Paul's Chateau d'Oex Journal

The 1998 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Tuesday, January 20, 1998

We awoke this morning to find Chateau d’Oex totally buried in snow. Snowy Chateau d'OexIt had been snowing the night before, but it obviously kept going at a heavy level all the way through until morning. The little town was covered by about a foot of beautiful white powder. Now THIS was winter in the Swiss Alps!

Despite the beauty of the valley, however, we would once again not be able to go up in the balloons. The winds were still severe, and prudence kept us grounded. We were getting used to alternative arrangements, however, and we had already made plans for today. If we were to be faced with a flightless day, we would drive to Bern.

As we gathered downstairs at the Ermitage this morning, we reviewed these options. Even though a morning flight was impossible, there was still a chance that we might be able to go up in the afternoon. Thus, we could either stay and wait, or we could adopt Plan B (for Bern). Michael recalled previous occasions of waiting around for the weather to turn better, with the result being a day spent waiting around. We went with Plan B.

There were some who opted out. Alf would not be coming along, as today Elisabeth would be arriving from Zermatt to join us. He was going to go with one of the Previas to meet her.

"Has anyone seen Cindy?"

Also, Cindy would not be coming along with us to Bern. Indeed, throughout our morning strategy session, we asked each new person who came downstairs and joined us, "Have you seen Cindy?" Even Annie, her roommate, didn’t know. Cindy had mysteriously disappeared the previous night, having last been seen at the Richemont a bit before it closed. Finally, under sharp questioning from Annie, Pilot Bill assured us all, "She’s in a safe place." He refused to provide any further information, but we felt reassured by his statement.

We split into two groups for the two Previas. There were several requests for a "talk-free" van. This apparently had something to do with the burgundy, the champagne, and the various other potables consumed last night at the establishments of Chateau d’Oex. I opted for the van without rules, which proved to be relatively quiet as well.

The drive to Bern took a couple of hours. It was a beautiful drive away from Chateau d’Oex, through the snow-filled countryside. Upon questioning from one of the Floridians in my van, our driver confirmed that yes, he had driven under snowy conditions before. In fact, he did a fine job of getting us to Bern. Not a single limb was severed on the entire trip.

This was to be a very déja vu kind of day for me: I had spent several days in Bern just five months ago, when I accompanied Alf on another ballooning adventure. I was thus able to pontificate knowledgeably about all of the sights, the history, and so forth. It was interesting to see Bern covered with snow, but it felt strange to be there without Alf, Sandra or Ken!

Annie: "Are there any banks in Bern?"

For lunch, we went to the Hotel Bellevue Palace, high on the bank of the river and a couple doors down from the national parliament. This was a place I remembered well and with great fondness: This was where we had stayed for those several days back in August.

The Ermitage in Chateau d’Oex is a wonderful little hotel, and the food in its restaurant is exceptional. It is, however, a small country hotel, charming and cozy. The Bellevue Palace, on the other hand, is a grand hotel of the city, huge and opulent. This would be a nice change of pace, providing a very different sort of experience. Indeed, some felt a little awkward being so casually dressed in such a splendid formal dining room. On the other hand, I felt a bit as if I’d come home.

Our lunch was selected for us by the maitre d’ at the Bellevue Palace. It was fun to see him in action again. Rather than ordering, we let him select our lunch. He explains the menu he has chosen with such enthusiasm and panache, it is impossible not to look forward to its arrival. Michael selected a wine to accompany our meal, although after last night’s adventures, a few were frugal in their consumption of it. The lunch was excellent, and served with the Bellevue Palace’s trademark flair. The main course arrived with each plate covered, with one server for each two patrons. The servers placed the plates in front of us, and at the cue of the maitre d’ they simultaneously lifted all the metal covers to the sky, revealing the chef’s creation. It was all quite festive, and it increased my reminiscence of last summer’s happy days in Bern.

After lunch we went on a self-guided tour of the city. Annie disappeared immediately: She had some errands to run. Most of us wandered along the arcaded walkways of the main street, stopping into an occasional shop. Linda’s quest for boots continued; I saw some nice (and rather unusual) lava lamps. It was a very leisurely afternoon.

Of course, we stopped to see the bears. Bern is famous for its bears. They were living in their pits, down at the end of the street. Last summer, there had been quite a crowd when we visited; the bears had looked pretty uninterested in everything, and they didn’t seem to be having much fun at all. Things were quite different this time!

44785816ds.jpg (15432 bytes)In the front pit, one of the bears was on her back, while another one slowly moved on top of her. They occasionally licked each other’s faces, but there were obviously other things happening as well. After this had gone on for a while, and at an apparently appropriate time, the bottom bear reached out and tightly clutched a nearby branch ... and then, a few minutes later, they both got up and wandered off happily. In the back pit, a bear who had perhaps retired from the circus sat and rocked, holding his feet. He was rewarded with chunks of healthful bear food, tossed by the spectators.

At the last minute, Michael had managed to arrange for us to have a tour of the old clock tower. (He is so resourceful! 44785821ds.jpg (8484 bytes)After lunch, as we walked past the tower, he whipped out his cell phone and called someone who was able to arrange a 5:00 tour.) After visiting the shops and watching the bears, it was about time for the tower tour.

I had visited the clock tower last summer, but I was delighted to have a chance to tour it again. A blacksmith, rather than a clockmaker, had built the ancient mechanism, and he had spent years working on it. He literally kept adding bells and whistles, along with dancing chickens and other unusual accoutrements, as he constructed the timekeeping equipment. Again I marveled at the technical intricacy of the centuries-old machinery. Indeed, I learned some additional facts that I’d either forgotten or missed on the last tour.

Just as last summer, the windows at the top of the clock tower afforded some great views of the City of Bern. I enjoyed seeing it the new way: covered in snow! Indeed, throughout the day, the snow still continued to fall.

We returned to Chateau d’Oex, where we were finally able to meet Elisabeth. She proved to be totally charming, and even more lovely in person than in photos. Alf was obviously happy to have her join us. They were just heading out to dinner together as we got back to the Ermitage. After the ample lunch at the Bellevue Palace, I wasn’t very hungry, and I wasn’t sure what to do about dinner.

After a little solitary time in my room with my Compaq, I headed over to the Richemont, just to see what was going on there. Perhaps a pizza would hit the spot ... although that seemed like way too much. I found Annie and Cindy at a table, having beers. (Cindy did, indeed, look quite safe ... indeed, very happy!) They had just ordered and were about to have dinner served, but I imposed upon them and sat down at their table. We talked about Bern and about the prospects for a flight tomorrow. My uncertainty over a dinner selection was solved when Cindy offered me a bit of her pizza. A little bit of that was just right.

Susan: "My butt is SO HOT!"

As dinner ended, it was getting late and time for the Richemont to don its nightlife mantle. The Richemont was a bit quieter tonight, and we were better able to converse with one another. After a while, Cindy left and Susan joined us; the adjacent table was all-crew, with Tim and Shamane and others. We sat and we talked about the great day we’d had, when Susan suddenly announced, "My butt is SO HOT!" We apologized for not having noticed this previously, but she explained that she was simply referring to her proximity to the Richemont’s floorboard heating element that was located under her chair.

We realized that, during the course of the past couple of days, various people had inadvertently come up with some memorable lines. We flipped over a placemat and whipped out a pen, and we wrote down a few of them. As we were engaged in this endeavor, Richard and Rosemary arrived to assist in the compilation. Hermann arrived and started buying champagne again. Linda, who had spent a bit more time in her room, eventually joined us, too.

Tonight when the Richemont closed, I decided to go downstairs with the rest of the group to give La Bamba another try. It still resembled the interior of a sardine can, but it felt a bit less overrun than it was before. Weekdays were perhaps a bit less crazy. Still, there were so many balloon crews in town for the whole week, and they surely constituted most of the crowd. It was not the sort of place where I would ordinarily like to be – I’d had enough congestion during the 15 years I lived in New York – but it was an interestingly different way to spend the early hours of the morning.

I struggled to get some Johnny Walker Reds for Linda and me. This involved elbowing my way through the people swarming around the bar, then catching the attention of one of the harried bar workers, then reaching into my pocket for extra francs beyond what I'd expected. Still, it was a party kind of atmosphere, and it was fun being with such a lively group.

Indeed, I even succumbed to Shamane’s invitation to go out on the dance floor, where a bunch of the Bombard/Alf crew members were already gyrating. I stayed out there with the gang for a couple of numbers, then retired to a comfortable sideline where the less energetic members of our entourage were discussing various matters.

Both Linda and Shamane were major hits out on the dance floor: Their cards were full. For a few numbers, Linda was with one of the waiters from the Ermitage. A couple of days earlier, she had asked him for a small vessel of olive oil to take up to Alf’s room for a massage. This was, no doubt, an intriguingly unusual request for the Ermitage kitchen. Senior crew member Tim also proved himself a dance floor stalwart, and many of the other crew members submitted creditable turns to the DJ’s selections.

Eventually, as the wee hours grew less and less wee, our party straggled home. I climbed the outside stairs from La Bamba and headed through the snowy street to the Ermitage. In the yard behind the Richemont, I heard the retching of some young crew member – not one of ours, I hasten to add – who had apparently had a bit too much of a good time and who was now having an equally bad one to match.

After I got back to my room, I did my customary Internet logon to check my email and review the latest news. Even with all of the activities keeping us busy, it still felt strange for me not to receive my usual dose of daily newspapers.

I stayed up way too late. In fact, I was still awake at 4:30, even though I’d gotten back to my room at around 3:00, which was certainly late enough to call it a night. My clock was still wrong, so I had to make mental adjustments to know what the real time was. If only the clock had been running fast, I could have simply unplugged it for the appropriate period of time. But since it was slow, I would have to leave it unplugged for about 11½ hours before starting it up again. That was too difficult a concept to think about, so I decided I’d just live with the problem. Of course, there had to be a simple way to reset the damn thing and just turn it ahead to the correct time, but throughout the rest of our stay, I never managed to figure it out.

Monday, January 19 || Wednesday, January 21

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