Continuing Paul's Bern Journal
Tuesday, August 19, 1997
Before bed last night, Jean gave me a couple hits of Melatonin to take before retiring. My internal clock seemed not quite to have adjusted to European time, and this stuff was reputed to be very good in getting things tuned up a little. The only requirement was that a big blast of bright light be available in the morning.
It probably would have solved any problems, except I stayed up until almost 2:00 before I took the pills and went to bed. There's only so much the little helpers can accomplish under those circumstances! I DID sleep very well, in any event, until about 9:00.
This morning we met in the lobby and headed out for some Buddy-arranged sightseeing. The first major event on the itinerary was a paddleboat cruise to Interlaken. We boarded the Blumlisalp in Thun, and paddled our way across the Thunersee. This boat was amazing: Built in 1906 but incredibly well maintained, the engine sparkled like new. It had lots of scenic deck areas, and it also offered a first-class kitchen.
While Buddy's other charges had a leisurely dining experience below board, we stayed up on deck and watched the scenery as it passed by us. Noon came, and we purchased some large Feldschlosschen beers to quench our thirsts. The shores along the lake were beautiful; Alf and Jean recognized a couple of places where they had visited on previous trips.
Eventually, we figured that we had better get downstairs for some lunch ourselves. We ordered soup and a first course, but that was about all the time we had. I had tomato soup, followed by tomatoes with mozzarella. Actually, the availability of so many courses had come, by this time, to confuse us a bit. Sometimes we had the full multi-course meal and sometimes we had the initial courses only. On the Blumlisalp, we didn't have time for a main course. Yikes, we were all going to starve!
The Previas were waiting for us when we got off the boat in Interlaken, and they quickly whisked us to the railway station. There, we caught the cog train that would carry us up the mountain to Wengen. We were now in the Jungfrau region, near the "top" of Switzerland. The cog train quickly took us from Interlaken (altitude 1860') to Wengen (altitude 4160'). Of course, this was nothing compared to the nearby Jungfrau's 13,642 foot peak!
We strolled around the tourist trap shops of Wengen, split up into smaller groups. Before long I discovered that I was alone: Jean and Sandra had started shopping, and Alf and Ken were nowhere to be seen. But no! There was Ken now, gesturing from inside a bar where he'd found Alf! I joined them, and we had a couple rounds of white wine while we discussed important world issues.
We caught the train back down the mountain, and the vans retraced our aquatic route to Thun and, beyond, back to Bern. Once again, we had an hour to readjust ourselves in our rooms, and then it was time for the 5:30 ballooning rendezvous in the lobby.
For this evening's flight, we drove out once again to a typical cut field lying next to a corn crop. Hmmm, lunch HAD been pretty light, and that corn looked quite mature ... A few of us decided to harvest a bit and have a snack. The golden ears were, indeed, delicious: Tender and, of course, absolutely fresh. For dessert, there was an apple tree nearby. We joked about how this scene would be a great addition to Buddy's promotional materials: His accommodations are apparently so meager, his travelers are driven to forage in the fields for sustenance!
We had a smooth takeoff ... well, that's all we ever have! ... and we drifted along the cut fields. Just around a bend in the road, we reached the small town of Oberburg. Until now, we had only traveled over the countryside. Now we were drifting right over this town! This was a whole new treat in international relations: Beckoned by the balloons' burners, or perhaps by the barking dogs' response to the burners, many of the local townspeople leaned out their windows or stepped out their doors to watch us pass overhead. We drifted a few feet over the rooftops and waved to the people below. This was great fun: We wished them "Guten Abend!" and they waved and called back to us. A number of children followed us around town on bicycles.
As we passed over the town, Michael was quietly talking with the chase crew over the radio. This was an easy "chase," so I vaguely wondered what was going on. Of course, there's never anything to worry about, so I didn't pay this much mind, and instead I concentrated on waving at the bicycling youngsters and rollerbladers below. As we reached a small open area in town, however, something was happening: There was our chase crew, and we were descending!
This was different: We were in the middle of the town, actually on a street with buildings on both sides. We couldn't land here, but plainly we were sinking down toward the ground. Then I saw it: One of the chase crew held the little picnic basked that contained the champagne and glasses we always utilized upon our landings ... and he seemed to be bringing it our way! Indeed, as we touched down briefly on the street, the little basket was handed up to us in the big basket. We exchanged a few pleasantries with the crowd that had gathered to see this strange site and then, with an extended burst of the burners, we soared quickly skyward!
We went up fast this time, and climbed several hundred feet to where we could see a broad expanse of countryside. Alf popped the champagne cork and sent it sailing into forest below us, and we toasted our great fortune in sharing this day with each other in such a wonderful manner.
After soaring high above the town, we drifted for some distance and then passed over a small cluster of houses out in the valley. We had another smooth landing, just as darkness was starting to fall. As we descended, another large group on bicycles chased after us, and a few of the youngsters "assisted" the crew in landing our craft with the ropes. The champagne was gone, but we had Coca-Cola for the children who gathered to watch.
We stopped for dinner at the Hotel Gasthof in Lutzelfluh. This was a somewhat strange experience, as they didn't really have any menus for us. Instead, the hostess explained, in something approaching English, what some of the choices were. My interpretation was that there were two choices -- one with meat and one without -- but I later found out that I was entirely in the dark.
As it turned out, we all ended up having selections that were quite good, although we were all rather surprised by what we got. Indeed, there was a substantial amount of speculation afterwards concerning just what it was that we HAD been served. Some thought it was veal, others thought pork. The final explanation was that it should have been veal, but the proprietors determined that the pork was better and so they served us that.
In any event, we went through a lot of experimentation with the wine. The bottles were strangely sized, so we weren't exactly sure how many regular-sized equivalents we'd consumed. It was obviously quite a few, however, since we all became quite musical in the Previa heading back to the hotel. Michael was able to summon up all of the lyrics to "Alice's Restaurant," and others of us gave renditions of other oldies. I won the award for "Most Off Key." Dan, who was driving us, seemed to know an astonishing range of lyrics from the 1960s, given that he was not yet born until years after the end of that decade.
Wednesday, August 20, 1997
I slept in again this morning, but today I felt more rested than I have on any morning so far. We met in the lobby for another sightseeing trip: We would be going back to the Jungfrau area again today, but venturing further up into the mountains.
Our first stop was Trummelbach Falls, a roaring waterfall that cuts through the middle of a mountain with spectacular force. Buddy repeatedly warned us to wear our ponchos for this portion of our exploration, but since most of us HAD no ponchos, we decided to ignore him! As it turned out, the splashing of the tumbling falls was not so severe as to be unavoidable.
We left the falls and headed for the Schilthorn. Upon this peak sits a restaurant with spectacular views of the Jungfrau, Monch, and Eiger. By the way, these three peaks are named after a folk tale: Their names translate as Young Girl, Monk, and Ogre, and those are the characters in the story. The Schilthorn restaurant was featured in the James Bond movie "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," and a great deal is made of this connection.
To get to the top, we needed to take three trams: The first goes almost straight up; the next travels up at a more gentle pace; and the last crosses a valley and reaches up to the Schilthorn itself.
The restaurant is circular, and it revolves to provide changing views for everyone. Unfortunately, the Schilthorn was just barely into the clouds today, so we weren't able to see much but fog outside the "007"-emblazoned windows.
We were given a pretty extensive menu for our lunch choices. The waiter, however, had far too many tables to handle, and his response to any questions was to give us a few more minutes to review the menu while he ran off to attend to other things. He was visibly distressed if we needed any information from him. Sandy, a crew member who joined us at our table, ordered the "daily special" without daring first to ask what the special was! It turned out to be lasagna, and it looked fairly good. Still, he had plenty of room left for a huge dessert! I had salmon; it was pretty tasty.
Sandy, by the way, had just finished his education at the Inns of Court, so Alf and I spent a bit of time quizzing him on old British cases: Hadley v. Baxendale, the Rule in Shelley's Case, the Doctrine of Worthier Title, and so forth.
On the way back to Bern, we were wider awake than usual for our mid-afternoon travel. It seemed that we had become pretty accustomed now to our European time zone. We went to our hotel rooms and agreed to meet at the usual time for our last ballooning trip in Switzerland.
We were all veteran balloonists at this point, and we had a great time chatting with the crew and waiting for the balloons to be inflated for our trip. We were joined this time by Shamane, who often accompanies Alf's ballooning group to provide culinary services. She assisted with the balloon setup, and she hopped in the basket to join us for the evening flight.
On this flight we did everything! We drifted over farmland, we floated over the rooftops of another little town and waved at its residents, and we probed our way through another river gorge. It was a long flight, and everything was perfect for us in the air. We also went higher than we'd gone before: about 2500 feet above the ground, for a great panoramic view of the Swiss countryside. Off in the distance, we could see the Thunersee.
As our Corkscrew Balloon plied the river gorge, along with Buddy's Tulip Balloon, we discovered that we were not alone: First we saw a third balloon, and then a fourth! These other balloons seemed not to be operating at quite Michael's level of excellence, however: They were just floating high in the air, without variety in their flight.
Of course, taking the interesting routes that we favor can cause some difficulty for the chase crew. In particular, it's a lot easier for a balloon to traverse a gorge than it is for a truck. Often the roads that cross the valley are many miles apart.
Buddy's Tulip balloon floated very low across a corn field, and it looked like he was going to land there. We kept drifting along, however, barely skimming above the ground, and we went for a considerably longer distance before finally coming down for a landing. At one point, a couple of boars below freaked out from the burner noise. They ran back and forth in their pen, crazed, and they eventually broke through at the bottom of the fence. Luckily, they only made it to another fenced-in portion of the yard: Renegade pigs on the loose in the Swiss countryside at sundown would NOT be a good thing.
Our landing was a rough one: We brushed the top of an apple tree and came down hard in a dirt field. The bad part of the landing was that the field was sloping downward, which is not the way you want to land. If you land going uphill, the wind will blow you into the hill, which is fine. Landing downhill, however, results in the wind trying to blow you down the hill. We braced in crash position, and the basket hit and almost rolled us onto our back. The basket rose again, briefly, and then we repeated the hit, again almost tipping onto our backs. Michael quickly pulled the smart vent rope and partially deflated the envelope, and we were stabilized on the ground.
As it turned out, the chase had gone Very Wrong. We didn't know any of this until after we'd landed, but Michael had received some indications to that effect over the radio. In particular, one of the trucks was not rolling: Dan had been zipping down a winding road, and around one of the winds his front end met the front end of another vehicle. KA-BOOM!!! The ensuing discussion and associated formalities with the local authorities put a crimp in our team's balloon tracking. In addition to this bumper-car episode, one of the Previas was out of radio range, which meant that it was ... well, not real close. The vehicles that were accounted for, on the other hand, were also nowhere near us. Of course, we were speculating a bit, since we really didn't know where we were!
Our landing now made perfect sense: Michael had picked the highest available landing site in the vicinity, one with a few buildings and a school nearby, and he kept the envelope partially inflated and off the ground. This gave us the greatest possible visibility for the chase crew, as they tried to find us. The presence of the buildings, and particularly the school, meant that we might be at some location on a map.
Michael asked the children who gathered around where we were. "Steinenbrunnen!" Well, none of us had ever heard of Steinenbrunnen. Of course, Michael was the only one who would have had ANY chance of knowing it, but this was indeed a little place, and it was brand new for all of us. Michael repeated our location a number of times over the radio, and we could almost hear the maps rustle in the Toyotas as British eyes scanned their cartographic aids.
We peered into the distance, looking for friendly headlights on the nearby roads. Darkness was falling fast now. Of course, we were in no danger. Indeed, we had just had a most wonderful flight and an exciting landing. We wondered about Buddy's balloon; we wondered about the chase crew and this momentary lapse from absolute perfection in their tracking. Eventually, the truck and the Previa from the other balloon's team pulled into view. Julian ran up the hill and helped settle the envelope to the ground. We were saved!
Soon, Rob was on the radio. He said he'd found Steinenbrunnen, but he couldn't locate us. This was almost unbelievable, since the town seemed to consist of only three buildings, but all of a sudden we saw another Previa come around the corner from the other direction. Everything was falling into place.
It was now getting very late; the crew was on hand to take care of matters, and there wasn't really anything we could do to help. We climbed into one of the Previas and headed back to the Bellevue Palace for dinner.
For our final dinner in Bern, the hotel was a fine choice. We hadn't eaten there since our welcoming reception, and it was plainly a very fine and classy place. We were arriving at about 10:00 pm, but they would have no trouble accommodating us. Indeed they didn't: We went out to the terrace dining area and were seated.
The maitre d' suggested a three-course dinner for us. While he made it sound like he had selected this just for us, we suspected that he selected the same meal for everyone else who happened to be eating there that night. We didn't mind: He described the repast with such enthusiasm, and it sounded so good, who could ask for anything else? We don't need no stinkin' menus!!
The dinner began with a fine gazpacho. It was followed by a green salad with air-dried beef. (Alf helped Sandra dispose of her cattle products.) The main course was chicken breast with fresh local mushrooms, acccompanied by spaghettini with pesto sauce. It was simply wonderful. Everything was fabulously fresh; the mushrooms in particular were explosive with flavor, and the chicken was perfectly tender. With a nice Pinot Noir, and a marvelous flight still dancing in our heads, could we have been any happier? While we were finishing up our main course, the Tulip Balloon party arrived for their dinner. Listening closely, it sounded like the maitre d' had selected a similar program for them. Well, they were then lucky indeed!
After dinner, after our Bern adventure, we went up to our rooms to sleep. What an adventure we'd had! Tomorrow, we would be leaving on our transfer to Prague. Tonight, we did not want in any way.
Next: Paul's Transfer Journal covers the trip from Bern to Prague!