Posted: January 21, 2013
Watching the Alps unfurl slowly in front of you can truly be experienced from a hot air balloon. One of the prime areas to do this is the picturesque village of Château d'Oex, where the explorer Mike Horn lives, and from where Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones departed on their 40'805 km circumnavigation of the world in 1999.
Upon arrival, you would expect to see the balloon up and ready to go, but surprisingly, the local guide Raphaël has it folded up in the back of his pickup truck. After laying the giant-sized party balloon out in a field, he brings a couple of enormous fans to blow hot air into the canopy. Once it's filled and you are standing upright in the basket, Raphaël takes the controls: a flame-thrower device that ejects hot gases up into the balloon.
It’s a strange feeling as the basket lifts off, but even from just a few meters above ground the view becomes mesmerizing, and of course it only gets better. Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau will be among the endless white peaks of the Alps you try to count in vain. It’s also a chance to get an aerial appreciation of the picture-postcard pastures of the rolling pre-Alps surrounding Château d’Oex.
A hot air balloon ride lasts a few hours, and the charming village of Château d’Oex can be visited as a day trip from Gstaad. Although hot air balloon rides are possible any time of year (as long as the weather is stable), the last week of January celebrates a yearly balloon festival that has been going on since 1979. People from around the world come to check out the Château d’Oex Balloon Festival (26 January – 3 February 2013), which includes night-time flights and outrageous balloon designs. There is also an exhibition which displays pretty much everything you need to know about ballooning, and how Château d'Oex became the most prestigious places in the Alps for this pursuit.
For more local culture and history, make sure to visit to the local museum, founded by Julie’s great-grandfather, Emil Henchoz. The museum has been run by three different generations of the family and other volunteers from the area, and is housed in an old chalet built by the prefect of the region, and donated to the museum after his death in the early 20th century.
When Emil had the idea to found the “Musée du Vieux Pays-d’Enhaut” (“Museum of the old high country”) in 1922, he started collecting traditional furniture to preserve a snapshot of local life at that time. It’s a special way to see what life was like in these old and relatively isolated mountain communities, showcasing the folk art and traditional chalet construction for which the region is known. The museum also holds some intricate pieces of découpage (paper-cutting) art by local artists from the mid 19th century. A demonstration and short class in découpage can be organized upon request.