Paul's Chateau d'Oex Journal

The 1998 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Saturday, January 17, 1998

We awoke Saturday morning to a wonderful surprise: snow! Now it looked like winter in the Swiss Alps.

In addition to the aesthetic advantages of the overnight snowfall, there were some practical benefits for ballooning. The field where the crews set up the balloons was something of a muddy mess as a result of all the rain. Spreading out the balloons in mud is not really very good for them. To alleviate this potential problem, the festival administrators had been making artificial snow on Friday and pushing it around on the launch field. A healthy dose of the real stuff was a big improvement, however.

The launch field is directly across the street from the Ermitage; we could not have been more conveniently located. Alf’s room directly overlooked the field; this was why he had chosen it to be his regular room at the Ermitage. Because of our handy location, we could go back and forth between our rooms and the launch site in mere minutes. The people who signed up with Buddy Bombard stayed in a hotel 20 minutes away, in Gstaad. While those accommodations were more posh that ours, I fully agreed with Alf’s preference for the convenience of our location. In addition, I preferred the homey character of the Ermitage and Chateau d’Oex in general.

I had slept well my first night in Switzerland. After the extraordinarily long day and its varied excitement, we were all quite exhausted. I woke up a little after 9:00, which was just past midnight back at home, but I didn’t really feel any sort of disorientation in time. There was too much excitement for that! There was snow on the ground and, as I discovered when I went downstairs for breakfast, balloons were spread out on the launch site. The nasty weather had entirely cleared up, and today we would have our first flight.

Both of Alf’s corkscrew balloons were in Chateau d’Oex for the festival. His original balloon comfortably accommodated four passengers and a pilot; his newer one had plenty of room for six. For today’s first flight, Alf took Hermann, Susan and Linda with him in Balloon I, piloted by Mike; I went with Annie, Cindy, Richard and Rosemary in Balloon II, which was piloted by Steve.

I had flown in Alf’s Balloon I several times last August, but this was my first time in Balloon II. Also, while I had met Steve briefly in Prague, this was my first flight with him – or, indeed, with any pilot other than Mike.

There were some other significant differences between this flight and the ones last summer: Most dramatic was the presence of dozens of other balloons! Last summer in the Emmenthal region of Switzerland, we had two balloons; at Chateau d’Oex there were 60 or 70, all flying at once.

Another large difference was that we didn’t travel as far in our flight. Rather than going up and drifting with the wind across the countryside, on this flight we moved around the valley. Air currents at different altitudes wafted in different directions, so it was possible to go one way, then rise to a different air stream and return in the opposite direction. Thus, we were able to view Chateau d’Oex and its environs, as well as all of the other participating balloons, from every angle as we circled around.

I was once again amazed at the degree of control the pilots have over the balloons. Even though by now I should know better, I still basically think of the wind as something that blows in one general direction at a time. But my meteorology is plainly wrong. Especially in a valley, the air currents are widely varied, and they provide great flexibility for pilots who are as knowledgeable as Mike and Steve.

While the Alpine Balloon Festival was mainly about having a lot of colorful balloons all flying at once, there were also a couple of competitive events. One of these, a "precision drop," was held on the first day. At a point down the valley, in an open field, a large red X was marked on the ground. Balloon crews participated in the contest by flying over the X and attempting to drop a special item as close to the center of the X as possible.

We were never exactly sure what the special item was, however, since we didn’t get one. For some reason, the Bombard balloons were not given the item in their pilot packages. But we couldn’t let that stop us!

While we had been aloft and coasting through the valley, we watched many balloons pass near the X, with their crews attempting to hit the target. Now we made our pass. Steve expertly maneuvered Balloon II to a point where the air current was moving straight toward the X on the ground. Because we didn’t have the regulation "drop item," we made our own by writing our balloon’s registration number on an empty Maltesers bag. As we neared the site, Steve fired the burners and we began a rapid ascent over the X. At a precisely calculated moment, Steve released our missile. It fluttered and spiraled down toward the X and landed ... somewhere. From my position in the basket, I couldn’t see it land, but it had to be pretty close. We cheered Steve’s prowess as we rapidly climbed away from the target area.

Much later we received confirmation that the Bombard balloons were not eligible to participate in the formal drop contest; this was why we didn’t get the official missile. We also learned this, however: The winner of the First Prize in the precision drop had only missed dead center by 45 cm. Our drop from Balloon II had missed by 30 cm! Thus, we knew we were winners, even if we were deprived of our rightful recognition.

Our whole flight was really quite delightful. We had just arrived the day before, the weather had decided to cooperate much more than we initially suspected, and we had days and days of adventure ahead of us. There was, however, one questionable note, and it was one that would be a focus of attention for several days: cold toes. But the sunshine and the heat from the balloon burners kept our more northern regions warm enough, and it was hard to complain about anything with so much beauty around us.

Our flight lasted a little over two hours, and we had a successful landing. On the ground, we had the requisite champagne toast while the crew dealt with rolling up the balloon and storing it in its duffel bag. (Another thing that still amazes me is how that huge balloon manages to get compressed into its compact carrying case.)

The two Corkscrew Balloons landed at about the same time, but at slightly different locations. We all agreed to meet back at the Ermitage for lunch, and so we returned there in our respective vans.

After a quick stop in our rooms, we met downstairs for a late lunch in the dining room. This time, Annie and Cindy had the veau viennoise – wiener schnitzel – veal cutlets – that they wanted. I went along with their selection, opting as well for the accompanying pommes frites. When it was served, I understood why they carried such fond memories of this selection from their prior stay at the Ermitage: It was totally delicious.

By the time we finished lunch, it was midafternoon. The only thing remaining on our agenda for the day was dinner! So we all scattered about and pursued various activities. Some of our party did break down and take a brief nap. They were doubtlessly the wise ones, as sleep had been quite scarce for all of us lately. The rest of us took in the atmosphere in our own ways.

I still hadn’t converted any dollars into francs, and so I made a quick trip into town to see if I might be able to find a place that would do this for me. I had previously noticed a tourist office in the center of town, and I thought they might be able to help me. I went there to inquire, and they directed me to the train station just a few blocks away. The exchange rate was pretty close to one and a half francs for each dollar, so I wound up with many more francs than I gave them in dollars. It seemed like I was making money in the transaction! I made it back to the Ermitage shortly before it was time for us to regather for dinner.

Alf had really been wanting the traditional Swiss cheesy things – raclette and fondue – so we had agreed that we would go to a nearby town with a restaurant that specialized in such things. We had a nice little van ride through the valley and arrived at a friendly family restaurant. Immediately upon walking through the door, we knew that this would be different: It smelled like they’d been baking cheese here for decades! This explained why the management at the Ermitage was loathe to prepare traditional cheesy dishes: The aroma was indeed quite potent.

There was a table waiting for us, far in the inner recesses of the restaurant, and we headed back there. Because of the size of our group, it was necessary to create a large, long table out of several smaller ones. One end terminated in a slightly elevated alcove. At this subtable, a bit above the rest of our group, I sat with Michael, Annie and Linda.

We began our meal with very thinly sliced dried beef and proscuitto, along with some salad greens. Then the serious hardware came out. We had ordered both raclette and fondue; each involved hot appliances at the tables. The fondue pots – we had three or four of them placed at intervals along the length of our table – were plugged into nearby wall sockets. In the pots was a potent blend of melted cheese laced with wine; alongside were bowls of bread cut into cubes. We dipped our squares of bread into the cauldrons and then placed the hot morsels in our mouths, where the rich cheese and vaporous wine created at least a two-ring circus.

The more unusual element, though, was the raclette. I thought that I had met up with raclette once before, although when I saw the set-up I came to doubt it. My prior experience, such as it was, occurred a decade earlier, in an apartment high above Amsterdam Avenue on New York’s Upper West Side, where a friend whipped up a batch in the fireplace. She did have the credentials to create raclette, since she had spent a great deal of time in Gstaad while growing up (and Gstaad was only about 10 minutes away from where we were tonight). But I didn’t remember it being like this.

Raclette begins with a large chunk of cheese that is place on a platform over a flame or an electric hearing element. Gradually, as the heat increases, the cheese begins to melt. With a spatula, the diner scrapes the molten cheese off the top and plops it on top of potatoes. It’s an adventure in eating, to be sure! That night, we all exceeded our daily requirements for cheese.

At our elevated table at the end, Michael, Annie, Linda and I spoke of many things falling in the "you had to be there" category. It was great having a chance to talk at some length with Michael again. Last summer it had been over rosti, and now it was raclette, but I find that he always has interesting observations. After dinner, we had our coffees and espressos. Linda ordered sambuca, which sounded like such a good idea, I joined her.

Ah, the days are long at the Chateau d’Oex festival! It was quite late by the time we finished dinner and got back to the Ermitage, but we were not ready to call it a day yet. Instead, we regrouped and headed across the street to the Richemont.

The Richemont is one of the major participants in this story. We spent a great deal of time there during our stay in Chateau d’Oex. Tonight, we were expecting "karaoke night." A few of the crew members had been planning some numbers for this regular event at the Richemont, and we hoped that tonight would be the night. As it turned out, however, there was live music playing, so we did not have the chance to experience one of the crew’s other talents. We were able to experience a fair quantity of champagne. Hermann kept buying bottle after bottle, and he made sure that no glasses were empty.

At about 1:00 in the morning, the main bar at the Richemont shuts down, and everyone has to choose between the street and the club downstairs: La Bamba. For those who have never been in a can of sardines, La Bamba offers a sort of "virtual reality" experience. The place was so packed with people that it was almost impossible to move. There was a dance floor and a DJ with the music turned up loud, and this was clearly the happening place to be in Chateau d’Oex in the wee hours. But it was growing quite late, and the noise and crowds would still be here in the days to come. I crossed the street to the Ermitage and, after a short time on the notebook computer, went to bed.

Next: Sunday, January 18

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