Paul's Chateau d'Oex Journal

The 1998 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Sunday, January 18, 1998

I woke up too early this morning. After having such a long Saturday and not getting home until the early morning hours, I really should have slept in. This was especially true because Saturday had come on the heels of that incredibly long Thursday/Friday day. But I woke up around 8:30 or so, and I just didn’t feel very sleepy anymore. With all of the excitement and activity, it’s difficult to sleep through anything.

I went downstairs to breakfast and joined some of the others. Of course, they hadn’t all been out as late. Indeed, those who remained at La Bamba the prior night were not to be seen. Hermann was in the dining room, however, and he had certainly been at the Richemont until quite late. When asked how he was able to stay out so late and still be wide awake and perky at an early morning hour, he explained, "You have to sleep fast."

The continental breakfast at the Ermitage was included with the room. There was "slice it yourself" fresh bread, with various jellies and marmalade, plus a large bowl of healthy-looking cereal that sat soaking in milk for the duration of the breakfast period. Through some secret Swiss technology, it managed to avoid becoming waterlogged during its prolonged submersion.

Upon sitting at a table, we would also be served a basket of fresh rolls and croissants. Capping the light breakfast was a small metal pitcher of wonderfully strong Swiss coffee. It generally came with milk on the side, but I preferred it black and would normally ask for it "noir" to save them the trouble of bringing the extra little pitcher of milk.

Outside, the balloons were being spread out on the launch site, but there was less activity than there had been Saturday at this hour. When we got down to the field, we found out that we wouldn’t be able to balloon today: Although the skies were mostly clear, there were very strong winds of 50 knots a little higher up. Indeed, the snow on the peaks of the surrounding mountains was visibly flying across the valley in the wind. No balloons would fly today, by wise order of the festival organizers.

For the first time in the trip, we had nothing to do! It was around noon, and our single scheduled event of the day – ballooning – was not going to happen. So we lounged around the Ermitage, chatting, enjoying the beauty of the valley and sipping hot chocolate. Alf and I wasted some time on our Compaqs.

Today, we were substantially more disorganized about lunch than normal. We had made reservations with the Ermitage for 2:30, which would have been the time we’d return after a standard-length balloon flight. Since our schedules had loosened up, we didn’t need the structure of that reservation. Several of us decided to go across to the Richemont to explore their pizza and other menu offerings; a few headed into town for other explorations.

The Richemont looked different inside in the daylight: brighter and cheerier, less iniquitous. One thing that wasn’t different, however, was its crowdedness. Indeed, there were no seats at all, and there appeared to be little promise of getting any in the near future. Of course, we had nothing else to do, so we decided to wait around and see if some tables might open up. Some of us waited outside, some inside. Linda, Richard, Rosemary and I lurked inside the door, keeping an eye out for departing patrons, while Cindy, Annie and the rest waited outside and soaked up the sunshine. People went in and out through the doors constantly, although this resulted in few changes in the availability of tables. Many were simply sitting at the bar (or standing near the bar), having a fortifying beverage. Gusts of cold air blew in whenever the door opened, and as the nearest people to the door, we received scornful glances from the air-blasted diners at nearby tables whenever this happened.

As our wait became more extended, we began to wonder whether it had been a mistake to relinquish our reservation at the Ermitage. The felt need for some variety in our dining venues rapidly gave way to a growing hunger and a longing for the familiar. A wiener schnitzel in the hand is worth two pizzas in the bush.

A delegation returned to the Ermitage, hat in hand, to see if we might still be able to find accommodations there. Just as this was happening, a small group of seats finally opened at the Richemont. There were not enough for everyone, though, and several had already decided on switching back to the Ermitage. Thus were we split for lunch. Richard and Rosemary chose to stay and have pizza; I returned with several others to the Ermitage.

At the Ermitage, we were rewarded with the excellence we had come to expect. I had some delightful salmon with pommes frites; the wiener schnitzel was once again a popular choice for some. Of course we all began with the wonderful Ermitage salad, and substantial quantities of wine rounded out the lunch.

For a few months, Alf had been talking about building a third balloon to add to his fleet. At lunch today, we had our first opportunity to see how it might look. LeeAnna Yater, who designed both of Alf’s first two balloons, had sent him some preliminary sketches that roughed out some of the ideas he had been discussing with her. The basic theme involved a trio of nude women who began with flowing tresses on top, then segued into corkscrews instead of legs as they went south. LeeAnna provided black-and-white sketches of the proposed balloon itself, as well as copies of some photos from art books that showed the pedigree of the nudes and their poses. The corkscrew motif, of course, was entirely original.

So far, the plans for this very different third balloon have generated varying reviews, from applause at the dramatic high concept to skepticism at the practicality of drifting around the countryside with a balloon carrying several 40-foot tall naked women. At this point, the plans remain simply a proposal. Construction will either begin – or not – within the next few months.

With our day’s balloon flight canceled, this turned into a day that was largely unstructured. After lunch, we all pretty much went our separate ways until it was time for dinner. Of course, with our late and leisurely lunch, it was already late afternoon at this point. But the town of Chateau d’Oex was still new to us, and we had exploring to do. I went with Linda up the hill into town. One objective of hers was to find some warmer footwear, but the shoe store closed just as we approached it. No matter; the week was still young.We continued walking through town, until we came out at the other end, then we turned around and headed back.

I spent a little time on the Compaq before dinner. I was still experimenting with different connection methods. American Online had a couple points of presence (POPs) in nearby towns. Netcom also had Swiss access available, and I generally preferred that option. The lines were not totally clean, so connecting and remaining connected were somewhat difficult. Also, since both services imposed time-based surcharges for European connections, I tried to rein in my online time a bit. This wasn’t too difficult, given all the offline activities that were available!

For dinner, most of us went back to the Richemont. Alf didn’t join us, as he wanted to check out some things in town. This time, finding a table at the Richemont was a snap: Michael had made a reservation for us in the dining room above the main restaurant, so we had no problem with accommodations. All three of the Bombard pilots – Mike, Steve and Bill – joined us for dinner, and we all sat at one long table. The Richemont offers a variety of food, all substantially less elaborate than the marvelous Ermitage fare but still very good. Most of us opted for individual pizzas, although there was a renegade order or two of spaghetti. My pizza was quite delicious. I ordered one of their standard selections, although I decided to have them leave off the egg!

After dinner, we simply went downstairs to the main area of the Richemont. By this time, it was well after 9:00, and so the character of the place had made its transition from "restaurant" to "bar." This suited us fine, and we adapted easily to the protocol of beer and champagne consumption. We stayed until they shut down for the night.

Next: Monday, January 19

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