Trail Of The Unexpected: Hot air

'With every flight you literally cast your fate to the wind'

Should you be fortunate enough to find yourself in a hot-air balloon over the Côte d'Or at harvest time and flying low enough over the vineyards, you are likely to find the pickers throwing grapes into the basket as it flies by. On one of my most memorable flights as a balloon pilot, I took off from just south of Santenay and drifted over Chassagne-Montrachet, St-Aubin, Gamay, Meursault, Pommard, Beaune, Aloxe Corton, and Premeaux to finally land at Nuits-St-Georges. The flight covered two-thirds of the Côte D'Or - a dream trip for the wine lover, but especially for the balloonist in the country where manned aviation began.

Should you be fortunate enough to find yourself in a hot-air balloon over the Côte d'Or at harvest time and flying low enough over the vineyards, you are likely to find the pickers throwing grapes into the basket as it flies by. On one of my most memorable flights as a balloon pilot, I took off from just south of Santenay and drifted over Chassagne-Montrachet, St-Aubin, Gamay, Meursault, Pommard, Beaune, Aloxe Corton, and Premeaux to finally land at Nuits-St-Georges. The flight covered two-thirds of the Côte D'Or - a dream trip for the wine lover, but especially for the balloonist in the country where manned aviation began.

The Montgolfier Brothers, Joseph and Etienne, were originally papermakers based at Annonay, just south of Lyon. In the summer of 1783 they observed that when you fill a paper bag with smoke it rises. They believed that they had found some lifting agent caused by the action of smoke and paper. To test the theory they built a large paper bag, reinforced it with cloth on the outside and filled it with smoke. It climbed to an estimated 6,000ft and came to earth a mile and a half away - the first hot-air balloon.

Four months later, on 21 November 1783, the first manned Montgolfier balloon took off from the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, in front of half a million people. After 25 minutes, the first aeronauts, Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes, landed five miles away. The age of manned flight had begun.

Two centuries later, an American named Buddy Bombard read an article by a French Count, Jean Costa de Beauregard, about ballooning. It caught his attention. For several years Buddy had been organising small, upmarket ski trips to Europe and the Rockies. He contacted a dozen of his best clients, and for two weeks they travelled around France in a coach, ballooning whenever and wherever possible. They had two rather inadequate balloons, one of which had been repaired using cloth from Buddy's raincoat, with Jean and Buddy as pilots.

The vacation was a makeshift affair, with hotels often only being booked as they went along. Evening meals usually consisted of hastily put-together picnics, since hotel restaurants were closed by the time they finished flying. The trip was judged a success, but it became clear that organisationally it was better to be based in one area and that it should be Burgundy. The centre-east of France has it all: the best ballooning conditions (dry with reasonally light winds), beautiful rural landscapes, dozens of medieval châteaux, ancient market towns and of course the vineyards.

Balloons fly with the wind, so although a skilled pilot can control the height of a balloon within inches, controlling direction is difficult. The wind's bearing usually changes as you go higher, so you can alter course by going higher or lower. But you can only go with whatever winds there are. With every flight you literally cast your fate to the wind, never knowing where you will go nor what you will find when you get there.

In Burgundy there are so many options that it doesn't really matter what the wind has in store for you: the Disneyesque Château Rochepot; the Hospice in Beaune with its wonderful roof; the Basilica of Sainte Madeleine high on its rock at Vezelay, Semur-en-Auxois with its cracked tower; the formal grounds at the ancient Abbaye de Fontenay; or perhaps the monastery at Flavigny-sur-Ozerain.

Every good flight must come to an end. Where will you land? In the grounds of a château? Next to the grapes at Auxey-Duress? By the Burgundy Canal? Or in a farmer's field on the outskirts of a village? Wherever it is, you should receive a warm welcome. Not so much "get off my land", as "well, look who's dropped in". Trust me: as someone who has piloted balloons in many places worldwide, this is not always the case. But the vast majority of Burgundians are very friendly. It is not unusual to be invited to the home of the owner of the landing place to be offered wine and cheese - which, being local, are absolutely wonderful.

Buddy Bombard's company, the Bombard Society (001 561 837 6610; www.bombardsociety.com) offers four-day holidays based in Beaune. The cost, which includes all food and accommodation, sightseeing to private châteaux and vineyards and trains to and from Paris is $6,000 (£3,333) per person.

Several balloon operators are active in Burgundy for one-off rides. Burgundy Balloons (contactable by e-mail at eole71@wanadoo.fr) operates in the southern Côte D'Or and Northern Côte de Chalonnaise. Air Adventures (00 33 3 80 90 74 23; www.airadventures.fr) flies from Château de Cailly near Pouilly-en-Auxois. France Montgolfieres (00 33 2 54 32 20 48; www.franceballoons.com) operates near Vezelay and Chablis. Air Escargot (00 33 3 85 87 12 30; www.air-escargot.com) flies from the banks of the Burgundy Canal and in the Saone river valley. The cost for a one-hour flight varies from €180 (£125) to €230 (£160) per person

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