Paul's Chateau d'Oex Journal

The 1998 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Monday, January 19, 1998

It was a dark and stormy night. The winds that prevented our flights on Sunday whipped themselves into an even greater frenzy during the night hours, and they blew with a vengeance. Across the street at the launch field, a Coca-Cola® tent that was set up to serve quenching cupfuls to balloonists and spectators got blown into the middle of the street. It made it halfway to Alf’s room.

I awoke a few times during the night, as did some others, roused by the whistling and rustling of the wind. Those who had more fully experienced the Richemont Sunday night were better able to sleep through the whole thing.

The harsh wind might have been the weather getting all of the badness out of its system, thus clearing the way for our ballooning, but unfortunately that proved not to be the case. The winds continued into the morning, and we would once again not be able to take the balloons up.

After the experience of yesterday’s flightless hours, though, we were prepared with alternative plans. Today we would head over to Gstaad, just 20 minutes away, and explore this classic vacation playground. On this "late-rising" trip, I could have stayed in bed until mid-morning. Nevertheless, I found myself awake and puttering around at about 8:00. Given the late hour at which I left the Richemont, this was really too early, but perhaps I’d be able to make it through the day despite the inadequate amount of sleep I’d experienced. I could only hope.

I met Rosemary and Richard down in the dining room having breakfast, and we went through the croissant and coffee routine that was now making the Hermitage feel like home. After a while, Linda came down, too. She had picked up a postcard when we were in town yesterday, and she took this time to write a brief message to one of her clients who had asked that she do so. Hmmm, the mail to the United States is not very prompt; this probably would be a good time to start thinking about sending cards to the folks back home.

The schedule on this trip was so casual! We didn’t leave for Gstaad until almost noon. It was a short trip, and upon our arrival we sprang from the vans and headed out to explore the town for a while. We agreed to meet in front of a designated restaurant at a designated time, and then we split up and were on our own. Of course, it is a small town, so we were bumping into each other quite a bit as we strolled from shop to shop.

I decided that I should get some sunglasses, since I’d left mine in the car back at the Radisson lot in Seattle. There were plenty of choices available at the ritzy little ski shops, and with the help of the salesclerk and a lot of careful mirror scrutiny, I managed to find a pair that seemed to be just right. (Actually, they all looked about the same to me at first, but a couple of consultants seemed to discern differences among the various pairs, so I made my selection with greater care and ultimately was more satisfied than I otherwise would have been.) While at the sunglass shop, we ran into pilots Mike and Bill.


By the time I’d selected my shades, it was just about time to reunite with the rest of the group for lunch. When we arrived at the appointed place, though, we quickly decided on a change in plans. While waiting for the rest of us to rendezvous, Alf had noticed that another restaurant, just across the street, was advertising a special lunch with mussels. This was a great favorite of his, and as far as we could tell, the place with the shellfish looked at least as good as our original destination. Without hesitation, we marched across to the place with the "moules."

Speaking of the "moules," which is the French word for "mussels": In traveling the short 20 minutes from Chateau d’Oex to Gstaad, we had ventured from the French-speaking part of Switzerland into the German-speaking part. Of course, because we were right on the border of the two areas, the languages were somewhat interchangeable. From my school days, I knew a little French and a little German. If only I could have combined them into one, I might have known enough to actually get by. Instead, I knew a few random words of each, not really enough to pass using either one.

We had a wonderful lunch. Most of us had beer or wine, although a few were starting to behave themselves a bit more by having water (with or without "gas"). I had a nice salmon dish. Alf and Cindy had the mussels, which were swimming in a creamy sauce in a large heated bowl. (Frites on the side were de rigueur.) Pilot Steve had a salmon pizza. They really do interesting things with pizza in Switzerland. They also have quite a lot of salmon, and I had it many times while I was there. I know it seems foolish for me to order salmon when I come from the Pacific Northwest, where salmon is such a staple: I should instead order things that I can’t have at home. But on the other hand, why not just have whatever seems right at the moment? Indulgence, that was the ticket on this trip, and I punched it at every chance.

After lunch, we spent a bit more time exploring the streets and shops of Gstaad. This town is definitely a playground for those who have time and money on their hands. The streets are lined with fancy boutiques that carry expensive designer clothing and all sorts of other things that I tend not to buy. Still, it was interesting to look. We went into a sort of housewares store that had lots of interesting items; a surprising quantity had a duck motif. There may have been some reason for this, but I never found out what it might be. Perhaps ducks had saved the village at some point in medieval times?

Among the items we found in one of the shops: Johnny Walker Blue Label. This scotch, which I have never found in the United States, is available throughout Europe. It purports to be several notches up from the other colors of Johnny’s labels: A regular 750ml bottle costs about $200.


As 3:00 approached, we proceeded to our major planned activity of the day: curling! There was a curling arena (or whatever a curling venue is called) in Gstaad, and we had reserved a couple of courts (or whatever) for a match (again, whatever). As we had made plans to engage in this activity, the members of our group were variously dubious about it. Among the retinue, few had any idea what it was all about. Those who came to Chateau d’Oex with Alf last year had some experience, since they had been to the same Gstaad curling pavilion back then, but most of us were rookies. All I knew was what I had seen in the old Beatles movie, "Help!", and that was not much. I couldn't really remember how Ringo had handled the situation, and in any event I suspected that it was not a proper introduction. 44785805ds.jpg (14217 bytes)Nevertheless, I was very much interested in exploring the possibilities that curling presented. I thought it looked like fun. As I say, others were less sure.

We divided into four teams: I had the great fortune to be on a team with Annie and Cindy, who were, no doubt, naturals at curling. Our opponents would be Tim, Shamane and Linda. Tim and Shamane were, in my eyes, semi-professionals, since they’d done this at least once before, but we had enthusiasm and inexperience on our side. Linda was basically skeptical about the whole concept; perhaps she could help us out from within the enemy camp.

We had a marvelous time, sliding the stones and sweeping in front of them to lubricate the stones’ path. Sometimes, activities are most fun when you don’t have the first clue what you’re doing. Most of us were firmly lodged at that skill level.

44785807ds.jpg (10947 bytes)Curling is a lot like shuffleboard on ice: The object is to slide your team’s pieces into a target area down at the other end of the ice. Stones resting closest to the center of the "bull’s eye" score the most points. The other team tries to land their stones in the same target area, and they can also bump your pieces out through direct hits. The vast majority of our shots scored nothing at all, mainly because they slid all the way through the target area and bumped harmlessly against the back wall. We also had numerous incidents where a nicely-placed stone would subsequently be knocked into oblivion by an errant shot from another member of our own team. Our ultimate downfall, though, was Shamane, who was ruthlessly efficient in knocking our occasional successful stones out of their point-rich harbors.

We played two rounds and managed to tie the first 12-12. But despite an apparent improvement in our team’s skill level, gained from the experience of the first contest, we lost the second round 11-4. Culpability was split evenly between opponent Shamane’s evil stone sliding and a couple of heart-rending, self-inflicted wounds.

As we played, the snow was beginning to fall outside.

Hermann had with him two lovely commemorative coins, and he had announced at lunch that these would be the medals for the championship team. The awards ceremony was held in one of the Previas on the ride back to Chateau d’Oex. The declared champions were Annie and Cindy: Since they were on the only team that did not win a single round, they surely exemplified all the highest qualities of sportsmanship, and they accordingly earned the right to be declared champions. Of course, I was one third of that team, too, but Hermann had only brought two medals. Also, I happened to be riding in the other Previa when the presentation was made, so I was not present to accept. More to the point, however: There were several moments during our matches when I really, truly wanted to just beat the living tar out of the other team, so I did not have the same selfless purity of heart exemplified by Annie and Cindy.

When we got back to the Ermitage, it was about 5:30. We sat around in the lobby for a while and conversed over a few beers, then we headed up to our various rooms. We would meet downstairs again for dinner at 9:00.


I hadn’t really been getting enough sleep lately, so after doing the quick mandatory Internet logon, I lay down for a short nap. I got up a little after 8:30 and started washing up for dinner. I was still in the process of waking up when, about 5 minutes before 9:00, just as I was putting on a fresh batch of clothes, Annie knocked on my door. "Are you heading down now?" I asked. She replied, "Everybody’s already at the table. I came up to see if you’d fallen asleep." Yikes, I thought, through the haze of my semi-awake brain cobwebs. "OK, I’ll be right down!" I quickly pulled on the remainder of my clothes and bounded down the stairs in a fog.

Indeed, everyone was at the table, looking patient but delayed. To my shock, it turned out to be almost 9:15. I apologized profusely and tried to make sense out of how this had all happened. This was considerably difficult, since the confusion of the time disparity clouded my sleepy brain even further. It was all very disorienting. I sat down next to Cindy, still engulfed in a brain cloud.

The answer was obvious, of course: The clock in my room was about 20 or 25 minutes slow. Perhaps there could be no better testimony to the loose and carefree nature of our Swiss adventure than this: Throughout the entire several days that we had been here, my timepiece was inaccurate by nearly half an hour, yet until now discrepancy that had been entirely without any noticeable effect!

Feeling a bit sleepy still, I turned my attention to the Ermitage menu and its wonderful offerings. I was torn among a few choices, but after reviewing the possibilities with Cindy, I decided to begin with foie gras and then have some sort of chicken thing as an entrée. Well, I had some understanding of what the chicken dish would be, but with the menu in French, the true nature of what we ordered was often a bit sketchy.


Michael: "I'm a potato and she's a tomato."


The foie gras turned out to be a bit different from what I was expecting. I was marginally familiar with the concept of "paté de foie gras," and I somehow thought that I would be served pate. As it turned out, I did receive a large slice of paté on my plate, but that was in addition to the foie gras. The foie gras – goose liver – was quite simply the goose’s liver, untainted by any paté-ing process. It was small, but it was the most intensely rich food I have ever eaten. The entire thing could easily have been dispatched with a single swallow; it was that small. But it was so intense that I took only small bites, and I ultimately finished only about two-thirds of it. It’s just not the right thing to have shortly after waking up. At other times, I could tell, it would be much better.

The chicken proved to be marvelous, although even that was a little more rich than what I needed, mainly because of its exquisite sauce. It was served with a side dish that was a sort of mushroom and potato soufflé. Again, it was a bit rich. Indeed, "rich" was the watchword for the entire meal. Others ordered filet mignon, topped by foie gras. Still others had something vaguely resembling an escargot pot pie. It was an interesting culinary night.


We had a wonderful time during dinner. Our table was right next to the entertainment: an Italian lounge singer with a keyboard. As the Ermitage dining area is configured, we were practically alone with him in an alcove. As the evening progressed, we became increasingly involved in selecting his songs and eventually in singing along with them. Many of his numbers were in Italian; while we made varyingly successful attempts at singing along with "Volaré," we couldn’t do much with the rest. But he also did a lot of American standards, and we pitched right in on those. Needless to say, this was all wine-enhanced.

After dinner, Hermann ordered a couple bottles of pink champagne. We continued to sing along until, gradually, people wandered off to their rooms or to the Richemont.

By 11:00, the only people left at our table were Hermann, Michael and I. I decided to educate myself by asking Hermann and Michael some wine questions. Unlike me, they both know a great deal about the subject. Tonight’s subject, specifically, was the wines of Burgundy. That was what we had been drinking with dinner, and the particular selection we had was an ideal impetus for an examination of the topic. Indeed, our selection for the evening was a spectacular Burgundy, one of the very best ... and I began to learn why.

There is a lot to learn, about the various labeling requirements and quotas and so forth; which small regions produce the best wines; the distinction between wines from Montrachet and wines that are from "Montrachet hyphenated with something else." Most of this will require greater study before it sinks in. But at least I learned one fact that I won’t forget: All the wines from Burgundy come from one of two grapes. If the wine looks white, it’s a chardonnay; if looks red, it’s a pinot noir. Just knowing that much made me feel better informed.Mercier cork

Finally, I too decided to head over to the Richemont, which had by now become our mandatory nightly venue. It was packed, but we were used to that. Linda had a long heart-to-heart with crew member Eddie, and Rosemary wore out the crew on the dance floor. Hermann kept buying champagne; he saved the corks in his pocket as souvenirs (and to keep count.)

At the end of a long day, we trudged back across the street to our welcoming rooms at the Ermitage. Well, most of us did, anyway.


Next: Tuesday, January 20


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