France, June 1999

Paul's Journal, Part One

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Sunday, June 6, 1999

This is, of course, a historically appropriate day for a group of Americans to invade France. We skipped the beach landing, however, and came straight into the Charles de Gaulle airport, just outside Paris. "We" means Annie and me. Alf flew over a day early, and Buddy and Judy -- Alf's friends from Florida -- took their own flight today on Air France.

First, I must subject you to the obligatory logistical details of transatlantic transportation, and then we can get on with the actual adventure.

Annie and I left Seattle at 1:45 for Amsterdam yesterday afternoon, on a Northwest/KLM code-share flight using DC10 equipment. It was a full flight, and we were separated in the cabin spreadsheet by a number of rows and a few columns: Annie was in 30J; I took my place in 35C. Given the crowded nature of the flight and the possible horror of being in an "E" seat -- the middle seat in a block of five -- we did pretty well. Annie had a window, with its associated wall for sleep support, and I had an aisle (which I like).

I had come to the airport using an airport shuttle. For prior trips I had employed more adventuresome means of crossing Puget Sound. The best was taking the puddle-jumper Harbor Airlines, which involved about a 9-minute flight on an eight passenger miniplane. Unfortunately, this method was not sufficiently popular to keep the route in existence, so I didn't have that option. Other times, I have spent the pre-flight night at an airport hotel. This is a handy method, since I can wake up in the morning right next to the airport, and can leave my car parked free until my return. With an afternoon flight, however, it made less sense. The shuttle worked well: It got me to the airport with plenty of, but not too much, time to spare.

Our flight was basically uneventful. I found the primary meal to be surprisingly tasty: a vegetarian lasagna featuring zucchini and black olives. Inflight entertainment included You've Got Mail and My Favorite Martian. I'd seen the former, although it's harmless enough to bear another viewing. The showing of the latter roughly coincided with my inflight nap, so I can't provide the full report that the world would no doubt really like to hear.

The most fun part of this particular flight is its polar routing. Although we left Seattle in the afternoon and arrived in Amsterdam the following morning, we experienced absolutely no night. The far northern trajectory of the flight skirted the darkness that lay to our south. Skimming through nine time zones, we had sunshine for the entire flight.

Annie and I had both recently suffered through bad luggage experiences. In the past year, I flew three round trips on Northwest and became separated from my luggage on each occasion. The first of these three times was last summer, when I was also with Annie on this same Seattle to Amsterdam flight. Then, we were en route to Siena. Annie's post-Siena luggage problems were even worse than mine, as those who have been reading recent corkscrew-balloon journals know.

This time, however, we had no problems! Our flight got us in to Amsterdam ahead of schedule, which certainly helps to facilitate the orderly transfer of luggage from plane to plane, and our various bags made it onto the same KLM 737 that we did for our connecting flight to Paris. Although this flight was also crowded, KLM has chosen a 737 configuration that is delightfully spacious. Unlike the "three and three" seat configuration common with most carriers, in some rows KLM puts two seats on the port side and three on the starboard. As a result, the seat widths are practically equivalent to first class. Very nice. (I'm not sure how we happened to get seats in this more comfortable part of coach, but I'm glad we did.)

We landed on time in Paris, picked up our luggage, and headed for the city in a cab. We were actually a day early for the ballooning adventure, so we got to spend a day in Paris. We checked in at the fabulous Hotel Le Parc, in the Avenue Raymond Poincaré. Alf had arrived yesterday, and although he was out for a walk when we checked in, he joined us shortly. Annie would be staying with him, and my room was directly across the hall. What a lovely place! My room, decorated with a lot of red, overlooked the elegant courtyard of Le Parc.

After about an hour of settling in, we left the hotel for a brisk stroll along the Champs Elysees. The weather was quite unstable, with sun and rain alternating ... and at times even coinciding. During one of the little showers that befell us, we stopped at a food stand and had a delicious lunch of baguettes stuffed with fresh tomatoes, lettuce and brie.

We headed back toward the hotel by way of the Seine, passing over the tunnel where Princess Diana met her misfortune and passing under the Eiffel Tower. We had very little time to spend in Paris, but at least our feet covered a lot of its ground! As we finished our walk, we ducked into a corner restaurant for a little café au lait.

Back at the hotel, I made primarily futile attempts to get my Internet connection working. For some reason, my GRIC-based portal to Netcom was not working, and for some other reason, my fallback AOL installation was similarly useless. I'll spare you the full technical details. Anyway, while I feared that I would be plagued by technical problems throughout this trip, it turned out to be quite a temporary thing. You lucky readers!!

A little after 8:30 we left the hotel in search of dinner. After some initial aimless exploration, Annie and Alf suggested we try an Indian restaurant where they had dined on previous occasions. Annie, who apparently has a map of the city stored in her head, steered us directly to the right spot -- Simla-Hill at 9 rue Lord Byron -- and we went in and had an absolutely wonderful meal. Vindaloo for Alf (chicken) and me (lamb); chicken masala for Annie. Perfect. Go there.

Our return to Le Parc was a bit before 11:00, just in time for a very timely dive into sleep. It was now Sunday night, and neither Annie nor I had more than a few hours of sleep since Saturday morning, so this was a marvelous opportunity. Setting our respective alarms for 6:30, we each hit our respective pillows and were out.

Monday, June 7, 1999

What a marvelous morning! After the exhaustion of travel, I had a perfect night's sleep. The alarm went off at 6:30, and after happily snoozing for a couple hits of the button, I got up to face the new day and whatever it might bring.

Before retiring, I had filled out the room service breakfast menu. Annie and Alf said that the breads here are superlative, so I ordered the basic bread basket breakfast, along with coffee and grapefruit juice. The beautiful tray, decorated with a rose, arrived a little after 7:00, and I proceeded to have the most wonderful breakfast imaginable. I'm not normally a breakfast person, but this was just exceptional. The breads were astonishing. I still had my unopened fruit basket from yesterday's arrival, so along with the rich and marvelous flavors of the hard rolls, the soft rolls and the croissant, I enjoyed bananas, peaches, strawberries and kiwi.

Having laid waste to the feast, I showered, packed and went across the hall to meet with Alf, Annie and Pilot Mike, who had now joined us. We gathered our belongings and took a taxi to the train station, again following the Seine through the city. We arrived at the train station with an hour to spare, so we had a little time to stand around and soak up the street scene atmosphere inside the station, and to pop into the belle epoque Le Train Bleu restaurant.

Our ballooning group was at this point rounded out by our meeting Buddy and Judy, Alf's friends who would be flying with us throughout this trip. Introductions were made and photos were snapped.

To get to Beaune, our first ballooning site, we boarded the TGV train. This is the fastest train in the world, traveling at speeds of up to 180 mph. Despite its speed, the ride proved to be extraordinarily smooth. I took advantage of the "sitting still" time to update this journal!

Our stop for leaving the train was Dijon. I expected that we would be greeted as we got off the train by native girls who would offer us teaspoons of mustard, but there was actually no reception. Dijon, by the way, is where the corkscrew balloons hang out from the end of the Chateau d'Oex festival until their first use in the warmer months. Because the fabric necessarily gets folded up with some snow and ice in its creases at Chateau d'Oex, the whole bundle sits in a freezer until the spring. Storing it in a warmer environment would lead to problems once the ice melted and mildew started to act.

Anyway, we were met at the Dijon train station upon our arrival at noon by additional Bombard crew members who gathered up our many pieces of luggage and directed us toward the Toyota Previas that would be our means of ground transportation for the duration of our adventures. From Dijon, it was on to Beaune via the highway. Mike drove us along the Côte d'Or (and the finest vineyards in the world) for about 45 minutes, and along the way he told us many stories of the grape.

In Beaune, we turned left at the Hotel de la Poste, where previous ballooning journals by Denise (1996), Stephani (1997), and Alf (1998) were written, and after a short block we were at Le Cep ... our home for the next few days. Le Cep appears to be a bit more intimate that the Poste, and it is surely beautiful. Annie and Alf were escorted to their room, then I was taken to 005, with Buddy and Judy checking into 007.

My room here is huge, and once again I overlook a small courtyard. Electrical and phone connections appear straightforward, so all my needs are met!

Fifteen minutes after reaching our rooms, we met in the lobby for our lunch trip. Michael took us farther down the road, along the Côte de Beaune portion of the Côte d'Or, until we reached a restaurant called Le Montrachet, in Puligny-Montrachet. What a marvelous lunch we had! The first course was a delicious asparagus selection, with delicate mushrooms, green pistachios, subtle radish slices, and a brown, buttery sauce. It was quite amazing. This was followed by a marvelous preparation of lamb, presented exquisitely. I particularly loved the way the thin green beans, all cut to exactly equal lengths, were tied together in a little bundle. After the main course, we each selected servings of various cheeses from the 17 or so offered, then, for a fourth course, fresh strawberries and shortcakes. Espressos completed this extended midday feast. Mike's lessons on French pronunciation were also a highlight of the meal.

We waddled out of the restaurant, climbed into the Previa, and headed back to Le Cep, where I am now contentedly telling you about all of this. We may soon go for a walk around town, which seems like a very good idea after our amazing lunch.

If possible, we will have our first balloon flight this evening. The weather has been very uncertain for days, though, and so we won't know until later if that can happen. It's now 5:00 pm -- lunch seems to have occupied the better part of the afternoon -- and Mike will either pick us up for the balloon launch at 6:30, or he will tell us that it will have to await another day. Either way, this day is already destined to go down as a marvelous one.

Well, it turned out that we weren't able to fly. Mike had actually been pretty hopeful that everything would clear, but at the crucial time there were substantial chances of thunderstorms, and you just don't want to be floating through the air when those hit.

So we took a sightseeing drive, and we ended up in a small town square with a market that had been built in the fourteenth century. The slate roof was extraordinarily heavy, weighing a ton per square yard. I don't know why people would want all of that hanging over their heads, but I guess times were different then.

By the way, the present is not really Burgundy's heyday. That occurred back around the 15th century, when the Burgundians were quite the hot little group on the scene. The hands of time did not favor them, however, and so everything here is still sort of locked in the 15th century. The Roman architecture of that era still remains, since, well, not much has happened here to change anything since then.

We had espresso in a little cafe, then had a leisurely drive back to Le Cep in Beaune. By the time we got back home, it was about 8:00 and ... time for dinner! More about that later, but think candles ... fighter planes ... motorcycles ... and more lamb!

As I write this, it's pushing 1:00 am, and so time to turn out the lights. I wonder if the bread at Le Cep will compare with that of Le Parc? I'll know in 7 hours. The forecast for tomorrow calls for rain in the morning, then clearing and a good chance for an ascending balloon in the late afternoon. It'll be great to leave the ground! ... But we'll have fun regardless, with the other exciting items on our agenda. You'll see!

Tuesday, June 8, 1999

What a gorgeous morning! The sun is shining and the birds are singing, and through the large windows on either side of my room I can hear chirping in stereo. There is far more sun than I had expected, since Mike talked last night about a morning of rain ... but perhaps that is yet to come. If it stays like this all day, an afternoon flight would be spectacular.

Breakfast arrived a few minutes before 8:00. Once again, the primary component was a variety of breads that simply exploded with flavor. With each of the incredible foods we've had here so far, the intensity of the flavors seems to be cranked up a couple of notches beyond what would seem possible. With the finest glass of fresh orange juice ever squeezed, I toasted the blue skies of Burgundy.

Dinner late last night was at Chateau Savigny. Alf and Annie and the Bombard people had all been to this 14th century castle many times before, and I had seen numerous photos of such visits, but the atmosphere defies photographic capture ... at least with the equipment that we were using. Although there is post-14th century electricity available in the structure, we had no use for it. Instead, one hundred candles, in one hundred Moet & Chandon champagne bottles, lit the rooms of the lower level where we talked and ultimately had dinner.

The Bombard Society's new chef, Tammy, prepared the vast variety of victuals laid out for our indulgence. A large rack of lamb and a huge platter of tarragon chicken shared the serving table with salad, breads, vegetable crudités, rice noodles with salmon and cucumber sauce ... oh, there were too many choices even to sample everything, let alone list them all here. The five of us -- Alf, Annie, Buddy, Judy and I -- were joined by Buddy Bombard, our pilot Mike Lincicome, and our good friend Steve Trieber (another Bombard balloon pilot) for the feast. Tammy was assisted in her service by half a dozen of Buddy's crew members. Our every need -- even those that we didn't realize we had -- was instantly satisfied by these attentive assistants.

The Chateau Savigny is a most interesting place. On the third floor is a collection of some 300 motorcycles, many of them quite rare. Outside on the grounds are 78 fighter planes of many nations. The moat around the castle has been drained, but it is now inhabited by deer. (Oops. I've been informed that the deer are gone and have somehow been replaced with goats.) Well, let's just say that the whole facility gives form to the word "unique."

I'll be back with more later, but it's almost 10:00 ... and that means it's time for our morning wine tasting expedition. Y'all come back now, hear?

What a full day this was! Buddy (Heiss), Annie and I elected to go to the wine tasting. We were met downstairs by Buddy (Bombard) and Imelda the Guide, who was retained to assist in steering us around and protecting us from ourselves. With so much knowledge to be absorbed, we needed to be tag-teamed.

This was an informational overload day. While Buddy and Imelda concentrated on making sure we got the basics down, they also tossed out lots of interesting details to lend flavor to it all. Most of this information took a pleasant trip through my head and then moved on to greener pastures, but I enjoyed hosting it during its brief visit. If you want to know all these details, you'll have to contact Buddy and Imelda yourself. They definitely can tell you everything you could possibly want to know!

Our morning exploration began in the cellars of Patriarche Père et Fils. Most of Beaune has wine bottles underneath it. While these were originally separate cellars, most of them were long ago joined together by knocking down the walls that separated them. As you walk down the streets of Beaune, you are treading over a huge supply of wine. Indeed, upon our descent into the labyrithine cellars of Beaune, we found ourselves in the presence of 9 million bottles of wine.

We had the place pretty much to ourselves -- Buddy, Annie and I, with Buddy, Imelda and Tom the Previa Driver. There were some markers to indicate the suggested path through the maze, but getting lost appeared to be a real possibility. I suggested to Buddy that we should be dropping crumbs so that we could retrace our way back out, and it would not have surprised me if we had bumped into another Bombard group that might have been wandering these cellars for ten years in search of an exit.

Actually, we did see a few other explorers during the early part of our walk, and we bumped into a number of workers as we passed through. This is definitely a working cellar: Although the millions of bottles primarily just lounge down there peacefully, there are constant calls for small groups of them to emerge into the world and to do what they were bred to do. Lucky cartfuls of conscripts are daily unstacked and wheeled out of the cellars, thereafter to be labeled, cased and sent on their trips to tables around the world.

Of course, we came here not merely to look at wine, but to taste it, and so we proceeded to do so. With our having seen and heard many details of the wines of the Côte d'Or, it was time for our additional senses to join the experience. Buddy, equipped with a carefully constructed set of flash cards, explained the basics of appellation control in the Côte d'Or, pyramiding downward from the Grand Cru wines through Premier Cru, town labels and so forth. The regulations are extraordinarily specific about labeling, just as they are for the methods of growing, fermenting and bottling the wines.

Imelda then poured us our first wine selection. We would be tasting various wines using special metal cups designed to assist in our evaluation. These devices, in use for hundreds of years, have bumps and indentations that help display the color and clarity of the wine. We were given the option of swallowing or spitting; especially given the early hour, we pretty much stuck with the latter. Actually, Imelda said that we had chosen a very good time for wine tasting: in the late morning, breakfast lay in the sufficiently distant past, yet it was early enough in the day for our faculties to be fresh and alert.

Both Buddy and Imelda explained the basics and some of the finer points of wine evaluation, from the attack through the middle and the finish. All parts of the mouth play a role, although the nose is most important. Buddy also explained how some grapes are born very smart and they need to go through many years of careful schooling to achieve their full spectacular potential, while others are kind of morons, and you just can't expect a whole lot of them. Of course, this means they're up to their full capabilities (such as they are) right out of grade school, and so you can stop wasting your money on them at that point and just drink them down. (This actually made sense if you were there.)

Our little group walked through the cellar maze, stopping first at various white wine stations, and then at various red wine stations. At each one, we let the wine vapors rise through the insides of our head and we tried to discern the differences among the wines from the various years and locations. It was fun and, of course, extremely educational. We did not receive diplomas at the end, but we did get to keep our little metal tasting cups.

After leaving the cellars, we headed for our scheduled lunch with the Countess de Loisy. (We were rejoined for lunch by Alf, Judy and Mike.) The countess's story is the Côte d'Or's story, and over an achingly delicious boeuf Bourgignon, she shared tales of her ancestors (including one whose crown appointment as a local judge in 1791 was one of Louis's very last official acts) and of her younger days (including the years during the war when her home was occupied by a dozen German officers).

In addition to our wonderful lunch, we were also treated to a tour of the largest wine barrel cellar in the Côte de Nuits (which is located under her house ... and, for that matter, under the rest of the neighborhood). Although the countess sold the cellar to some friends a few years ago, she still has the key to the facility, and she knows all there is to know about the wine-making process that still takes place there. The countess is, in every respect, a most remarkable lady whom I will not forget.

(Looking back at this report, I just realized that I probably haven't explained the "Côtes" very well here. The Côte d'Or -- the slope on which all of these fabulous grapes leisurely soak up the French sunlight -- consists of two parts: the Côte de Nuits in the north and the Côte de Beaune in the south. In the center of each section you will find, respectively, the towns of Nuits and Beaune. There, now it all makes sense.)

After lunch, Alf and Annie returned to Le Cep, and under the guidance of Buddy Bombard (and rejoined by Imelda), I went with Buddy and Judy Heiss to Le Chateau du Clos de Vougeot. This centuries-old monastery was once occupied (as many monasteries were) by wine-making monks. These days, it is a museum and the home of occasional raucous dinners hosted by The Knights of Something Or Other. The Knights were formed after World War II as something of a marketing organization, tasked with promoting the wonders of Côte d'Or wines. We watched a slide show of one of the Knights' dinners; it made the event appear to be quite an occasion. Of course, in France (or anywhere), any time Catherine Deneuve shows up, you know you're having a successful party.

On our way back to Beaune, we drove down the little dirt roads that cross the vineyards, and we paused briefly at the edge of the little Romanée Conti section. This is where the most special grapes in the world grow: The wine produced in this section starts at about $900 a bottle, although even then you have to wait a number of years before it's ready for its intended purpose.

As is becoming the pattern, our post-lunch return to Le Cep found our clocks reporting about 5:00. We would have a little time to relax, freshen up, log on or whatever, and then we would enter the Ballooning Portion of the Day.

The weather today was a vast improvement over yesterday's, so prospects for a lift-off appeared greatly enhanced. We met Mike downstairs, and we drove out to the same place we had gone yesterday. There, the crew awaited. They loosed a little helium balloon and knowledgeably watched its climb through the layers of air, they studied their maps for a while, and then our caravan of two Previas and a little truck headed on down the road to the launch site that seemed appropriate for the conditions.

We drove up a winding road to some higher terrain, and the crew set about its task of inflating the balloon. It being early in the ballooning season, we have some pretty new crew members working with us; the inflation process accordingly took a bit longer than usual while Mike instructed these young lads from Britain in all the details.

The inflation process has been described here many times, by me and by others. Basically, it's pretty straightforward: You pull your envelope (the "balloon" part) out of its bag, extending it so that the top lies pointing in the direction toward which the wind is blowing. At the base, the basket lies on its side with the propane burners pointing toward the envelope. Pulling the base of the balloon open as you would the jaws of a lion, you then fire up your gasoline powered fans and start blowing air into the envelope cavity. Over time, the 180,000 liter interior begins to fill up a bit.

A balloon won't go erect with ordinary air, though, so once it's fairly well rounded out but still lying on its side, Mike begins firing the burners and shooting flames horizontally into the envelope. The resulting hot gases push the top-lying side of the balloon skyward, and eventually the whole thing tips upward, righting the basket in the process. More hot air is added, and at last it is time for the passengers to climb into the wicker basket. And then we're off!

Tonight's flight was marvelous as always. We had our first really good view of the area, from the best perspective there is for checking out the lay of the land. We drifted along low, we soared high. Indeed, we climbed to about 8,000 feet before the chill of the higher altitude coaxed us back down. The evening had proved to be so clear, though, as a result of the recent weather systems, that it was spectacular to see the landscape on the scale that a high altitude permits.

Our flight ended with a perfect landing: The crew guided our basket down right onto the trailer. We were just on the edge of a small town, and there were a number of homes close to our touchdown site. As often happens, a group of people gathered as we landed. One of the local women was particularly excited by our arrival. Within minutes of our landing, she was over the side and in the basket with us. We were not sure whether her husband had tossed her in, or if it was her idea to join us, but she was about as animated as anyone I've ever seen.

She spoke nonstop, and even though Mike was the only one who could keep up with her rapid French -- and even though we told her this and she seemed briefly to understand -- she still had much to say to each of us. (It is unbelievable how calm our new friend appears in this slightly later photo of her. She must have exhausted herself.) Her primary concern, though, was that Madame Flacher, who was apparently a friend of hers, should know of her adventure, and she called out through the darkness, repeatedly and with growing urgency, "Madame Flacher! Madame Flacher!!" Eventually Madame Flacher, who might have lived in the next town but still would have been effectively summoned by our new passenger's hailings, appeared on the scene. She was considerably more nonchalant about the whole situation.

We disembarked and had our post-landing toast with the assembled group of townspeople, and then we headed for our Previa and were off to dinner.

At this time of year, in this part of the world, daylight persists quite late into the evening. This is also true in western Washington, where Annie and I would probably be if we weren't here, but to a somewhat lesser degree. Anyway, by the time we landed, had our toast and hopped into the Previa, it was well past 10:00.

Dinner tonight was at Laborde, the estate that the Bombard people call home. Across the drive from the main chateau is the orangerie, a lovely place for an indoor picnic. Once again, lighting was provided entirely by candles. Once again, Tammy prepared an extensive variety of delightful dishes. We began with a tomato ratatouille and followed it up with a diverse array of inventive and delicious choices. A bit after midnight we headed back to Le Cep, tired and happy.

Next: Part Two

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