III Portugal Hot Air Balloon Transcrossing - March 1999

By Joop de Wilde

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Life can be full of surprises. Just at the time that the weatherman in the Netherlands predicted that we could expect only cold and rainy weather, incoming E-mail contained an invitation to participate in the third edition of the Portugal Hot Air Balloon Transcrossing, a ballooning event with 25 participating teams and seven stops from the northernmost point of Portugal to the Algarve in the South. The Portuguese Ballooning Club, the Portuguese Tourist office at their Embassy in the Hague, TAP Airlines and the Portuguese REALIZAR company combined to arrange the necessary trip forms, hotel reservations and facilities in Portugal. And so you find yourself a week later with ballooning colleagues from France, Belgium, Switzerland, the UK, the US, the Slowak Republic and Portugal in the sunny town of Braganza, one of the northernmost points in Portugal. The formula of the Portugal Hot Air Balloon Transcrossing is simple but appear to be a golden choice. On the route from the North to the South are seven stopping locations. Usually you arrive at one of those stops sometime in the afternoon. That same night a nightglow is held in some central location like f.i. the market place or in the local stadium. If weather permits, the balloon(s) will be tethered. Early the next day a morning trip is arranged from the same spot and after the flight everyone departs for the next stop. That same night another nightglow is conducted. It might have been a bit boring if Portugal didn't have a great variety of landscapes on the trip from north to south.


The trip started at Braganza, which didn't cause the pilots any immediate difficulties. Braganza is surrounded by mountains but between the city and those mountains is a hilly area which could supply sufficient landing sites if required. The opening ceremony, organized by the Portuguese Balloon Club and REALIZAR was impressive and full of atmosphere. Like many Portuguese cities, Braganza is situated on a hill, which is crowned by an old castle. At the foot of this fortification, in the village square, the speakers gave their speeches and the glasses were hoisted to celebrate a beautiful event. The square is just big enough to let Benoit Simeon from Belgium depart in his cloud hopper.Benoit floats slowly in the evening breeze over the narrow streets and houses around the castle. There is so little wind that he succeeds in making an interim landing in the castle's courtyard. Then he rises again, drifts over the castle walls, over Braganza and lands somewhere in the suburbs. Next morning the hullabaloo starts for everyone. The daytime temperatures are about 23 degrees, but in the early morning there is frost and there is rime on the field in the stadium. I fly with John Hole from the UK in the Rover balloon. When the sun rises and the frost slowly disappears we travel with a speed of 4 knots over Braganza. The view gets better outside the city. The terrain goes from undulating to hilly. It varies from little patches of grass to rough terrain and crops. The landscape has only one disadvantage, and this is valid for all of Portugal: all the utility lines are above ground. High tension and telephone lines everywhere. On this day all of us travel together 175 km. Southwards. To Lamego.


Lamengo was much more difficult to approach than Braganza. Steep, high mountains and deep ravines, the valleys much steeper and less approachable than Switzerland for instance. In Portugal the weather forecasts are much more generalized and less dependable. Especialy for local conditions. In a flat landscape it is possible to predict the weather with the help of a test balloon and personal reconnaissance to solve those problems as long as the atmosphere is stable. Treacherous wind speeds around the mountain tops in an open sky can lead to unpleasant surprises. Those who stayed low in the valley did not suffer much from the wind. Those who kept at the level of the road which ran alongside the valley and which slowly wound and snaked its way higher and higher towards the mountain tops were suddenly confronted with increasing winds and had to make a choice. Either make a high speed landing against the mountain or go over the top without being sure if there were any landing spots nearby. This caused a lot of problems and three balloons were damaged. It also caused problems for the retreive crews, who had to pluck the balloon, pilot and passengers from the sides of the mountains. John Hole with the Rover balloon ended up just below the crest of the mountain. With a 76 year old Portuguese farmer as a guide I had to drive kilometers out of my way, over wagon trails and donkey tracks, to get as close as 200 meters to the balloon. It could never have been done without the four-wheel-drive on my SUV.


The third stop, Viseu, is also located in mountainous terrain. Viseu is located in the center of the wine country where the best Portuguese port wines are made. The valley is better oriented in the wind direction and is wider and flatter thus allowing for much easier travel than the preceding day. From the air you can see the lovely villages spread out over the slopes. Extensive vineyards alternate with crop fields, orchards and sections of rough terrain where it is easy to land. The assistance and reception by the local population results in a feast everywhere. Balloons are still relatively unknown in Portugal and a landing by a balloon develops quickly into a local festival where everybody helps to secure and pack the balloons, while crew and passengers end up in a local pub or a simple home in order to enjoy the local delicacies.


Next day the weather changes. In the morning it is too windy to make balloon flight in Viseu. That actually suits most of us because we all get a chance to depart early for the beautiful Estrella National Park. In the park lies the highest mountain in Portugal. Over winding road with hairpin curves you drive through one of the most beautiful areas in Portugal. The terrain around the mountain sinks away lower and lower and the road to the top had many surprises in store; the views of the valley; an artificial lake at an altitude of 1.5 kilometers; and finally the top which is still covered in a thick layer of snow. There is a lot of skiing and dog-sledding going on. From 23 degrees in the valley we are now on a 2 kilometer high, windy crest in the snow under a stark blue sky. The terrain gets flatter when you go further south. The mountains are behind us and beautiful flower-covered slopes take their place. A more ideal place for balloon travel is hard to find. Only the weather is now against us. It is cloudy with occasionally strong rainstorms, whic makes it impossible to carry out some flights.


Enough time therefore to visit the marble quarries around Estremoz, Borba and Villa Vicosa. In those towns marble is a relatively cheap building material. All of the door posts, window sills, fountains and even stoops are made from marble. Serpa appears to have just come out of a history book. It is located on the top of a hill and you can understand why it was built here when you look from the castle walls. In all directions there is a magnificent view over the surroundings and thus it was an ideal location for the rulers of this part of the country. The old city center is surrounded by old fortifications of the monastery/cloister and an impressive aquaduct. It is a pity that there is still too much wind so only three balloons take of, all of them landing somewhere in Spain. It is the last stop before Villa Real de St. Anthonio on the coast of Algarve at the border with Spain. The end point of a unique balloon trip through Portugal. Here we say goodbye to our friends of the Portuguese Balloon Club. And from the Organization Bureau REALIZAR, which lead the whole caravan through Portugal in such a wonderful manner. Via Farao, Lisbon and Porto we are brought back to Amsterdam by TAP-Air Portugal.

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