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Montgolfiades de PUY en VELAY 2006

This is a weekend meeting in the mountainous country between the Auvergne and the Ardèche in France,  organised by Jean Marc Guerin of Puy en Velay.
INVERSION IN THE VALLEY – A Weekend in the Auvergne - November 2006

My journey to Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne was unusually free of the incidents that seem to crop up on my travels, and I arrived in Vienne, via Lyon St.Exupéry, relatively relaxed. I hired a small Peugeot 206 diesel which went like the proverbial off a shovel and having stayed the night with an old friend recently bereaved, arrived in Puy the next evening at the Moulin de Barrette at Blavozy, to the east of Puy.  This was not easy to find at night, the signposts being somewhat ambiguous, and I did do a small 'tour de la région' before meeting up with old acquaintances – Tunisia 2002? Portugal 1999 was it?  The English teams flying the flag were Sean Simington, Peter Gooch, and Richard Gyselinck (Isle of Man – does that count?)  accompanied by Peter Meecham with whom I had flown in Portugal. Jackie Hibberd was flying with the Pay Bas balloon.
This was the 24th International Montgolfiades at Puy-en-Velay organised by Jean-Marc Guérin. After lunch the next day, Friday, we gathered for the launch in a field in the lee of Chateau de Polignac, situated on a high mount in the landscape like most of the castles in the area. The day was bright and sunny with a light NNE breeze. The tasks were a marker on top of the Chateau, and chasing the Primagaz 'renard'. I took off with Dominique Gouttequillet (great name) to follow the latter. Dominique told me later that he organises ballooning/bivouac days and nights in the mountains, camping out and flying, which sounds like something I might do on my next visit.  We coasted gently SSW over undulating landscape for an hour and ten minutes, missing the 'renard' by a few yards, and landed on a high point looking into a spectacular sunset.

The red hot sky led us to red hot 'don't-strike-a-match' liqueur aperitifs at the Pagès Distillery where tables were laden with tempting artefacts centred around local specialities like Liqueur de Verveine(Vervain), liqueur chocolate 'bombs' and genuine Puy Lentils, a combination with interesting results perhaps – propane shares could take a dive!  During the official welcome speeches the Flight Director and 'Attaché de la Poésie' François Moizard, a droll Jacques Tati character, extemporised poetically and brilliantly on the day's events. This he did each day when the spirit took him (not the verveine necessarily…).  Dinner followed at the Moulin de Barrette, accompanied by folkloric dances organised and choreographed by the head waiter, the energetic dances being very similar to those in Portugal.

Next day, Saturday the 11th, we departed in the chilly darkness to Arlempdes, the home turf of François Laurent Marquis d'Arlempdes (or Arlandes) who had accompanied Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier on the first manned hot air balloon flight in November 1783. Coincidentally, one of the dozen digital pictures that I shot during take off from here was numbered 1783….

The launch site was a narrow terrace between trees in the valley, and the teams lined up in preparation on the frosty grass, the temperature a bracing -1º.

I was to fly with Richard Gyselinck, from the Isle of Man, in his Sky 77 with T&C kit, and he was among the first to warm up the valley with a welcome flame. We took off before most of the others and floated NNE up through the Gorges de la Loire, passing over Arlempdes and the chateau where the target could be plainly seen, but alas too far away for us. A couple of miles further on we looked back to see that Ray with the Peter Gooch team in the Bentley balloon had succeeded in dropping a marker in the white ring to win.

After about forty minutes there was a possibility of landing but Richard decided to continue. The wind was unpredictable and we floated slowly, sometimes in different directions, over a sweeping valley in which we saw a fine example of inversion, described by chimney smoke rising, floating westwards then, flat and low, changing direction to the east.  Richard was now looking for a landing site, which seemed suddenly elusive in the wooded landscape near Coubon.  We passed Hans Kordel in his Schneider balloon, static in a meditative pose by a cemetery, and landed gently in a small sloping triangular space, hardly a field. It turned out to have no access in or out. The only solution was a hand line and a tree hop to the next field up the slope, and a tricky grounding with the envelope facing upwind. All was well and with the help of Peter and Richard's son and wife Helen and we packed up and returned to the hotel for lunch. Here I met Maurice Chaize, the first balloon maker in France (1977), and Jean-Marc's wife recounted the saga of the 1989 projected dam and thus flooding of the Gorges de la Loire right up to the point where we had landed. Major objections by all of the population, street demos, physical opposition to the start of the works, police cordons, arrests and representations to parliament succeeded in stopping the building of the dam. The campaign lasted ten years.

After a superb lunch, we departed for Chadrac on the outskirts of Puy-en-Velay, where I had drawn the Alaskan straw, to fly with Jack and Carol Klein. To ease the burden of travelling the world with bulky balloon equipment, engineer Jack Klein manufactures lightweight aluminium based balloon 'baskets', much appreciated by other travelling aeronauts with smaller balloons. We took off with the Alaskan starred balloon in good time to get some pictures of the other balloons still on and off the launch site and headed 080 over Puy towards St.Germain Laprade.  After an hour in a slight wind, we were looking for a suitable landing place, and a solid looking field presented itself. The wind speed had reduced to almost nothing, and as we approached the field over a small road and a dead tree in a hedge, the balloon stopped. No amount of paddling had any effect, so a quick burn took us a further twenty minutes in flight to land in a wheat field.  That evening we dined in style at the Hotel Moderne in Cayres, with Kir Chataigne, Foie Gras, Morilles and venison, entertained by a nine-piece close harmony vocal group singing romantic French songs.

Sunday dawned damp with imminent rain and most of us were thinking – no flying today, a disappointment after two very good days. However we proceeded to St.Vincent about ten kilometres north of Puy, gathering in a muddy field near the village. The crowded scene was reminiscent of a wintry 'point-to-point' meeting in the English shires, collars and umbrellas raised, with the hope for a hot toddy and a picnic in the back of the Land Rover.  The entire population had turned out to witness this event, and were entertained by the mysterious and apparently hilarious activities of <<<Monsieur le Méteo with his purple helium balloon and baffling instruments. The balloon rose, the instruments assessed, Monsieur le Méteo assessed, Jean-Marc assessed, the intrepid aeronauts discussed – it was flyable!  

Wolfgang Strauch (nickname Perry) was the first off, disappearing quickly into the fog over the misty landscape. He was followed by Jean-Marc Guérin and Jacques-Henri Cronier, and lastly Jackie Hibberd raised a steaming envelope to encouraging cheers.  I hoped that their navigational skills were in tip-top condition as all four disappeared from view.  I need not have worried of course; Perry shot through the mist and rain for ten kilometres south east at 35 knots, landing below the cloud with almost no windspeed in the grounds of the Hotel Moulin de Barette…. just in time for our last lunch and the prize-giving.  Peter Gooch received a magnificent wooden balloon Grand Trophy, definitely not flyable, but desirable nevertheless, and our Flight Director/Poet François delivered a final poetic commentary on the weekend.  It was certainly a weekend to savour, with thirty six balloon teams, good weather, stunning landscapes and great local food and wine, not forgetting the organisational skills of Jean-Marc Guerin and his team.  Next year will mark the quarter century!

   ©Tim Motion London January 2007              Email:  [email protected]

                                           Jean-Marc Guérin email:     [email protected]