Travel: On a magic carpet ride above the olive groves

Carolle Doyle joined an unusually quiet flying circus as 26 hot air balloons traversed Portugal from North to South, across the vineyards and fir forests of the Douro and finally down to the sea

We drifted over the parched heartland of Portugal in the company of five other hot-air balloons that hung in the air around us. Dave McCutcheon gave a blast of the burners and we climbed to 1,200ft (365m), leaving the other balloons behind. At that height the wind direction changed to the west, taking us towards the foothills of the Serra Da Gardunha. The basket turned so that I found myself looking back to Fundao where 20 other balloons were rising like so many coloured champagne bubbles.

Dave pointed to a wide valley beyond the first pine-covered foothill and we sank down for a magic-carpet ride just above the olive groves. We flew parallel to a cherry orchard, our faces level with the blossom, then the field opened up before us and we sank down to land. Graham Houston, in his red, gold and black balloon, came gliding down to join us, shouting in a joyful Scottish voice.

To fly in a hot-air balloon is a little bit of magic; fly with 26 other balloons and you get caught up in aerial sorcery of a very high order. The Third Trans-crossing of Portugal, an immense flying circus of pilots and passengers, balloon crews and organisers, had just reached the halfway point in an eight-day marathon crossing the country from north to south.

It had all begun four days earlier, in Braganca, when Benoit Simeons, suspended beneath his one-man balloon in James Bond fashion, had alighted briefly on the castle battlements before walking off into thin air. Later that evening, down in the football stadium, balloons had lit up like fireflies under a thin crescent moon. From each basket the upturned faces of children glowed in the light of burners as the balloons rose and sank on stout tether ropes until the stadium was full of shouts and laughter. The balloonists had come to town from all over Europe, America and South Africa.

We left in the dawn light, drifting over the quiet streets of the still- sleeping town. Pedro and Christina Cotovio, who normally fly passengers in the Algarve in partnership with British pilot, Jon Nunns, had come to fly just for the fun of it. We stayed low, going nowhere in particular while Jon, with American pilot Ben Burbridge, landed neatly on someone's lawn. After an hour of dawdling along the valley we landed too and our faithful retrieve-driver appeared on cue, so that within half an hour, we were all packed up and ready to drive on to Lamego.

The Douro valley is beautiful but it is challenging country for hot-air balloons. The valley bottom is criss-crossed by power lines and the hillsides are covered in vineyards with inhospitable fir trees and boulders on their summits. American pilot Steve Bond, who normally flies passengers in the Masai Mara in Kenya but had come over to Portugal to play, looked on as one or two pilots began to unpack ready for flight. Muttering about the "lemming effect", Steve finally succumbed to temptation as did Ben Burbridge who, after playing around just above the trees, rose to 1,000 feet and disappeared rapidly to the north.

There were quite a few "fast", hillside landings, fast being the ballooning term for hitting the ground hard and being dragged along willy-nilly. The Swiss discovered a lot of turbulence on the hillside just before they hit a large and unforgiving pine which shredded their envelope. The retrieve- drivers were having adventures of their own, trying to find their way up goat tracks. Luckily, the local farmers led the crews to their stranded balloons.

We drove thoughtfully on to Viseu with the high mountains of Estrela before us. Dinner that night was in the high school where folk dancers revolved like figures round a cuckoo clock. I went to sleep with the tune still in my head and woke, with some relief, to a windy morning - too breezy to fly. Oh, the luxury of lying in bed until eight, having poked my head out of the window at five and seen the tops of the trees whipping back and forth.

We had all day to explore the Serra da Estrela national park, which rises up to the highest point in Portugal. Climbing up the mimosa-scented foothills, we reached the snow where people were skiing and the Mall balloon team was tobogganing on a plastic sheet. We stood on top of the world looking down towards Fundao where we would fly the next morning and to the road which would lead us irresistibly southward. We reached Estremoz, a town built of marble. The streets climb up to the secret world of its Moorish centre clustered round the old watchtower. The great plain, where the conquering Moors once galloped, heralded the beginning of gentler, more balloon-friendly lands. From Estremoz to Serpa we drove through a rolling countryside of green wheat dotted with cork trees and the city of Evora shimmering among the wheat like a dream.

We arrived in Serpa late and couldn't find our hotel, partly because it was embedded in the city walls and partly because the Casa da Moralha doesn't advertise itself with a sign. Its rooms, surrounding a lemon tree- filled courtyard, were superb.

If I had had the leisure to regret leaving Serpa, I would have done so. But in the early morning light I only had eyes for the balloons as they drew me ever onward. One moment the air was filled with great, billowing masses of balloons rising, the next they were gone.

The wheat fields of the Alentejo were left behind and replaced by the umbrella pine and cistus-covered hills of the Algarve. We passed through whitewashed villages and groves of orange trees heavy with fruit and then, before we had begun to look for it, we saw the sea. Within 15 minutes we were approaching Vila Real De Santo Antonio.

We had reached the end of the road but there was still one more flight from Castro Marim the following morning. Carlos Santos flew a short, cautious hop under lowering skies, but even the Slovakians, who had flown longer, further and more often than anyone else, only tried out a tethered flight looking like some strange, exotic kite against the backdrop of Castro Marim's guardian castle.

That night, at the ballooning equivalent of the BAFTAs, Karol Slabak received the trophy for his epic flights for the Slovakian team. As the local dancers whizzed round, every table was littered with trophies given by our hosts, the Portuguese Ballooning Club and Realizar. On this trip, we were all winners.

BALLOONING

GO BALLOONING

To fly in Portugal with Pedro and Jon, contact Sky Trek at Almansil, near Faro (tel: 00351 89391 560). A good hour's flight costs pounds 110, including return transport from pick-up points in the Algarve to the flying site at Casto Verde in the Alentejo, and champagne and food on landing.

Balloon fiesta trips are organised jointly by Dave McCutcheon of Airborne Adventures (tel: 01756 730166), and Graeme Houston of Scotair Balloons (tel: 01555 895855).

The following prices include all accommodation, meals and balloon flights, but not return flights unless specified.

The Eighth International Montgolfiades of Tunisia runs from 6-18 November and costs pounds 950 per person per week.

The fifth Annual Antigua and Barbuda Balloon Festival runs from 22 November- 2 December and costs pounds 1,900 per person, including two weeks at an all- inclusive resort and return flights.

The fourth Annual Trans-Crossing of Portugal by Balloons will be held in mid-March 2000 and costs pounds 950 per person.

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