Up, up and away

In 1979, a small alpine village hosted its first hot air balloon festival, thanks to the support of a resident Hollywood actor. It grew to become the largest event of its kind in the world.

Château-d’Œx is situated between Gstaad and Gruyères in the Vaud Canton of Switzerland. Like many of the surrounding villages of the region, this peaceful destination offers mountain biking and hiking in the summer, and ice skating and skiing in the winter. However, there is something about this picturesque town with a population of just 3,500 that makes it rather special during the month of January.

For more than 40 years, Château-d’Œx has hosted the International Festival of Balloons, welcoming 35,000 spectators to a 9-day-event that features competitions, film screenings, keynote speeches, demonstrations and air shows. And of course, for those of us who would like to experience the magnificent landscape from above (and find wingsuit flying a little too extreme!), there are many opportunities for visitors to climb aboard for an unforgettable balloon ride. 

A special exhibition space in the town center also invites guests to learn about the history of hot air ballooning, while revisiting the story of the world’s first nonstop balloon circumnavigation of the planet, launched from this very spot in 1999!

However, you could say that the connection between Château-d’Œx and the hot air balloon all started somewhat earlier, with an iconic scene from the 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days. Phileas Fogg, famously played by David Niven, is seen floating over the Swiss Alps in a hot air balloon, as his companion swiftly scoops up a pile of fresh alpine snow in order to chill the champagne on board. Perhaps it was in this moment that the British actor fell in love with the region, leading him to purchase a magnificent timbered chalet a few years later, which would host glamorous guests such as Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. Although he passed away in 1983, David Niven’s connection to the village and the festival is still alive today, with the ‘David Niven trophy’ awarded every year to the winner of the long distance competition.

This year the festival will be taking place from the 21st until the 29th of January, and after a 2 year Covid hiatus, a packed schedule of family-friendly activities look set to make up for the absence. The sight of dozens of hot air balloons in every colour taking flight against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains is a breathtaking scene, and certainly one worth adding to your list of reasons to love Switzerland.

Photo credits:
© Chris Berger Photography
© Laurine Mottet