Year Abroad: Château-d’Œx Balloon Festival 2006

I had a revelation tonight. I lived in Switzerland for nearly a year and I never talk about it. The only real reason for this is laziness, I suppose – it’s easier to talk about things that happened more recently, but I got around most of Switzerland when I was living there.

So today I start. Today I’m going to tell you about the Château-d’Œx Balloon Festival 2006, because the pictures are really colourful. First I’m going to tell you that I didn’t realise that it started with a œ rather than an oe and second, I didn’t realise it had a hyphen. So nearly a decade on, I’ve learnt something about a place I once went to. Third, this is one of those rare posts that features other people. I went to language school in Switzerland between October 2005 and July 2006 and while there were people from all over the world attending to learn French, there were initially only three native English speakers. Me, obviously. Jemma, who was at my university and in my year and ended up at the same Swiss university during our compulsory year abroad, but whom I had never laid eyes on before we somehow met. And Angela, who was a little older, from Utah and who introduced herself with the immortal words “Have some chocolate, it’s my vice!” We later learnt that she didn’t really like chocolate very much at all. So we became Les Trois Anglaises, the Triplets. Our French – or certainly my French – suffered somewhat from spending all my non-school hours speaking English but I wouldn’t change a thing.

This is one of my favourite pictures – these are Jemma and Angela

It was Angela’s idea to go to Château-d’Œx. I don’t even know how she discovered it. It’s certainly something I would have missed out on if left to my own devices. Château-d’Œx is a small town in south-western Switzerland, a little way east of Lac Leman, a bit of a journey from Neuchâtel, where we lived. According to my diary, we got the train at 7.34am – far too early for a snowy Saturday in January – and had to change trains at Lausanne and Montreux, which is still the accepted route today and the Swiss rail website tells me it’s a journey of two hours and eight minutes which must have seen us arrive at 9.42am. Château-d’Œx, give or take the lamppost, is an absolutely perfect picture-postcard of a Swiss village, surrounded by snowy mountains and topped with blue sky and sunshine (the clouds cleared away shortly after this picture).


We bought our tickets and were given yellow tags to wear. Angela said mine made me look like an evacuee. I imagine I still have that ticket in my scrapbook (I didn’t have internet in my room for most of the year and therefore had a lot of time on my hands. That scrapbook is my treasure).

We’d arrived early and most of the balloons hadn’t been inflated yet, which gave us a chance to wander around and observe the process. As near as I could understand, they were first filled with cold air with a fan and then, when they were starting to take shape, they fired them up with hot air which made them rise up and tug at their moorings. And when you’re standing as close as we were, you can really feel that blast of hot air!



Watching balloons being blown up clearly takes concentration
Watching balloons being blown up clearly takes concentration


That occupied us for most of the morning. We stopped off for some lunch and emerged from the eating barn to find some less conventional-shaped balloons had appeared.



Very few of my pictures from this day survive, thanks to a multitude of computer failures towards the end of my time in Switzerland. The mobile phone balloon and the cathedral balloon are both from a very old and neglected Photobucket account and it apparently only keeps small versions of pictures. All the big shiny pictures are actually Angela’s.

We had plans to go up in a balloon. Such a thing was, of course, on offer. We intended to do it and then our plans got totally derailed by the sudden possibility of going up in a helicopter. How could we not? Well, for a start, it was to be paid for by cash and I hadn’t brought enough cash so we had to scavenge together three lots of fares between us – a price I thought insanely expensive at the time but now – well, the cheapest, shortest helicopter trip I’ve seen since has been ten times as much so my best chance of getting another helicopter ride ever is probably to break a leg up a mountain (which is a bad thing to do!)

balloon12This picture exists because, for some reason that I still don’t understand, Angela found it hilarious that I was holding my helicopter ticket. I don’t think I looked any more hilarious holding mine than Jemma did.

balloon13I’ve never been in a helicopter before or since. It was noisy but not as noisy as I’d expected and of course I was nervous, particularly as the thing took off before we’d finished working out which seatbelt went where but Switzerland from above!




And if you wanted to see me in motion – well, as much motion as is possible wedged in the back of a helicopter, and also over nine years ago, here’s a little video Angela made of the flight:

Other than a quick trip to the church on the way back to the station, that was more or less it for the day. By the time we landed, most of the balloons had either flown away or were being deflated. We watched some paragliders coming in to land at incredible speeds – far faster than I’ve ever landed – and we stopped for some vin chaud but the day was done. It was 7.30pm by the time we got back to Neuchâtel. Here, on a train, is a tired student who’s had a long and entertaining day and is wearing Angela’s hat rather than her own and apparently hasn’t noticed Angela pointing a large camera at her.