Continuing Paul's European Journal
Sunday, August 17, 1997
I can't remember ever sleeping as soundly as I did last night. I woke up at 8:00, but in the time it takes to close one's eyes I was back asleep until 9:30. We were scheduled to leave at 10:00; I figured it was time to get moving, lest the expedition be held up on my account. I hurriedly began to prepare myself. Ken called around at about 9:40 to make sure that everyone was conscious. Apparently, he and Sandra were the only ones who managed to get up at a normal time: Alf and Jean slept in as long as I did.
Down in the lobby I noticed Buddy Bombard attending to our trip preparations. I recognized him from photos taken on Alf's previous trips, and so I walked up and introduced myself. He said that the bus was outside and ready.
Our bags were collected and loaded, and we were on our way. Our destination was Bern, a little over 100 kilometers west of Zurich. As we rode out of town, it was apparent that the city's cleaning crews had been working very hard: Very little of the mess from the day before remained on the streets. The neatness was not up to the usual Swiss standards, but considering the scale of yesterday's party and the thousands of revelers, it was astounding how little of the refuse remained. We had heard reports that 500,000 visitors had descended on Zurich Saturday for StreetParade; after having been in the middle of the crowd, I can believe it.
The trip over the Swiss freeway was smooth, and the scenery was beautiful along the way. Everything in Switzerland looks well-tended, and the countryside appeared to have been professionally landscaped in every detail. Ken seemed to doze much of the way to Bern. Having been the one who got up early and alerted the rest of us, he deserved some extra sleep.
Although it had been quite cloudy in Zurich -- indeed, there was some rain overnight -- the skies began to clear as we approached Bern. It looked like we had another lovely day in store for us.
We arrived at the Hotel Bellevue Palace Bern at about 12:15. It's another five-star hotel, and the guide book says that it has "the finest panoramic view in town." Upon opening the curtains of my window, I found that this was surely true: The view was perfection. The room itself was excellent in every way. A quick check of the phone connections suggested that I would remain out of Internet communication a bit longer, but I found this, strangely, not at all troubling especially since it was time to go downstairs for the welcoming champagne reception!
The champagne reception was followed by lunch on the terrace at the Bellevue Palace. The terrace is a few floors directly below my window, so it has a similar view. A great setting for a wonderful lunch. We were served smoked salmon with salad, followed by filet mignon on thinly sliced tomatoes that were exceptionally delicious. For dessert, a large plate of mixed berries capped the feast.
After a quick stop back in our rooms, we were off for a guided tour of the city. The ancient city of Bern has had numerous expansions over the centuries, but the core of it still retains much of its medieval look. The heart of the city is entirely arcaded: This was perhaps the world's first major mall. We walked through the covered sidewalks of Kramgasse and Gerechtigkeitsgasse and window shopped. Because it was Sunday, all of the stores were closed; this was probably a good thing, though, as we would have surely stopped in many of the shops and whiled away countless hours. But we had things to do!
Buddy had arranged for us to have a private tour of the city's famous clock tower. The inner walls of the tower date back to the late 12th Century, when Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen oversaw the city's first major extension. In 1405, following a fire, the tower was reconstructed and a bell that would announce the hours was added. The bell at that time had to be manually rung, but a mechanical clock was built inside the tower in 1530, and the mechanism from over 450 years ago is essentially intact to this day. Constructed by a blacksmith, it consists of an elaborate system of gears, ropes, pulleys and weights. Rube Goldberg would be envious. From the observation windows at the top of the tower, the views were wonderfui.
Bern is famous for its bears: Apparently, they saved the city from marauders or something. (Hmmm, I should look up the details of this.) After our tour of the clock tower, we went to the Bear Pit and tossed some fruit and other approved bear food to the city's furriest residents. Because they are such a popular attraction, and because so many people buy a sack of food to toss to them, the bears do not feel compelled to perform great feats to earn their tidbits. Rather, if you happen to drop a chunk of apple right at their face, they will deign to open their mouths and let it slide in. They looked like they needed a personal trainer; perhaps Ken should spend some time with them before we leave.
We returned to the Bellevue Palace by horse-drawn carriage and went to our rooms for a brief rest. While I suppose we had already done quite a bit, it seemed as though the day was simply flying past at a breakneck speed. Yesterday had seemed to go on and on forever, but here it was, already 5:00, and it felt like we were just getting started! Of course, in a way we were, for we had plans to meet in the lobby at 5:30 to go out for our first balloon flight of the trip!
As it turned out, however, the weather was not going to be our friend.
Michael had already scoured the countryside around Bern, in search of appropriate launch sites. As we drove toward this evening's selected location, the clouds began to gather. By the time we arrived at the site, clouds were all around and thunder rumbled in the distance. The crew inflated a small balloon of the toy variety with helium, and they released it upward to demonstrate the wind and atmospheric conditions. The balloon's path revealed no problems, but the obvious presence of a thunderstorm system in the vicinity meant that the air would be dangerously unstable.
We sat around for a short while, hoping that the system might leave. Since the Bombard crew had the helium tank along, we all experimented briefly with helium inhalation. I had never done this before, although I had observed its effects on others. Our altered voices were quite amusing. Jean, in particular, sounded as though she had become possessed by some wacky spirit. In order for this process to work properly, it is necessary to inhale the helium very deeply. Bill Clinton would experience no discernible effect.
After a short wait, it became apparent that there would be no ballooning today. We decided to head for dinner. Tomorrow, we would get up early and try for a morning balloon trip.
We went to a very small, out-of-the-way restaurant in Lindenthal. Michael had found this place six or seven years ago, but he had not had an occasion to return since. It remained on his list, however, and he had stopped in earlier in the day to see if the Restaurant Linde might be open and able to accommodate us that evening. Most of the area's restaurants remain closed on Sunday, so we were fortunate that Restaurant Linde chose Monday and Tuesday as its days to close.
Once again, we experienced flawless food. We started with a wonderful dark beer, and then we ordered from the selections suggested by our hostess. I had sliced veal with mushroom sauce, along with Rosti. Indeed, we all had some Rosti, which is a traditional Bernese side dish. It is a rather heavy concoction, resembling hash brown potatoes and tasting quite heavenly. It is also very filling, and it seems to continue expanding for some time after it is ingested.
We went back to the hotel, arriving at 9:30 or so, but since we didn't feel ready for bed yet, we went out to the bar on the Terrace for some wine. We sat and conversed for a long time, watching a beautiful full moon rise over Bern. As it turned out, the night had cleared up entirely, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. We had more wine. We had still more wine. We began to wonder whether this might be some sort of alcohol-free wine, since none of us seemed to feel any effect from it at all. We examined the labels on the bottle closely for any disclosure in this regard, but our inquiry was inconclusive. Finally, we switched to a bottle of red wine, and it seemed to work better.
As we sat at our table, the staff had been gradually preparing to close. There were very few people there when we arrived, and eventually we were the only ones left. At 11:30, we were tossed out, and we all retired to our rooms for the night.
Monday Morning, August 18, 1997
I didn't get too much sleep last night. After the marathon "day" that lasted from Friday morning through Saturday night, a regular 24-hour day just didn't seem long enough to require a night's sleep. We were all still feeling pretty peppy last night as the clock neared midnight, and then I found myself awake every hour or so through the night. Finally, a little after 5:00 a.m. and in anticipation of a wake-up call, I decided to spring out of bed and carpe the diem. My eyes felt very dry and tired, but the rest of me was eager to go.
I had looked out the window a bit after 4:00, and the sky remained absolutely clear, with that beautiful full moon still hanging over Bern. By 5:30, the moon was slipping down toward the horizon, but the skies were still crystal clear. As far as I could tell, it looked like a perfect morning. My meteoroligal talents were apparently sound, as Buddy called just before 6:00 to say that the weather was perfect for flying, and we would leave the hotel at 6:45.
And so, in the fields outside of Bern, I was to have my first balloon flight ever! It was the first time for Ken and Sandy, too, so the anticipation registering in our little group was off the charts. A test balloon was released to the approving looks of the flight professionals, and the colorful balloon envelopes -- the big fabric parts that rise from the baskets -- were pulled from their bags and stretched out across the take-off field. There were two balloons on this part of the trip: In addition to Alf's Corkscrew-Balloon I, Buddy had one of his "tulip and butterfly" balloons on the trip, and another five people would be flying in it.
I was a bit surprised that the flat balloons, lying on the ground, did not look bigger. Yes, they covered quite a bit of ground space, but they just didn't seem as large as I'd expected based on photos I'd seen.
With a nod from Pilot Michael, the Corkscrew-Balloon crew pulled the starter cords on two large fans, one of which was placed on either side of what would be the balloon envelope's bottom. The initial inflation of the balloon is done with regular "room temperature air," just like a basic latex balloon that you'd inflate by blowing into it. The hot air comes later, when it's time to add some lift.
My initial impressions of Corkscrew-Balloon's size were quickly amended as I watched the envelope expand. This thing really gets big! When the air had been blowing in for about three minutes, Alf and I walked a short distance INTO the balloon to check out the inside view. The balloon was still lying on its side, and we walked on the fabric that lay on the ground. The "top" of the balloon was directly in front of us; the other "side" of the balloon was WAY above us. It had to be, already, nearly 30 feet over our heads.
In our excitement, we had failed to notice that the heavy morning dew was adhering to our shoes, and we were tracking water onto the fabric of the balloon envelope. This is not good. Among other things, the water adds weight to the ballon. Actually, walking on the fabric as it lies on a rough field probably isn't very good for it under any circumstances, but it's so cool inside ... who could resist? At any rate, we quickly exited the balloon's interior and watched the remainder of the inflation from a different perspective.
The inflation process is fascinating to watch. Once the balloon is about 75% full or so, Michael starts shooting heat into it. As with the regular fans, the hot air is blown in horizontally: The basket is lying on its side, and the burners that will ultimately point straight up are aimed into the envelope. This is the first time I've had a chance to hear the roar of the propane burners; they sound extremely powerful. The flames shoot ten or fifteen feet into the balloon. Michael runs the burners only occasionally: For the most part, the fans are still working at getting enough air into the envelope. Adding the bursts of flame gradually heats the air, and that heated air rolls up to the natural "top" of the balloon, pushing it up.
After another few minutes of fan air and burner flames, the envelope starts to rise off the ground, and its pull skyward rights the basket. It's a dramatic moment: The balloon, now vertical, has completed its transformation from a flat swatch of colored fabric lying in a field to a huge, towering vessel. After Michael adds a few more bursts of flames, the passengers (that's us!) board the balloon. There are two sides to the basket, with a divider between them. Alf and Jean climbed into one side, and Sandra, Ken and I took the other.
With our additional weight now in the basket, more hot air is required to thwart gravity: Michael cranked up the burners and sent the flames soaring straight up over our heads. After a few minutes, the basket was almost ready to rise. Michael disconnected the propane tank that had fueled the inflation process, and he passed it to one of the crew members outside the basket. Only full tanks would accompany us. There were three of them: One upright and two lying on their sides on the basket floor under Michael.
Just before our ascent, we invited Rob to join us. The basket can hold a pilot and SIX passengers, so we had room for one more. Rob was one of the newer crew members, and he hadn't ever flown in a balloon before. Today, contrary tp his expectations, he would travel to our landing site by balloon instead of truck, and the other crew members would handle the initial landing chores.
Taking off in a balloon is difficult to describe. It's very gentle, the complete opposite of careening down a runway in a jet airplane. But it's exhilarating in its quiet and in the strange new sensation of slipping the surly bonds of earth through the pull of invisible forces, through the power of hot air.
We started out our first flight by floating across a flat field, the bottom of our basket separated from the ground by only three or four feet. Michael gave the balloon occasional bursts from the burners, each burst lasting four or five seconds. This served to maintain our altitude with remarkable precision and consistency.
As we drifted toward the edge of the field, we came ever closer to a stand of tall evergreen trees. Continuing on our course a few feet off the ground, we would sail directly into them. With skillful handling of the burner controls, however, Michael coaxed the balloon upward just as we reached the trees, and we safely soared over them.
During the remainder of our flight, we primarily followed the contours of the land beneath us. Ballooning provides such a wonderful perspective, and it is a superlative way to see the countryside. All the limitations of wheeled vehicles and hiking are irrelevant to the balloon. We easily traverse rough fields, water, trees, steep hills, everything. We also have great variety in our perspective: Michael would take us up a few hundred feet so we could see the expanse of the countryside, then we would drift back downward for a closer look at the land directly under us. It is truly magical.
In the fields below us, crops grew and cattle grazed. The sound of the burners seemed to either annoy or intrigue the cattle, perhaps depending upon their individual frame of mind. Many would gaze up at us and ruminate; others would trot to a far corner of their confines. Scattered throughout the valleys, each beast wore a bell around her neck, and when the burners were silent we could hear the soft clang of hundreds of bells, near and far, gently rising all around us. This added wonderfully to the quiet peaceful atmosphere of the flight.
Our landing was extraordinarily smooth: Michael and the chase crew managed to set the basket down directly on the truck's trailer! This is accomplished by Michael's amazingly skillful slow reduction in altitude and the rope guidance of the gents on the ground. Such precision would seem unimaginable, but we have pretty much left the normal rules of the mortal sphere behind us. We had the traditional champagne toast in our landing field, and then the crew packed up our balloon and we were on our way.
For lunch, we went to Le Vieux Manoir au Lac. It was a lovely location, on a patio by a lake, and we had a perfect sunny day for a relaxing lunch. Our only chore was occasionally directing the staff to make sure that the blue fabric umbrellas over our heads were correctly adjusted, so that the sun would not burn directly into our faces. What a tough life we had!
The menu offered all sorts of intriguing possibilities, and we made a varied selection. Alf and I began with the tomatoes and mozarella, but we were rather surprised by the gooey tomato aspic in which it all floated. Still, it was quite tasty. The main course was a delight, and we were all pleased ... almost as much as we were with the wine, which kept coming, bottle after bottle.
We got back to the hotel a bit before 4:00, and we were advised to be back in the lobby at 5:30 to leave for our afternoon ballooning. I fired up the notebook computer brieftly, but I quickly decided that it would be a good idea to lie down for just a few minutes. ....
All of a sudden it was 5:15!! I flung myself up from the bed and quickly tried to get organized to go downstairs. To my surprise, I wasn't even late: Others were taking things a bit slowly, too.
Monday Evening, August 18, 1997
Shortly after 5:30, we headed out to the country for our second scheduled flight of the day. The weather seemed a bit similar to yesterday evening's, when we had been grounded. As we stood around the appointed launch site, Michael spoke with the weather folks on the cell phone, and we all watched the clouds. It looked like they could go either way: They darkened and lightened, they thickened and thinned. They shifted around and kept us guessing.
We waited for the final call, fly or no, while the crew tossed a frisbee around with great energy in the field where the balloons might be spread. Ken joined in the crew's game, but being ten years older than the British lads, he was quickly sidelined and gasping for air. We should have had a tank of oxygen along, but all we had was helium. Would that help him in his struggle to survive? We didn't know. We decided simply to let time heal him.
The farmer who owned our takeoff field came out to chat with us. Michael, of course, had arranged for this location earlier. We learned that this field was scheduled to be sprayed tomorrow morning; it would not be a hospitable place for a takeoff at that point, should we have to reschedule and come back! Indeed, another field, just upwind of our location, was going to be sprayed that evening. But Michael seemed to have arranged for all sorts of takeoff options, and we felt no concern.
We were rapidly approaching the time when a final decision would have to be made: If we didn't go now, it would really be too late to get a flight of any respectable length completed before sundown. It seemed to us amateurs that the clouds were dissipating and the winds were calming; our optimism was in ascent. Meanwhile, Ken was nearly recovered from his frisbee episode. We looked hopefully at Michael ... after a short hesitation, he ordered the balloons from the trucks! Our hearts leapt.
How lucky that we were able to take off, for this flight was absolutely spectacular!
As I had contemplated ballooning, back in the United States a few days earlier, my understanding of the process was basically this: The balloon rises to a predetermined height, lifted by the warm air contained in the envelope. The wind then blows it in a straight line, in whichever direction the wind happens to be blowing at that particular time. And then, after traversing a certain distance in a span of time dictated by the speed of the unwavering wind, the balloon sinks straight back down to earth and lands.
There is so much more possibility lurking there than I realized! Air does weird things: It moves in many ways. Tonight we had a spectacular example of that. We took off heading essentially southward. As in the morning, we had some variety in our elevation, but we primarily hugged the contours of the land, the better to view the ground below. The evening had become quite beautiful, and we soaked up the scenic countryside as we drifted along. Off to our right, as we proceeded to the south, was a deep river gorge, one that I recognized from the photos of last year's Bern flights. It was exciting to see it first hand.
After floating along for probably twenty or thirty minutes, various bends in the river brought the gorge nearer and nearer to us. Eventually, we rose over a stand of trees and dropped down into the gorge itself. Now here is where the remarkable ways of air movement enlightened me: We started heading BACK down the gorge, toward the north! This totally amazed me: We had actually turned around, despite our having no means of self-propulsion!
Michael explained, and I realized just how knowledgeable and wily he was: The air in the gorge lies below the surface winds, which blow in the direction dictated by the current meterological system dominating the area. Down in the gorge, which is protected by the steep banks rising from the river, there is a different rule. In the morning, the air in the gorge is warmed by the sun and the generally rising temperatures of the morning; this trend causes the warming air to rise and move horizontally UP the gorge, upstream, regardless of the direction of any mild surface wind. Now, in the evening, the air was cooling; it was accordingly moving DOWN the gorge, downstream. Therefore, while the prevailing wind had carried us from north to south, by dropping down below the plateau and into the gorge, we were able to move from south to north!
Appreciating this technical stuff was really just the icing on the cake, though: The cake itself was the absolutely gorgeous gorge (hey, the origin of the word now makes sense!) through which we coasted. There were trees all around us, a small gurgling stream below, and lovely grassy fields along the sides of the stream. The peaceful quiet of the gorge, with the sound of the water and the beauty of dusk, was simply breaktaking.
At a certain point we had to rise up over some power lines that traversed the gorge. It wouldn't do to crash into them. This provided something of a challenge, for rising up too high would place us back in the airstream that flowed in the opposite direction and we'd be pushed backward. We did, in fact, find ourselves hovering practically motionless in the air for a bit. Michael eased the balloon down, though, and the gorge air pulled us past the wires until we were able to drop down once again. A little farther on, we flew over a man and a woman with "all-over tans" walking casually through the stream toward the opposite bank of the gorge. They seemed unperturbed by our entry into their paradise.
It was getting late, and there was not much sun left in the day, so our flight had to come to an end. Michael nudged the balloon up out of the gorge, and we saw that we had, in fact, come back almost exactly to the location of our takeoff. How confusing this all must have been for the chase crew!
Our morning landing had been incredibly smooth; this one was a bit more rough. After rising up from the gorge, we drifted over the plateau across the gorge from our takeoff site. But the surface winds then began to push us back toward the steep banks of the gorge. Michael dropped our altitude quickly, so we would land in a field atop the gorge bank. We crouched into our "hard landing" positions, and we hit the ground with a bit of force, then rose a little and hit hard again. The chase crew dashed toward us and grabbed the drag ropes, and we were secure.
On the ground, we met the people in whose field we had landed, and we shared our champagne with them. It was quickly getting very dark, and the crew worked rapidly while we stood with our new ground friends, sipped champagne, and savored the incredible flight we'd just had.
It was pushing 10:00 now, too late to visit the regular restaurants, so we decided to return to the Bellevue Palace in Bern and stop in at the Pizza Hut that was a couple blocks away. All right, this seemed like a somewhat strange idea to me, too, after the spectacular places we'd been eating lately, but it actually was quite wonderful! We had a surprisingly good chianti, and the pizza selections were more interesting, and considerably tastier, than the American equivalents. Most remarkable was a "spicy" pizza that was VERY spicy indeed. The crew joined us for dinner, and they helped dispatch the pizzas with ease. The most amazing accomplishment was Rob's: After a full dinner, he packed away TWO huge desserts.
What a day this had been! Morning ballooning, evening ballooning, and a couple of spectacular wine-soaked meals. Life is very, very good.
Next: Paul's Bern Journal, Part II covers more ballooning!