As January turns to February, the only thing one would expect to see in the sky over Switzerland is snow. But at precisely this time every year, the air fills with colour, characters and competition. Hot air balloons of every kind decorate the sky, with hundreds of flights over the span of just a few days. Since 1979, this is what the Festival International de Ballons has been bringing to Chateau-d'Oex.
It all began when Charles-André Ramseier, then the director of the Tourist Office of Chateau-d'Oex, began working with hot air balloon pilot Hans Bucker 36 years ago. The festival started off at a fairly small scale, with only ten balloons present at the first event. Since then, the Festival International de Ballons has grown to include nearly 100 balloons each year, hailing from over 20 countries. The event gained its current name in 2006, and has been sponsored by Swiss watch brand Parmigiani Fleurier since 2007. Last year's festival drew around 60,000 people, with different levels of participation – either piloting, taking a flight as a passenger, or spectators watching the action unfold.
This year's event kicks off on 24th January 2015 and runs until 2nd February. During the week, all sorts of activities take place, for both pilots and spectators, and there's a lot more to be experienced than anyone would expect. One of the most popular parts of the festival is the opportunity to go up in the balloons as a passenger. Rising above the beauty of the Swiss Alps in a balloon is an experience unlike any other – there is nothing between you and the crisp winter air of the mountains. Passenger flights run every day, and on Wednesday, there is a special event for children that allows them to go up in tethered flights.
If you're looking to participate in a passenger flight, there's no hassle of booking in advance. All you have to do is to go to the passenger desk at about 9.00 a.m. on the morning you want to fly: the fee is CHF 350 for adults and CHF 175 for children. The flight itself lasts about 45 minutes, but passengers should allow for about three hours before they're back at the launch field. A retrieval car follows the balloon as it flies, and will drive everyone back to the starting point after the flight.
Aside from balloons, there are also air shows featuring acrobatic planes, airships, and even skydivers gliding elegantly through the sky in special wingsuits. These performances are an added extra to the balloons, some of which are rather unorthodox, shaped to resemble cartoon characters and the like. Even if going up in a flight is too daunting, visiting the festival just to watch is a colourful and memorable experience.
As for the pilots of the balloons, there is plenty to keep them busy through the festival. Various competitions for accuracy and speed are held, testing the flying skill of every pilot. One of these is the always-entertaining Don Quixote race, where teams are equipped with a spear – a nail-tipped broom handle – and attempt to burst various targets by flying as close as possible to them. But the one event no one wants to miss is the Night Glow. Three hundred performers take to the valley to put on a spectacle of light, music and magic. Illuminated balloons, fireworks and torches all play a role in creating a whimsical show in the night sky. With crews meeting throughout the year to be sure the show is perfect, the Night Glow crowns the festival's many attractions.
So whether you are a hot air balloon enthusiast, or you're just looking for a fun way to spend a few days in the Alps, the 37th Annual Festival de Ballons is the perfect event to attend this coming January.
For more information:
Association Semaine de Ballons - Château-d'Oex
Place du Village 6
CH 1660 Château-d'Oex
Tel. +41 (0)26 9242 525 (information)
Tel. +41 (0)26 9242 533 (secretariat)