Winter in Switzerland is not a place of hibernation, but a hive of activity. From skiing to snowshoeing, tobogganing to ice-skating on frozen lakes, high altitude music festivals (like Crans Montana's Caprices)... the options are endless.
However, if there's one event not to be missed for families, amateur photographers, mountain lovers and adventurers – it's the Parmigiani Fleurier International Hot Air Balloon Festival at Château d'Oex.
It all began back in the 1970s when Hans Bücker and Charles-André Ramseier, a former director of the Château d'Oex tourist office, offered visitors winter balloon flights to take in the grandeur of the snow-covered peaks of the Pays d'Enhaut. From there the attraction grew into an event – the first international meeting being held in 1979.
Nowadays hundreds of takeoffs — brightening the skies with their colorful and shapely balloons — and their pilots compete in a variety of competitions. Some of these are skill-based competitions, focusing around targets.
In the Don Quichotte Race, for example, each team has a spear attached to the basket. The aim is to fly as close as possible to several helium-filled balloons, in order to burst them.
For cheese lovers, there are two races named after varietals. During "The two Gruyères," participants fly from Château d'Oex to the village of Gruyères along the Sarine River. There is also a newer race dubbed "the cheese fondue." During this event, teams are tasked with stopping at four different spots to gather the necessary ingredients to make cheese fondue — the fondue pot, the forks, the cheese and the white wine.
Asked why they return to the festival every year, Loïc from Ballons du Leman in Rolle (a long-time participant of the event) replies, "It's a unique venue, and one of the few international events taking place in winter in the mountains. It's technically challenging, as you have to understand the thermals linked to the ranges." It's also an opportunity for him and his fellow aerostiers from around the world to catch up during this wintertime spectacular.
And it's not just a spectator sport either. If you have children, a whole afternoon is dedicated to the discovery of the wondrous world of ballooning, with shows and activities. They can even take a tethered flight to whet their appetites for the sport. Meanwhile the grown-up adrenaline-seekers can sign up for an actual balloon or helicopter flight.
But if your taste is to watch hypnotic contraptions rise up and defy gravity — like graceful aeronautic elephants of the sky — there's a compelling air show. This includes aerobatic flying, airships, paragliders, air chariots and wingsuits. Or you can watch the spectacular Night-Glow Show. This magical presentation (weather permitting) has hundreds of performers, dozens of balloon crews, skiers, skydivers, pyrotechnic experts and sound engineers. They all come together to offer a breathtaking musical show surrounded by the omnipresent mountains at dusk.
Date for your diary: 26 January - 3 February 2019
For more information see the official website of the Festival de Balloons.