The 1956 film of Around the World in Eighty Days has one quintessential image: the urbane David Niven as Phileas Fogg cooling his champagne in ice he has scooped up as his balloon brushes an Alpine peak. Yet nowhere in Jules Verne's novel does Fogg use a balloon to travel. It's a further irony that Niven was allergic to heights ("at home I almost pass out if I have to stand on a chair to change a lightbulb") and yet he helped to promote the first balloon festival in the Swiss Alpine town he chose to make his home: Chteau d'Oex.
To reach the resort for its International Balloon Festival, I took the train. The sleek Pininfarina-designed GoldenPass Panoramic climbs from Montreux through a series of hairpin curves to give stupendous view over Mont Blanc and the French Alps before diving into a long tunnel to reach the rolling pastoral country known as the Pays d'Enhaut. The sky above the snow-covered valleys near Chteau d'Oex itself was dotted with multi-coloured balloons from 20 different countries.
All were here to benefit from a microclimate that is ideal for the sport. In fact, so propitious a place is Chteau d'Oex that the first non-stop circumnavigation of the Earth by the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon took off from here in 1999, piloted by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones. They made this remarkable journey in 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes.
Wim Verstraeten, part of the team who made that achievement possible, took me up in a blue-and-yellow balloon brought from his home town of Sint-Niklaas in Belgium. With almost British understatement he told me that "ballooning looks like hocus-pocus, but there's a bit more to it".
Nevertheless, to begin with it does look disarmingly simple. The envelope, as the balloon part is termed, is laid out on the ground beside the basket and filled with cold air using a large portable fan.Once basket and envelope are vertical, two Bunsen-like burners fuelled by liquid petroleum gas start to heat the air.
At this point passengers scramble into the basket to provide some ballast until the pilot is ready to take off, whereupon ground helpers release the balloon.
Watching your shadow leave the ground and diminish in size is a curious sensation, with the unfamiliar roar of the twin burners in your ears and a nozzle of flame 10m high shooting into the envelope. It's quite reassuring to learn that the ripstop nylon from which the balloon is made is extremely strong.
The first balloonists had no such comfort: when Piltre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes became the first humans to fly (in Paris on 21 November 1783) the Montgolfier brothers' linen-paper balloon caught fire from the open brazier and had to be extinguished with wet sponges.
As the air inside the envelope warms, the balloon rises through the cooler air. The colder the air, the more stable is the flight, which is why winter in the Alps provides the best conditions. When the envelope cools to a similar temperature as the outside air, the balloon will begin to descend, so the rate of ascent and descent is controlled by the pilot's use of the burners. Great skill is needed to judge the altitude at which the wind is blowing in the appropriate direction.
The pilot has an altimeter and thermometer as well as a radio for communication with the ground crew, who meet the balloon wherever it lands. The giant laundry basket is divided into two compartments: one third for the pilot and gas tanks, and a leather-trimmed two thirds for the passengers. (The basket is made partly of wicker from willows grown on the Somerset Levels the world's best balloons happen to be made in Bristol, by Cameron Balloons.)
Technical curiosity satisfied, you can become absorbed in the panorama from 3,000m above sea level. The almost unrestricted view is a world away from the porthole-sized windows of a plane, with a wonderfully liberating sense of space and fresh air.
In all directions there is nothing but endless valleys, peaks, glaciers and corries mantled with snow, the folds in the mountains becoming more pronounced as sunset approaches. To the west lies Lake Geneva and beyond is Mont Blanc; to the east the massif of the Bernese Oberland with the Eiger and Jungfrau; and to the south the mountains flanking the Rhône valley.
Evidence of the microclimate that gives Chteau d'Oex and the adjacent valleys so many days of clear skies and light winds can be seen from on high: more distant valleys are littered with clouds.
Beneath us were patterns in the landscape only usually seen in aerial photographs (which capture shapes and shadows to striking effect). I saw a tracery of dark-brown roads, the long shadows of a cluster of lonely chalets and barns, streams and ponds glinting in the sun, a forest of conifer crowns newly dusted with snow. Dogs barking can be heard at 2,000m. Indeed, the acoustics of the basket were a surprise: like being in a sound-proofed booth, perhaps because of the taut mass of material above.
After crossing a dozen or more threatening crags of rock, we descended into a broad valley that leads north to the cheese-making centre of Gruyres, floating past the hilltop town and its 12th-century castle at battlement level.
The landing, albeit on a cushion of snow, proved so gentle as to be almost imperceptible and so accurate that we came to rest less than a metre from the road on which the support crew and trailer were waiting. Within 10 minutes, the balloon was deflated and folded away and we were heading back to Chteau d'Oex.
That night I stood beside a stone church on the hill, steep as a Norman motte, overlooking the town for the "Night Glow", which attracts thousands of visitors for the evening. Loudspeakers the size of wardrobes filled the freezing night air with the incongruous sound of the haunting harmonica tune played by Charles Bronson in Once upon a Time in the West. On the mountainside above the town, balloons were lined up to give choreographed bursts of colour as their burners were ignited to illuminate the harlequin fabrics, while from the higher ridges hang-gliders took off, trailing showers of yellow sparks. In a breathtaking display of floodlighting, an entire mountain peak and its crown of trees behind the town were lit up as a dozen skiers descended the slopes in arcs of red and green lights.
Though the International Balloon Festival is undoubtedly the highlight of the calendar, every day of the year when conditions are favourable, a hot-air balloon takes off from Chteau d'Oex. The town's own balloon can be hired to take you up to between 2,500m and 3,500m for a minimum flight of one hour, costing from SFr1,500 (700) for two people.
It's easy to see why many find ballooning addictive. By the end of the flight, I could identify with the words of the 18th-century pioneering French balloonist Professor Jacques Charles after his first flight: "It was not mere pleasure; it was perfect bliss." Phileas Fogg didn't know what he was missing.
Geneva is served from a wide range of UK airports by Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com.uk), British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com), Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com), Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com) and Flybe (0871 700 0123; www.flyglobespan.com).
Gourmet-Hotel Ermitage, Chteau d'Oex (00 41 26 924 6003; www.gourmet-hotelermitage.ch). B&B from SFr170 (76).
Hotel Bon Acceuil, La Frasse (00 41 26 924 6320; www.bonaccueil.ch). B&B from SFr145 (65).
Hotel Lodge Roc et Neige, Chteau d'Oex (00 41 26 924 3350; www.roc-et-neige.ch). B&B from SFr170 (76).
The 30th International Ballooning Festival (00 41 26 924 25 33; www.festivaldeballons.ch) takes place in Chteau d'Oex this year from 19 to 27 January. Daily admission costs SFr9 (4). Balloon flights from Chteau d'Oex by SkyEvent Ballons (00 41 26 924 22 20; www.ballonchateaudoex.ch) cost SFr380 (170) per person.
EATING & DRINKING THERE
Au Montagnard, Chteau d'Oex (00 41 26 924 5434; www.au-montagnard.ch).
Buffet de la Gare, Chteau d'Oex (00 41 26 924 7717; www.buffet-doex.ch).
La Poste, Chteau d'Oex (00 41 26 924 6284; www.rosaly.ch).
www.chateau-doex.ch; 00 41 26 924 2525
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