Stockholm: Up above the streets and houses

Stockholm is rare among capital cities in that it allows hot-air balloonists to fly over the centre and even land in the city - wind direction permitting. Allan Calder skims the brightly coloured roof-tops for the flight of his life

Colour is the most striking thing about Stockholm from the air. The green copper roofs and blocks of tall, narrow buildings painted in pastel shades – yellow, orange, green, blue and almost every hue of brown – are thrown into relief by the low evening sun, while everywhere else you look you see water or trees.

Colour is the most striking thing about Stockholm from the air. The green copper roofs and blocks of tall, narrow buildings painted in pastel shades – yellow, orange, green, blue and almost every hue of brown – are thrown into relief by the low evening sun, while everywhere else you look you see water or trees.

For a capital city, Stockholm is highly unusual: balloons are allowed to fly over the centre and to land in the city. The French will not let a balloon anywhere near Paris, the city where the first manned flights took place. Balloons do fly over London, but because of air-space restrictions for City and Heathrow airports, flights usually take place early in the morning, and then only high over the East End. Stockholm is much more liberal – and with the long summer evenings, flights can be made at a civilised time of day.

Since balloons fly at the mercy of the wind, every flight is different. In Stockholm about one-third of trips fly over or near the city's heart, the Gamla Stan (Old Town). A change in wind direction can take you flying right over the Royal Palace. Below the palace to the east there is the quay where cruise ships moor. A little further east across a short stretch of water is the 19th century clipper, Af Chapman, alongside Skeppsholmen (the Island of Ships). To the west you have the Stadshuset (City Hall) with its copper spire topped by the three-crown symbol of Sweden. Looking further afield to the east you see the 2,400 islands that make up the Archipelago, and to the west you see the palace at Drottningholm and Lake Malaren.

Balloons often take off in the city itself, but sometimes the departure point may be as far as 20km away. The choice of take-off site is tricky. It is generally considered among balloonists that the collective noun for pilots is an indecision. The wishes of the air-traffic controllers at Bromma airport (the in-city airfield) must also be taken in to account. The plan is to fly over the capital and to have somewhere to land either in the city or on the other side. Some directions out of Stockholm do not offer many suitable landing sites. So it is very important to get the best possible information about the wind speed and direction at various heights at the time of the flight. This is done by getting a progos (Swedish for forecast) and by letting off helium-filled toy balloons and observing their tracks.

At the take-off site the balloons are unloaded from their trailer, the passengers are briefed, the pilot rigs the balloon with the basket – still made of wicker – lying on its side and the envelope (the balloon) lying on the ground. Two large fans are used to fill the envelope with cold air. When it takes on a reasonable balloon-like shape, the pilot turns on one of the four propane burners and heats the air in the envelope. It rises up, righting the basket in the process. The passengers climb into the basket. After another briefing the balloon takes to the air.

On evenings suitable for flying, there are usually about a dozen balloons to be seen over the city, which adds to the spectacle.

You will at times be at 3,000ft, and at others just a few feet above the roof-tops as the pilot searches for, and hopefully finds, the winds that will take you over the city and to a suitable landing place.

The favourite place to land is Gardet (which means the farm or yard), which is the largest open space in Stockholm, but you could end up almost anywhere – a football pitch, a parking lot, a field or even someone's back garden.

On the edge of Gardet stand most of the foreign embassies and ambassadorial residences. The former American ambassador, Lyndon L Olson Jr, was a great fan of ballooning over Stockholm and booked balloon flights for most of his house guests. We are yet to find out George W's appointee's attitude to balloons.

After the balloon has landed and been packed away, passengers can enjoy the champagne picnic and are presented with a certificate of survival.

British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com), Ryanair (08701 569 569, www.ryanair.com) and SAS (0845 607 2772, www.scandinavian.net) fly between the UK and Sweden. The leading balloon operator is City Ballong AB (00 46 8 34 54 64, www.cityballong.se). The ballooning season runs from 1 May until 30 September, on every day that weather permits. Each person pays 1,695SKr (£115). Due to air-traffic restrictions you are most likely to fly over the city on morning or weekend flights throughout the season or evening flights in June or early July

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