France to Slovenia – August/September 2016

After five very busy weeks of flying commercially in the Dordogne Valley, (France), I was keen to get back into travelling again. I left St Cyprien at 9am and drove almost non-stop to Chateau d’Oex in Switzerland, 750kms away. The drive was a generally easy one, electing to take the easier toll roads rather than the slow, windy back roads. The tolls definitely add up, especially driving a truck: It cost over 200 Euro in all.

My only hiccup during the drive was in Lyon. The turn-off I needed was closed, so I ended up going through the middle of the city. They are doing major upgrades to the main highway running through Lyon, which will be great when finished. In the meantime, it will cause a lot of headaches for residents and anyone passing through.

The road leaving France, heading into Switzerland and the Alps, was especially picturesque. The engineering behind it was impressive too, with many tunnels and bridges.

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Crossing the Swiss border wasn’t a problem and I continued around Lake Geneva and into the Alps.The road between Bulle and Chateau d’Oex was one lane each way and became very windy. The views passing between the mountains were spectacular.

I arrived into Chateau d’Oex at 6pm and searched for the local balloon company. Luckily the woman who I had been in touch with, Celine, was just leaving the office and invited me back to her house, where I met her family and a couple of friends. It was a perfect evening to sit on the balcony, chat, and watch the sun set over the mountains.

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I had dinner at a restaurant and parked and stayed at the balloon launch site that night. Chateau d’Oex is well known for its balloon festival in the middle of Winter, which is still on my to-do list.

I was woken by banging on the door the next morning. It was the local pilot, Raphael, who had come early. He had seen the forecast and decided we would need to take off from another site, 30 minutes away. We travelled the windy road over to the next valley and set the balloon up at a quiet airport. There is an amazing number of airports in the area. They were used for training by the Swiss Airforce, but most are now civilian. All the runways are sealed and in very good condition. We took off from the runway at Zweisimmen. It was the first time I had taken off from a sealed runway, it was a bit of a novelty.

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We slowly climbed to 7000ft and got a great view of the alps, including Mont Blanc and most of the other tallest peaks. The visibility was amazing, so we really got lucky.

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The wind was slower than forecast, but in a good direction. We descended into the next main valley and used the valley flow to float down the valley, above the pine forests and villages. It is an amazing place to fly. We landed in the town of Rougemont, which is very typically Swiss with many large chalets. We had to be very careful in which field to land in. We could only pick a field where the grass had just been cut. I have never been to a place where grass is precious like gold. There are only a few months a year when it grows and can be harvested, so the farmers take great care in looking after it. The fields are immaculate and they even helicopter cut grass from the mountains to be stored. Grass is used during Winter as feed for cows. The cows are typically Swiss, complete with bells which clang whenever they move: A beautiful sound while flying across the valleys.

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We packed the balloon and left it in the farmer’s field. Celine came to pick us up. She took us back to Chateau d’Oex so we could pick up Raphael’s car, and then drive to my truck, which was left at the airport. We went back to the farm, picked the balloon up and continued to Chateau d’Oex.

We were hungry, so had fondue and wine for lunch on a perfect Summers day surrounded by mountains. Life doesn’t get any better than that.

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I left the truck at Celine’s place and caught the train to Geneva that afternoon, around 2 hours away. The train trip through the mountains is spectacular. They use a special type of train as the gradient is very steep. It must’ve been quite a feat of engineering when it was first built decades ago and really opened the Alps up to the outside world.
I changed to a normal train in Montraux to carry on to Geneva.

I spent an enjoyable couple of days at a friend’s place in Geneva, checking out the local sites, sounds and tastes of the area. I also had a meeting on one of the days, which was my main reason for going there.

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I returned to Chateau d’Oex, picked up my truck and drove to Zurich to catch up with friends, before continuing to Andwil, another 80kms from there. On the way a rider came off his motorbike just one car infront of me as he was exiting the motorway. Unfortunately I was all ready passed by the time he came to rest and there was nowhere to stop. I saw others stop when I looked in my rear-view mirror, so he was well looked after. It was quite a spectacular fall as both he and the bike flew through the air.

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I arrived at my friends’ place, Stefan and Rebekah, at around 8pm. Stefan was still out flying, so we had dinner when he got back and planned the flight we were going to do the next morning in Liechtenstein.

It was an early start. We put my balloon in his van and his balloon in a trailer, and we headed for Vaduz.

The area where we planned to take off from was a large valley with interesting local weather conditions. It can blow a gale in one place and be completely calm in another. Wind can also increase and drop off very quickly, so we had to pay close attention. The wind comes down the valley from the Alps and flows out to Lake Constance.
We found a nice field to take off from and had a relatively easy inflation. Stefan instructed a student in his balloon, and we flew alongside each other.

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We flew low over the Rhine river, criss-crossing between Liechtenstein and Switzerland. We eventually left Liectenstein and passed the town of Buchs in Switzerland. We then climbed to 7000ft to admire the endless mountain peaks of the Alps on one side, and the fog over Lake Constance on the other.

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We eventually crossed into Austria and descended to land in very light winds in a neighbourhood in the city of Feldkirch. I spotted an area perfect for the size of the balloon. I came in low over the roof and a 60’ish year old lady came out, and much to her surprise, saw me a few metres above her roof. I asked if I could land there. She could speak English quite well and said it was no problem. I landed right by her table and chairs in her back lawn and she went inside and brought back a cup of coffee on a tray. It was an amusing situation for both of us. We chatted and had coffee, (while the balloon was still standing above us) while I waited for my crew member to arrive, (Stefan’s Father).

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When he arrived, we moved the balloon to a better area and deflated the balloon. The neighbours even came out to help us. It was great entertainment for everyone.

Stefan also arrived later to help out. He had a similar landing down the road.

We said our goodbyes to our new found friends and went down the road to pick up Stefan’s balloon. All in all it was an amazing flight, and my first international one. It was great to pass through not only 2, but 3 countries. Very unique.

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We crossed the border into Switzerland and headed home. I went out flying on a commercial flight with Stefan that evening closer to Zurich. It was a beautiful evening for it.

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I was a couple of days ahead of schedule, so the next morning I decided at the last minute to take the train to Dusseldorf in Germany, (550kms away). Some very good friends of mine were having a pre-wedding party. I was disappointed to not attend the actual wedding, so this was the next best thing.

I arrived 6hrs later and had a great evening celebrating in an old German pub just outside of Dusseldorf.

I returned to Switzerland the following day and arrived in the evening. I chatted with Stefan well into the night.

I left for Italy early the next morning. I delayed my start, as a big thunderstorm was passing and the rain poured down.

I stopped by Austria on my way, (even though it wasn’t on my route) to fuel up. It is 20 euro cents cheaper a litre there for diesel than it is in Switzerland and Italy. When you have to get 450 litres of fuel, it really adds up.

The weather improved and the road through the Alps was enjoyable and incredibly scenic. You can’t help but marvel at the engineering behind the roads there, so many tunnels and bridges to pass. For quite a big part of it, it is one lane each way rather than a motorway, so if you get caught behind a slow truck, you are stuck with it for a long time. I didn’t mind though, I just enjoyed the sights of the beautiful mountains and blue lakes around.

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I crossed into Italy and took the ring road around Milan. I’ve been to Europe many times, but I had never made it to Italy, so I was looking forward to checking it out.

The road between Milan and Cesena was very easy, but also boring as it is very long and straight for a few hundred kilometres. I was happy not to be travelling in the opposite direction as there seemed to be a traffic jam every few kilometres.

I turned off at Cesena and headed through the Apennine Mountains towards the region of Umbria. You can immediately tell when you leave the toll road, as the road condition suddenly deteriorates. The road was good all the way, thought it definitely needed to be re-surfaced in many parts.

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I passed the impressive city of Assisi, well known for Saint Frances. It sits on the side of a hill where the huge basilica sits dominantly.

My final destination was not far from there, a house owned by my workmate and Director of Balloon Adventures Emirates in Dubai, Peter.

On arrival, he told me to get ready quickly as there was a village party. It was a thank you to the locals for the work they had done in the previous week for the village festival, which always draws large crowds. The villagers give their time for free to man stalls and make the whole event work. All money raised goes towards village projects. A great concept.

We met some of Peter’s friends at the dinner, which was held in a marquee. The village is famous for snails. One of Peter’s friends showed me the process of preparing and cooking the snails. They had designed the whole process themselves. It was all quite interesting.

We had a huge dinner, including good wine, and later Rakia. I have never eaten so many snails in my life. It was a great introduction to Italy.

Over the next few days Peter showed me around the area. I was surprised to not see any sign of the large earthquake which had struck just 1 week earlier, (only 50kms away) and had flattened a whole village with the loss of 240 lives.

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The area is very typically Italian, with old villages, Roman ruins, vineyards and of course good food and wine. The Basilica of St Francis is especially impressive inside and out, but not excessive, as St Francis was well known for being a simple man. The shear size of it if you look from a distance is amazing though.

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I flew with Peter’s assistant, Ela, on the second to last day. The winds were very light. After flying round and round for just over an hour, we landed just across the road from where we took off from, between two rows of grape vines. We could pick the grapes right off the vines. The harvest was not far away. The balloon was moved just a few metres and deflated in a big field. Nice and easy. One of Peter’s crew helped us. He was in his 50’s but was an ex-model and bodybuilder; a big and strong guy.

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I looked around Perugia that evening, an impressive city with lots of narrow streets and a huge main city gate, built many centuries ago. I met up with Ela and her friends, and we had an enjoyable evening looking around the old town.

The church in the town centre has huge steps, and dozens, (if not hundreds) congregate there to drink and chat. It is a great atmosphere and there is no sign of anti-social behaviour. Everyone seems to drink in moderation. I drove back to Peter’s at around midnight.

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I departed for Ljubljana, Slovenia, the next morning. The 650km drive was quite an easy one. After the Apennine mountains, it is flat until you reach Slovenia.

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I bought a sim card once I reached Slovenia and co-ordinated my flight the next morning. I had to bring the flight forward to the next morning because it seemed to be the only time with good weather. I ended up going past Ljubljana, to the famous tourist town of Bled. The original plan was to fly just outside of Ljubljana, but my friend, (who was going to help me) wasn’t going to get back from his holiday until the following afternoon. I got in touch with the local balloon operator in Bled and went there. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the final details of the flight location, as I only spoke to the agency and not the pilot who was flying the next day, so I decided to return 60kms back to Ljubljana where I knew I would be able to fly.

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After asking some locals, I managed to find the local airfield and parked up there for the night. It was 11.30pm by the time I arrived.

I got up at 7am. Because the flight was arranged at the last minute, I didn’t have anyone to help out, so I set the balloon up myself and went for a flight. It was the first time I had done it since I was hour building to attain my commercial licence 14 years ago. I really enjoyed it, though it does require a bit of heavy lifting and technique to inflate the balloon.

I flew across the cropped fields and could see Ljubljana in the distance. There are hills and mountains around and I had a nice, easy flight. I landed just past a police dog training centre, so lots of dogs were barking as I flew over.

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After landing, a farmer came over in his tractor. He was about to pick up the hay bales in the field I had landed in. It was a very short conversation after he realised I couldn’t speak Slovenian, but he said, “No problem”, so that was enough for me. I got on with packing up the balloon and he got on with loading hay bales. It was quite a hot day, so I worked up quite a sweat.

I left the balloon in the field, walked a few kilometres to the truck, came back with it and loaded the balloon on.

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I caught up with my friend, Avi, that afternoon and he showed me around the local area, including a visit to another airfield and having a look around the hangar.
I stayed at his place that night.

The next morning I had booked the truck in at a local mechanic’s through a friend of a friend. It turned out that they didn’t have the right equipment for my truck as they mainly dealt with cars, but they looked after me very well and arranged another place for me to take it.

As it turned out that place couldn’t do it either, so I took it to another place, then another place, and finally I found a place who could take my truck. It was a mechanics tour of Ljubljana.

The guys I left the truck with were great and really knew their trucks. They take care of all the Slovenian Army’s trucks, as well as Ljubljana’s public buses and a number of ambulances. I gave them a list of things to do and said I’ll be back in 7 weeks to collect it. They said that that was fine, and off I went.

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I got picked up by another friend, Dejan, and we went to have dinner and picked up his girlfriend, Marina, from work. They showed me around Ljubljana that night. Ljubljana had a visionary mayor a few years ago, who invested in restoring many of the rundown looking buildings in the old town centre. The old town looks great now and it attracts many visitors. It is especially nice lit up at night.

We had a really enjoyable evening and I stayed at their place that night.

I got picked up by a friend of a friend the next day who had helped me out with finding a mechanic. We had lunch together, before returning to Avi’s place to do some planning for the next leg of the project. He recommended a number of places to fly through the Balkan States and he gave very useful advice about the area.

I was dropped off at Ljubljana’s very small airport that evening by Avi and flew to Dubai via Belgrade that night.

I’m flying commercially in Dubai until the 3rd of November. In November, I’ll travel through the Balkan States to Greece. From there I’ll catch a ferry and drive all the way to Dubai. The schedule is tight, but manageable.