Up, up and away in Château-d'Oex
A red-and-yellow turtle jostles with a spaceman alongside a 35-metre-high birthday cake. In the distance small colourful globes skirt the snow-capped mountains.
The take-off area at the Château-d'Oex international balloon festival is buzzing as teams rush to be first in the air to enjoy the early morning conditions.
Warmly clad pilots fire up propane burners to warm the cool air in the multi-coloured nylon envelopes. Team members slip and slide on the ice struggling to hold down the colourful giants.
"Get in, quickly, one by one," orders our French pilot, Raymond de Montgolfier, a long-distant relative of the two famous ballooning brothers.
And we are away; the hum of huge fans disappears as we soar effortlessly upwards into the fresh alpine air, following the dozen or so balloons drifting down the valley.
2008 is a special year for the Château-d'Oex international balloon festival as it is celebrating its 30th year and, despite a hiccup with the weather on Tuesday, it looks like being a vintage one.
The 140 pilots from 20 different countries have already been able to make several hundred hours of flights up, down and over the low-lying valleys in the Pays d'Enhaut to the chic resort of Gstaad, cheese capital Gruyère, and much further afield. And 20,000 people, out of an expected final total of 50-60,000, visited on the opening weekend – a record.
Charles-André Ramseier, director of tourism for canton Vaud, who helped set up the festival in 1979, told swissinfo why it has been such a success story.
"You can never get bored of this spectacle. At a time when people want to control everything the balloon has that sense of freedom about it. You know where you take off but you don't know where you are going to land - you go with the winds."
With a passion for flying and experience of ballooning after working in the United States, at the end of the 1970s, the new young director of Château-d'Oex Tourism decided to import the concept, but to a unique setting.
"No one really flew balloons in the Alps at the time; the Alps were a new dimension," said Ramseier.
Together with the German pilot, Hans Bücker, he discovered that the Pays d'Enhaut region, with its protected valleys and winds that inverse at different altitudes, was ideal for balloon flying.
"It's a fantastic place for flying because the configuration of the valleys and weather, especially winter, make for very interesting flying. And seeing the Alps covered in snow from above on a day like today is awesome," agreed Bristol-based pilot Muir Moffat, who was taking part in his 20th Château-d'Oex festival.
Over the years, the event has grown in size from 12 balloons to today's 100, including a dozen special-shaped balloons, but it has kept the same format and its professional, yet down-to-earth, convivial atmosphere, which is highly appreciated by the pilots.
For the local tourist office, the festival has become an extremely important platform too, allowing it to differentiate the area from its rivals, said current director, Olivier Bovet.
"If we didn't have it, we wouldn't fill the resort like now; January is normally dead," he added.
Located at an altitude of 970 metres, Château-d'Oex has suffered from declining winter snowfall. Global warming has raised the level above which snow is certain to fall, by about 500 metres.
Back in the basket, De Montgolfier, who has been regaling us about his family during the flight, suddenly looks serious behind his dark glasses: "This is the famous zone where we have to be careful; there's more wind than yesterday".
He then gives a long blast of the burner to stop us from getting caught in electricity cables below, and the balloon, built by his nephew, slowly turns and rises out of danger.
swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Château-d'Oex
140 pilots from 20 countries have brought around 100 balloons to the Château-d'Oex festival.
Currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, the festival is the first event of its kind held in the Alps in winter.
Festival highlights include group launches, specially shaped balloons, night flying and various races. Passenger rides are also available to the public and there are other events specially laid on during the week for families. Around 50-60,000 people are expected to attend.
This year a record 150 journalists from 13 countries are in attendance.
The festival runs from January 19-27, 2008.
The first international hot air balloon week in Château-d'Oex started in February 1979.
Château-d'Oex hit the headlines in March 1999 when Betrand Piccard and Brian Jones lifted off from the alpine resort to become the first to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a balloon.
To receive a balloon pilot licence, you need to have done 16 hours of flying with an instructor, two solo flights and have passed an exam.
The British were the first tourists to travel to Château-d'Oex in western Switzerland in the middle of the 19th century.
The village secured its place as a holiday resort in 1904 with the completion of the "MOB" railway, which carried holidaymakers through the Pays d'Enhaut on its way from Montreux to the Bernese Oberland.
A lack of snow over the past ten years has jeopardised its future as a ski resort. The village has already seen a 20 per cent drop in the number of tourists over the past decade.
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