Paul's Chateau d'Oex Journal

The 1998 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Friday, January 23, 1998

Friday morning brought simply beautiful weather. The skies were blue and there was no question about our ability to take the balloons up. Friday Flight (31520 bytes)The winds at upper altitudes were still a bit strong, so we’d be confined to the valley again ... but it was also now the beginning of a new weekend, so we had to stay in the valley for that reason anyway.

With the approach of the weekend, there was a heightened level of activity in Chateau d’Oex. The staff of the Ermitage grew quite busy, as they prepared for a large influx of balloon-watchers from all around. With the Ermitage’s extremely convenient location directly across the street from the launch field, there were bound to be a lot of people passing through for lunch or perhaps just a hot chocolate.

Despite Thursday’s eventful flight, everyone was very eager to take the balloons up again. As was our routine with each successive flight, we switched balloon passenger lists. Alf was in Corkscrew Balloon I, along with Elisabeth, Hermann and Susan. I was in the adventure-filled Corkscrew-Balloon II, with Linda, Annie, Cindy, Rosemary and Richard.

241ds.jpg (25472 bytes)We rose through the Swiss air and had a simply marvelous flight. Unlike prior days, during this trip the two Corkscrew Balloons spent much of their flight time right next to each other. Indeed, their envelopes were banging against each other repeatedly.

When balloons collide, there’s not the sort of jarring, death-threatening horror that you might expect. Actually, there is often nothing at all perceivable when the collision occurs. These balloons are, after all, "air cushioned." Indeed, air cushioning is their whole game. So CB I and CB II could get just as friendly as they wanted to get, and we still had our smooth ride.

Even as the envelopes caressed each other, their large diameter kept the baskets that carried us separated by some distance. Still, we were much closer than usual, and this proximity provided a great opportunity for communion between the two loads of passengers. We aimed our cameras at each other; we said "cheese!" By the way, contrary to what you might expect, French speakers don’t say "fromage" when their photos are snapped.


Once again, we had a marvelous inflight lunch. There simply cannot be anything more deluxe than drifting along on a beautiful day in a small balloon basket, dining on fine foods and excellent wines.

Since the other balloon was so close, and since we had food to spare, we decided to share some morsels with the folks over in CB I. As I said, their basket was still some distance off, despite the contact of the envelopes. Also, the aerodynamics of gherkins proved to be less than ideal. But when we were a bit higher than the other basket, an energetic pitch of little lunch particles could come very close to striking home.

I found that cocktail onions made the best ammunition in this airborne food fight. Round and fairly solid, they soared through the air with a trajectory most straight and true. Elisabeth reached out and almost caught one as it sailed by; I think Pilot Steve might have actually landed one in the basket, near Hermann. The passengers of CB I sought to pay us back with contributions from their lunch, but their aim seemed slightly less precise than ours.

After lunching and tossing various vegetable products at one another, we continued to drift through the valley. 95937620ds.jpg (25642 bytes)It was such a beautiful day! The skies were clear, and the white tops of the snow-covered mountains around the perimeter of the valley were sharp against the deep blue sky. It was beautiful to the point of drawing tears to my eyes.

Along with the sky and the mountains, of course, there were balloons everywhere, and they too added to the beauty. They heightened it both because of their colors and grace as they drifted through the Swiss skies, but also because each balloon, made small by its distance from us across the valley, was carrying others who we knew were sharing in the same gorgeous experience we were having.

With all of this wonderful scenery, I was snapping away at my little camera like a dog with an intransigent flea. As my father used to admonish me, back when I was young and unappreciative of the cost of film, I was "taking pictures like a drunken sailor." I exhausted several rolls during this one flight.

Here, soon, will be just a few of those photos. They cannot possibly capture the way it all actually looked. I knew at the time that photography was insufficient to that task. But this is the best we’ve got to record the day forever!


We landed a bit northeast of Chateau d’Oex, on a slope at the foot of the mountains that circle the valley. Feeling a certain pressure from the inflight wine and other potables, I quickly left the grounded balloon to find a discreet nearby bush.

As I returned to my colleagues, a man whose house was just across the road from our landing spot joined us. We offered him some champagne, but he had come prepared: He brought along a wicker picnic case with several wine glasses and two bottles of some excellent local wine. We toasted one another and basked in a wonderful end to a wonderful flight. Carrying my photophilia to new heights, I snatched Annie’s camera away from her and shot several pictures of our ground ceremony using her film.


We returned to the Ermitage in our Previa. Those who had not used the bushes of the Swiss countryside quickly went up to their rooms for the comforts of more proper facilities.

It was only mid-afternoon, and we had already had lunch in the air, so we had a lot of free time ahead of us. Annie, Cindy, Steve and Bill were going to go for a walk around the Chateau d’Oex environs, and I decided to join them. We headed up the hill above the main part of town, stopping for photos at a footbridge over a cold mountain stream. Then we continued uphill a bit farther, to a large hotel on the side of the mountain: a good place to stop for a beer and to look out over the valley.


By the time we got back, we were heading into Friday night, the heart of the closing weekend for the Balloon Festival. During the day, as we walked through town, food vendors and purveyors of various other wares were setting up their operations along the narrow main street that wound through the village. Tonight, there would be street food for the masses.

Tonight would also be "the Glow." This was an annual tradition, but because this year marked the 20th Anniversary of the festival, it was going to be a bit more elaborate than usual. For "the Glow," dozens of inflated balloons line the road that runs along the foot of the mountain. After dark, classical music pumps out of the public address speakers spread through town, and the pilots flip their burners on and off in synchrony with the music. In the darkness of night, the flames inside the balloons cause each envelope to "glow" with its bright colors. Because of the timed ignition, the light patterns shift in artful ways.

Linda and Susan left to climb the small hill next to the Ermitage, hoping to get a better view of the whole thing. I went to Annie and Cindy’s room to watch from their window: There, from the back of the Ermitage, we had a perfect unobstructed line of sight to the balloons on the road. Alf and Elisabeth stopped by for part of the show, as did Steve and Bill. Bill couldn't stay long, though: There was some sort of traditional annual pilots' basketball game that night, and he had to run off to that.

The Glow was pretty impressive. In addition to the balloons, a couple of the airships participated. They glowed in the dark, too, as they motored through the night air. One went right past our window. Afterwards, a nice fireworks show capped the display.

By the time the show was over, it was getting on into the evening. None of us had eaten since lunch (and that lunch was made lighter by our tossing parts of it overboard). Cindy, originally from Wisconsin, had been developing a mighty hunger for bratwurst, and our earlier trek through town had suggested that this very delicacy would be available in the streets of Chateau d’Oex tonight. She and I headed out together.


The streets of Chateau d’Oex were jammed with revelers! The little town was far more crowded than we’d previously seen it. Bratwursts were there to be had, but only for those willing to battle the ravenous throng of sausageheads crowded around the grills. Cindy and I persevered, and we ultimately succeeded. This was surely our least elaborate meal of the trip, but it was a fun one. We ate as we walked through the streets.

In the center of town, a marching band was playing tunes and drawing another dense crowd. We listened for a while, then dove into the adjacent Hotel de Ville. Of course, the lounge was totally packed. I managed to fling myself to the bar, and I ordered us up a couple of Guinnesses; Cindy spotted a small table over near the corner, somewhat out of the major traffic routes. We sat down and had a little quiet time.

During the course of the preceding week, I’d spent hours and hours with Cindy, but this was the first occasion when just the two of us had a chance to sit down and talk for a while. We had a delightful conversation, and Cindy proved to be even more charming than I had previously thought. What interesting people one meets on Alf’s balloon trips!

After a while, the marching band came into the Hotel de Ville. Trombones and saxophones in hand, they sidled up to the bar and wet their whistles. Even without blowing their horns, the cacophony of the swollen mass contained within the de Ville’s walls grew to an even higher level.

Although it wasn’t really all that late, it had been a long (and perfect!) day. We wandered back through town, and I decided to call it a night. I retired to my room and read the Herald-Tribune’s latest report on the American Presidency. Then I shut off the light, lay my head on my pillow, and drifted away like a warm balloon wafting through the clear air of a mid-European January.


Thursday, January 22 || Saturday, January 24

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