were up there, than in the air, wishing you were on the ground." Jean and I, not wanting to break our routine, went shopping. We arrived back at the hotel, just five minutes before the vans were scheduled to depart to the balloon site. Perfect timing. We had a great flight, beautiful scenery, and an opportunity to wave to a variety of friendly Czech people, who to their surprise and delight, were thrilled to discover the corkscrew balloon flying overhead.

I have experienced, during a short trip, a variety of landings. Each was interesting in its own way. This evening's landing, however, was one of the more memorable. After the crew made an Olympic effort, sprinting to catch the balloon's grab lines, it was decided that the feeble looking crops, which would be damaged by the landing, might be of value to somebody. As we aborted the landing, the ground crew was forced to repeat there Olympic dash back to the vans in an effort to continue the chase. Michael continued, in the balloon, to look for a more suitable landing site. We were losing daylight, and this was the first time, the entire trip, that I became a little concerned. Michael, skillfully avoided a web of power lines, and just as darkness was falling landed us in what look like a crop of sticks. At the time, the crew had lost both radio and visual contact. This was my first landing without there expert assistance. It was a soft landing even though the sun had already set. As we waited for the crew, the family from the only visible farm house emerged to witness a strange site. Michael continued to keep the balloon inflated so that the crew would have an easier time spotting us. We can only guess what was running through the minds of the family who continued to stand at the edge of the field. To keep the balloon grounded it was necessary that we remained in the basket. As the full moon was rising, the Czech family ventured forward. We were pleased to discover that they were friendly and gracious. After much map pointing and attempting to speak a common language, the farmer offered to go into town and lead our crew to us. His wife was most hospitable and brought us warm pots of coffee and tea. Our saviors arrived following the farmer. We discovered the kindness of the Czech people and the thirst of the Czech mosquitoes all in one night. Upon our return to the hotel, those from the other two balloon were envious because we had the longest ride of the day.

Saturday, August 31, 1996

Today is our last morning to fly. As Buddy said, it's a beautiful day for flying. We literally were given a birds' eye view of the Charles Bridge. We crossed over the exhibition center and the area that was being set up for the upcoming Michael Jackson, "King of Pop", concert. We had a slightly bumpy landing involving another Olympic sprint for the crew followed by a drag through the dirt while hanging on to the grab lines.

The flight was great and a little sad since it was our final flight of the trip. Looking forward to a day of rest and an opportunity to actually sleep in tomorrow. I'll miss Buddy's wake-up call.

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