A glance into the sky above the resort of Château d'Oex would have left visitors gasping for air. Some 80 balloons, snorting spurts of flame, took off for the 23rd Château d'Oex international hot air balloon week.
If one had any doubt about what was happening in Château d'Oex, a quick glance into the shop windows would have provided a clue.
They were full of postcards, stickers, photographs, toys, pastries, place mats and breadboards, all representing or depicting hot air balloons in various shapes, sizes and colours.
Above the resort, against a backdrop of pale blue, a multitude of bloated, colourful fabric envelopes propelled by hot air, were carrying their passengers to the necessary altitudes for travel along the valley.
The occasion was the 23rd Château d'Oex international hot air balloon week. It got off to a flying start under blue skies and a brilliant sun.
More than 100 pilots and 80 balloons from about 15 countries took part including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Canada, the United States and, of course, Switzerland.
It's one of the top events on the international ballooning calendar and commercially, amounts to hot air lifting the resort out of the traditional January slump.
The president of the balloon week organising committee and tourist office director, Philippe Sublet, says it's Château d'Oex's biggest event.
"With this balloon week we can attract hundreds of people into our hotels and restaurants. We've had as many as 60,000 spectators over the nine days of the event."
Sublet says there's lots to see. Some of it is simply aesthetic. He compares the large multi-coloured, pear-shaped balloons to a huge flower opening its petals as they take off. But then there's the spectacle of the 18 specially shaped balloons, which bring an element of the circus to the week's activities.
The Asian Elephant is a jumbo-sized balloon from Germany, which is 34 metres high and 4,400 cubic metres in volume. Not to be outdone, a Swiss group showed off its 27 metre long Flying Cow, which boasts a volume of 4,500 cubic metres.
Paragliders trailing plumes of coloured smoke dived from the wicker baskets of some balloons, while delta gliders demonstrated their skills, also taking off at altitude.
Another event was the long-distance competition for the David Niven Cup. Nineteen balloons took part with the pilots seeing how far they could go in four hours, depending on the weather, of course.
Before the time limit was introduced, Jakob Burkhard of Switzerland and his co-pilot set a record of 375 kilometres in seven hours in 1992.
Burkhard says the main factor contributing to this record was altitude. The balloon was heading west towards France and French air traffic controllers gave the team permission to climb to 9,000 metres where they found an air current that took them eventually to a town near Paris.
Burkhard, who competed again this year, says it is technically feasible to break his record in the four hours now permitted, provided that a team is able to gain a high enough altitude quickly and to find the right wind.
Philippe Sublet says the main attraction for the balloonists is the peculiarity of the winds in the valley of the Pays d'Enhaut. It enjoys a microclimate.
"Usually the winds blow in the same direction no matter what the altitude of the balloon. But in Château d'Oex at a lower altitude, the wind blows along the valley from the east, and then if you increase your altitude the winds blows in the opposite direction. This is exceptional."
Sublet doesn't recommend the conditions in Château d'Oex for inexperienced pilots. He says they should earn their wings over flat terrain before tackling the more difficult conditions that prevail in the mountains.
by Paul Sufrin