Paul's Chateau d'Oex Journal

The 1998 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Wednesday, January 21, 1998

Yesterday’s late weather forecasts held out little hope for taking the balloons up today. Still, as I woke up this morning and saw sunny blue skies, it looked to my amateur eyes as if we would be able to leave the ground.

I was wrong. The winds were still too strong. There had been some uncertainty, at first, as to whether they were too strong. A couple of small balloons took test flights, however, and they did not fare well. A Bang & Olufsen balloon, crewed by my next-door neighbors at the Ermitage, quickly sped through the valley until it made an emergency landing in the trees. The fabric was partially ripped, and the crew had a wilder ride than they had hoped for.

Still, there was a possibility that the weather would improve, so our crew stayed out on the launch field throughout the morning. (The launch field was a good, safe place for them in any event, since some of them had gotten a bit rambunctious the prior night and caused some damage to a local establishment through the tossing of comestibles at one another.)

We spent the morning lounging around the Ermitage, just relaxing. Earlier, we had noticed that the Ermitage’s videotape collection included a few Fawlty Towers tapes; Linda and I tried to figure out how to get these working in the VCR and television in the hotel lounge. The setup was different from what we were used to, of course. The tape format was SECAM instead of NTSC; the connectors were a bit different, and there were some quirks peculiar to the Ermitage’s set-up. For instance, the VCR power was linked to one of the wall switches that controlled a couple of lamps. Despite some minor successes, we were ultimately unsuccessful. We accepted our defeat with grace.

For lunch today, we went to a wonderful pizzeria in the town just down the road: Les Moulins. Annie and Cindy had been to this place last year, and they recommended it highly. The restaurant had a wood-burning oven where the pizzas were baked, and each pizza was carefully crafted by hand. The variety of pizza offerings was exceptional. Linda and I ordered a Sicilienne and a Quatre Saisons; we planned to share them both. It did seem strange to see "lard" listed as an ingredient in some of the pizzas, and we abstained from ordering those ... but apparently it just meant ham or bacon or some porcine product a bit less oppressive than its English sound.

The pizzas were indeed marvelous, although one pizza per person was far too much. Next time, we’ll know that we don’t have to order in such quantities. It was intriguing to watch their creation, however – our table was near the counter where they were rolled out and constructed – and we were very pleased to have been directed to this delightful establishment.

After lunch, Annie and Cindy walked back to Chateau d’Oex – it was only a couple of miles – and the rest of us headed on down the road in the Previas for a visit to the Gruyere Castle. We had seen the castle from the road before; it was one of the oldest and most interesting landmarks in the region.

While we were in transit, Linda shared with us with her astonishing repertoire of off-color jokes. Propriety (and probably the laws of several countries) forbid repeating any of them here, but we were rolling on the floor of the van in shock and laughter.

We reached the castle with only about thirty minutes left before closing time. Nobody else was there, except for the couple who were its caretakers. Michael paid our admission fee, and we entered for a quick look around.

I wish we had gotten there earlier: The place was fascinating! It had stood for centuries, and it evolved over time. Portions of the castle dated from different eras, so in this one place was the history of many generations. The furnishings, the murals, and the designs of the rooms were fascinating. We were on our own as we split up and wandered through the facility; there was no formal guided tour. We did receive a one-page map with some minimal accompanying text, but it plainly did not even scratch the surface of the castle’s rich history.

At one point, Michael provided hilarious faux commentary on some of the murals and their underlying stories. We learned about the War of the Sheep, and the period in Switzerland when baldness was extremely popular.

Although the rooms, the walls and the furniture originated in widely varying periods, the hanging artwork throughout the hallways of the castle had a more consistent theme: They were wildly evocative paintings and drawings of erotic and/or ghastly fantasy. I wish I had thought to snap some photos of these works, as they were quite unusual and remarkable. Indeed, it was probably due to their startling nature that I was too absorbed to think of photographing them.

We could have stayed much longer, but it was closing time and the caretaker was plainly growing impatient with us. He saw all of this every day; he could see it again tomorrow. As we walked through the castle, he shut down the various rooms we left, and he hurried us along on our way to the exit.

We rode back to the Ermitage and went to our rooms for some quiet time and to prepare for dinner. Once again, we went various separate ways for dinner, although many of us stayed at the Ermitage. Susan and I had veal; Linda went light with soup and salad; others made choices of their own.

After dinner, Linda and I went for a walk through town. Chateau d’Oex was so lovely in the snow, and it was very quiet and peaceful at night. Our walk was basically aimless, although we did spend some time trying to make a phone call home. Linda missed her friend Stephen back in Fort Lauderdale, and we engaged on a quest to find a phone booth that might accept a credit card for an international call. Some of them looked like they would, but we were rebuffed a number of times. Linda would try her card, and I would try mine, but we had no success at the first couple of phones. Eventually, although I never got one to work, Linda succeeded, and she was able to reach Stephen. (I spoke with him, too. He seemed extremely nice.)

On our way back through town, we stopped in at another hotel near the train station: the Hotel de Ville. There we met up with Cindy, Michael, Steve and Bill. "Cindy and the Pilots": It sounds like they should be a Phil Spector group from the early sixties!

The Hotel de Ville was far quieter than the Richemont. There was live music, but of a much less energetic, quasi-country variety. There were also far fewer people and far less conversational din. We had a Johnny and chatted for a while, then were on our way. It had been a full day, and it ended up being an earlier night than we’d been having. After staying up until 4:30 the previous night, this was a good thing.

Tuesday, January 20 || Thursday, January 22

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