III Portugal Hot Air Balloon Transcrossing - March 1999


By Joop de Wilde

Balloon Pages at the World Wide Web


Balloons Across Portugal

Article written by Carolle Doyle


Benoit Simeons stood for one moment on top of the battlements of Braganca's citadel before walking off into thin air suspended beneath the old Thunder Sky Chariot that had taken him over the Great Wall of China and into the record books. Benoit's flight heralded the start of the Third Trans-crossing of Portugal by hot-air balloons. An event that has gained momentum over the past three years, so that what began in 1997 with a handful of participants attracted 27 in 1999 with pilots from all over Europe, America and South Africa.

The Portuguese do things on an heroic scale. In an eight day marathon we drove from Braganca in the far north to Vila Real de S. Antonio which lies on the Algarve coast overlooking the Spanish town of Ayamonte. It was an epic journey where granite hills gave way to steep, vine-covered valleys, high, snow-capped mountains tumbled down to vast, rolling plains. We flew over this rich, ever changing countryside in flights that were sometimes as heroic as the journey itself.

The tremendous flying circus of pilots, crew and organisers met up in Porto on 20th March and trundled 150 miles up to Braganca. In the high citadelle that looms over the town the Mayor welcomed us all with the news that Picard and Jones had just flown round the world and a promise to plant a tree in their honour. It was an auspicious beginning.

At the registration earlier that afternoon, organisers, Paolo Pereira, President of the Portuguese Ballooning Club and Manuel Vaz of Realizar, had checked everyone in and handed out huge boxes filled with green BP jackets, sweatshirts, t-shirts and hats curtesy of the fiesta's main sponsors. Consequently, later that evening the football stadium was a sea of green jackets preparing for the first balloon glow. Under a crescent moon the balloons rose and fell on tether ropes to the wild excitement of Braganca's children, most of whom were stuffed into baskets.

Next morning in the before dawn dark, the stadium quietly filled with muffled figures moving around in the gloom. I joined Pedro and Christina Cotovio, who fly passengers in the Alentejo and who were short a retrieve crew. Niels and I drove off to find a petrol station and whilst waiting for it to open, bickered about which of the phallanx of balloons sailing past belonged to Pedro. None of them as it turned out as Pedro, although first up, had elected to doodle along just above the house tops where the air was still. So we backtracked through the town and discovered our orange and brown balloon sitting primly in a back-garden.

We left the granite hills of the Serra da Nogueira and headed for the Douro which was to provide the most challenging flights of the entire crossing. Lamego lies in the heart of port country which as pretty as it is, is not balloon friendly. The valley bottom is criss-crossed with wires, the steep hillsides are covered in vines, the hill tops are fringed in fir trees with boulders between the firs.

People stood about and shuffled their feet, watched the met balloon rise vertically until out of sight and shuffled some more. Pedro was one of the first to inflate and the Americans followed with Steve Bond, in his Brian Bolan 'Experimental' still only half convinced and muttering about the lemming effect.The Swiss followed, Roman Mohr quietly starting up, John Hole, flying the Rover balloon, decided to go for it and as for the Slovakians, their balloon was already fully inflated.

It was an interesting day. Those like Pedro and Roman who stuck to the valley were fine, but the few who tried to go for it over the hills found themselves in increasingly high winds landing on mountainsides in turbulent conditions. By the time they tried for a landing the windmills on top of hills were whirring rapidly but the main problem was the extreme turbulence of the air which was being drawn up over the hills.

In Lamego, John had flown up the 800 steps that climb up the hill to the church, and found the valley opening up before him. Much later, after a superb flight, he had got caught out by windshear, and found himself perched on the hillside. The Swiss faired worse, landing in a tree which shredded their envelope to resemble the Emmental cheese of their home town.

The retrieve drivers meanwhile, were having their own adventures. Dutch balloonist and journalist, Joop de Wilde, acting as retrieve for John Hole climbed up to the balloon but could see no way to bring the vehicle near. A local shepherd helped out, guiding Joop along 'paths' along which an experienced goat might have second thoughts and then helped carry the equipment down. The Swiss needed the assistance of a couple of local farmers with chain saws. But everyone, it seemed, was happy to help balloonists out of the trees.

We drove on to Viseu through rolling countryside dotted with olive groves. That evening the Rover and BP balloons were first to set up, but then they were sponsoring the event. Then Benoit inflated and walked off over the chimneytops to roars of approval from the children that had gathered. A few hours later we assembled in their school for the usual gargantuan meal served up with an entertainment in the shape of folk dancers whirring round like figures from a cuckoo clock.

Next morning we woke to wind. Steve Bond took his kite out to the launch site and the string snapped. But we had the Estrela national park before us and the whole day to explore it. We climbed up through a fringe of yellow mimosa past boulder strewn uplands to the snow capped summit. People were skiing and snowboarding under a bright blue sky. The Bristol Mall team had improvised a toboggan with a plastic sheet.

Somewhere on the mountains we had left the granite houses of the north behind. We drove down into Fundao through a landscape of whitewashed villas and cherry groves. The following morning we arrived at the local football stadium under cloudy skies that threatened rain. I flew with Dave McCutcheon towards the Serra da Garduina over fields and olive groves. Dave, together with Jon Nunns and Graeme Houston flew high, below we could see Jorge Santos and several other balloon pilots cautiously flying just above the trees. Way ahead, the Slovakians and the Germans were already in the midst of the hills. We could see over the first hill to a wide valley and, with rain clouds gathering, we came in to land. Graeme followed shouting in an exuberant Scottish voice and then it was a race to pack away the balloons before the first spattering of rain turned into a deluge.

Through showers and brief bursts of sunshine we drove to Estremoz on the brink of the Alentejan plain. It's a town built of marble, surrounded by marble quarries and impossibly picturesque. The old medieval tower rises up above walls that never managed to keep the Moors from invading so that the old centre is a muddle of narrow streets and closed in secret, Moorish gardens. The vast, impressive square erected in honour of the Marques de Pombal was destined to stay empty of balloons that evening because of rain. The following morning, only Benoit, the Slovakians and one of the Portuguese pilots got away. They disappeared rapidly into low cloud rather like a very impressive magic trick staged by David Copperfield. Equally impressively the cloud evaporated as if by magic ten minutes later.

We drove through the sweeping plains of the Alentejo, dotted with cork trees and vivid green with wheat. It was countryside that Joop de Wilde approved of, fitting into his Dutch ideal of good ballooning country. Joop was writing the event up for his internet site but he had already decided to return next year with a balloon.

We drove past Evora, a walled city that rises like a dreamscape above the plain and on to Serpa arriving late and without any clear idea of where our hotel might be. Photographer, Tim Motion, asked the way in impecable Portuguese which might have been of help if only Portuguese directions didn't invariably amount to 'Over there' and 'It's not far', so we spent half an hour driving round and round the narrow streets within the old city walls. Eventually we tracked down the Casa da Morhalas embedded in the wall itself, a beautiful old house with the most comfortable rooms set around a courtyard filled with lemon trees. Dinner at the 'workers hall' was equally hard to find. We were eventually rounded up by Paulo who came looking for lost and straying balloonists and sheperded us to the hall where we were serenaded by the local male voice choir. The more they sang the more we applauded, we wouldn't let them go. The evening ended with Paulo and Manuel, Ana, Claudia, and all the boys and girls of Realizar linking arms and joining in - love songs from another age.

Almost everyone launched the next morning under a bright blue sky despite some gusts which swept through the site. It was obvious, as balloons disappeared like freight trains towards the east that at least one balloon would end up in Spain and of course they did. As usual, the Slovakians flew further and longer than anyone else, landing well inside the Spanish border. They dragged along the ground until a low wall providentially stopped the basket.

They weren't alone in crossing the border. John Hole was having an interesting time somewhere over Spain and his wife, Marilyn and crew Perce Muscutt, were having an equally interesting time tracking them down. They forded the river that runs between the two countries and, driving along a rough track with potholes almost as big as the Landrover, passed a piece of driftwood with 'Espagna' scrawled across it. The country was so wild that a genet ran across the road and brilliant blue-winged magpies swooped and dived in front of the vehicle. John had landed on a finca of several thousand acres. The Spanish farmer, in recognition of this feat, presented him with the a pair of bulls horns which tastefully decorated the front of the Landrover.

We drove on to the Algarve where the scenery changed once more. Now we were climbing through hills covered with umbrella pine and cistus bushes with their crinkled, white blooms already out. Then, before we had begun to look for it, we saw the sea. We drove through Castro Marim where we were scheduled to fly the following morning and on to Vila Real de S Antonio on the coast. But the following morning only Carlos flew, making a short hop under cloudy skies although several other balloons inflated and took the opportunity to vent off gas.

Tim and I drove a short way along the coast to Cacela, a cluster of cottages and a church overlooking a dozen fishing boats pulled up on the sand. We ate fish caught a couple of hours before in a simple cafe which is what, said Tim, the Algarve used to be like years ago when he lived there. It had been an epic event, but of course it wasn't quite over.

We drove out to a beautiful old farmstead, set in the Algarvian hills, where amidst dancers whizzing round like spinning tops to lilting Portuguese tunes, we bawled out ballooning stories between mouthfuls of barbecued game hen. Karol Slabak for the Slovakian team won the trophy for flying further than anyone else, which was greeted with huge applause. By the end of the evening, every table was decorated with pretty little trophies. Manuel Vaz and Paulo Pereira had done it again.

Home page