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Living the high life

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17:06 CEST+02:00
Hot air balloons have almost become part of Stockholm's summer and autumn skyline. Charlotte West took to the skies, discovering great views and some strange ballooning traditions.

PICTURE GALLERY: LIVING THE HIGH LIFE

The most spectacular views in Stockholm are not from the City Hall Tower, the cliffs of Mosebacke or even the Kaknäs Tower, which long held the record as the tallest building in Scandinavia. The best way to get a bird's eye view of the city is from the basket of a hot air balloon.

Look up on any summer evening and you'll see a parade of colorful balloons dotting Stockholm's skyline. And although summer is winding down, it's not too late to try it for yourself, as ballooning season runs until the end of September.

Thomas Blockstrand of Scandinavian Balloons, one of the oldest operators in Europe, says Stockholm is an ideal city for ballooning as there are plenty of wide open spaces for takeoff and landing—something many other cities lack.

Thomas was our pilot for an excursion on a balmy August evening. The takeoff point for any given day isn't decided until right before launch, as it's subject to wind direction, weather conditions and airplane traffic. Stockholm's proximity to Bromma Airport, 10 km outside of the city centre, means that balloonists must communicate with air traffic control for permission to take off.

In our case, the meeting point was at a gas station in Bromma, where we congregated at 6pm. The first part of the journey was a ride across town in a cramped jeep to Gärdet in the northeastern corner of Stockholm. The large open meadow at the foot of Borgen, an 18th century wooden castle built as a summer palace for King Karl XIV Johan, is a popular takeoff spot among Stockholm's balloon enthusiasts. However, after deciding that the wind conditions were unsuitable, Thomas shuttled us further north to Lidingö, an island in Stockholm's inner archipelago.

The field looked like a patchwork quilt, covered with balloons in various states of inflation, as several operators prepared for flight. After a safety briefing and a trial run to leap into the basket, we stretched out the nylon shell, called the “envelope,” which is about 33 meters long when fully extended.

Thomas then attached the balloon to the wicker basket, which was tipped on its side, and partially inflated it with a portable fan while two of the passengers held up the opening. When the balloon was mostly blown up, he turned on the propane and the rest of us jumped into the basket as it started to right.

Before we knew it, we were flying. As lateral movement is determined by the whims of the wind, we drifted northwest over Solna, Danderyd and Kista Science Park, so we got only a cursory view of the Stockholm skyline. Given the right wind direction, however, balloon passengers can sometimes glide above the steeples of Gamla Stan.

We did get to see some impressive views of the waterways surrounding Lidingö. Stockholm loomed in the distance, and even Globen looked diminutive from the basket.

There was a sensation of standing still, as the balloon travels at the same speed as the wind. Since warmer air rises in cooler air, Thomas controlled the altitude and vertical speed of the balloon with the propane burners.

We were airborne for about 45 minutes before descending toward Barkarby Flygplats, a small airport for private aircraft northwest of Stockholm. After landing, we had to deflate the balloon and shove it back into a big cloth bag – not an easy task when you are talking about 2,000 square meters of fabric.

Once all of the equipment was packed up, Thomas introduced us to the ritual of anointment by champagne, a tradition that dates back to the invention of ballooning in the late 1700s, and dubbed all of us survivors with a new name (the Countess of Grönsta in my case).

The first unmanned hot air balloon was launched by two French brothers, the Montgolfiers, in 1783, and the first passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster. After the barnyard menagerie returned to earth unharmed, a manned balloon was launched two months later. There are several versions of the story, but rumor has it that hot air balloon pilots began to carry bottles of champagne to offer to the landowners whose fields they landed in.

We had survived the experience as unscathed as the animal pioneers that came before. Safely back on the ground and sipping some bubbly, it was easy to conclude that we were truly living the high life.

Charlotte West

Service info:

Hot air balloon season runs from the beginning of May until the end of September. Takeoff is normally a few hours before sunset and the actual launch site is not decided until the day of flight, subject to weather and wind conditions. Tickets with Scandinavian Balloons are SEK 1895 per person, and advance reservations are required.

Scandinavian Balloons AB

Telephone: 08-556 404 65

http://balloons-sweden.se/www.balloons-sweden.se

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