Day 9: Auvergne/Geneva
When we planned our epic drive across France to reach the Alps, we decided to forego chateaus and wineries (see yesterday) in exchange for today’s main event — a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Auvergne Volcanoes Regional Park, which is located in the Chaine des Puys region of Massif Central in central France.
Waking up before dawn, we gathered with our fellow travelers, the pilots, and a very friendly Saint Bernard at 6am. We were happily surprised with cappuccinos and madeleines before lift off. We followed along as best as possible since the pilots didn’t speak much English. However, we did have a few people in our group who kindly translated the key information for us.
We lent the pilots a hand during the set up process, including getting the basket off the truck, unrolling and untying the balloon, and filling the envelope with air. Then the pilot fired up the burners to create a 160-degree difference between the air in the envelope and the ambient temperature, which was about 50 degrees. Here’s a video of the balloon prep: Video
After the balloon rolled to its upright position, we climbed into the basket and were ready to fly. Turns out hot air balloon rides are surprisingly smooth and don’t give us the same butterflies we might get on ledges, such as a 15-foot city wall in Port Louis. And since you are generally moving with the mild wind, it is quite peaceful and quiet. After rising up over Lac Chambon, we floated by the Chateau de Murol.
From our view above, the area consists of cones and craters from volcanoes that erupted between 7,000 and 100,000 years ago. Over time, the area has eroded, leaving exposed granite and basalt. Volcanic ash acts as a fertilizer, which allows the land to be covered in grass. Today, the area mostly consists of farms.
As the flight descended, our recovery truck was following nearby to retrieve the balloon after the wind and the pilot came to an agreement on the location. We braced for landing as instructed, but the impact wasn’t nearly as bad as they made it sound.
We landed in the front yard of a house next to a field. When the the lady who lived there drove up, she just cut around us on the grass because we were in her driveway. Completely unfazed by a giant balloon in her yard. We helped pack up the balloon much like a giant sleeping bag. Is it worth pondering that eight other random people helped pack up our balloon before we rode it? Nah.
We finished loading up the balloon and were driven back to Lac Chambon. We were treated with a super official flight certificate and fun paper lantern hot air balloons.
Having completed our hot-air ballooning mission in Auvergne, we walked back to the hotel to gather our bags and complete the last three hours of our drive to Geneva. We skipped the hotel buffet and the local cafes because we liked the options at the surprisingly nice freeway rest stops here in France. So long Auvergne… which based on our impressions, is pretty much the Wisconsin Dells of France.
By mid-afternoon, we crossed the border into Switzerland and found our hotel in downtown Geneva. Geneva is not the easiest city to drive through — back in the land of idiot motorcyclists and one-way streets that don’t appear to have much rhyme or reason. We finally parked in a nearby garage and checked into the hotel. Upon arrival, we were given free passes to use on public transportation and were told that we probably parked in the wrong place. Not wanting to venture out in the traffic again just to re-park, we decided to avoid the problem altogether and just take the car back to the airport a day early, and use the train passes tomorrow instead.
So, returning the car at the airport is easy, right? Well… about that. Geneva airport is located in Switzerland (mostly), but has a section that is legally in France. When we picked up the car in Paris and they upgraded us to a Mercedes, we agreed to drop it off on the French side to avoid a 400 euro fee.
To do this, we essentially had to cross the border back out of Switzerland and take a very hidden turn onto a road that enters the airport from France. A helpful Europcar agent in Geneva gave us the information we needed to complete this crazy maneuver and it all worked out. In retrospect, we could have probably avoided driving into Switzerland altogether, but hey, it was an adventure. Also, we will miss you, Mercedes.
We walked through the airport — passing a border checkpoint back into Switzerland — and found the train station with ease. The directions weren’t explicitly clear which line to take because it’s more like Metra than the El, but with help from some friendly passengers, we made it back to the city center and our hotel.
We spent most of the night relaxing and catching up on the blog. We did venture out for some food and to see the Jet d’Eau in Lake Geneva (aka. The Buckingham Fountain of Lake Geneva).
Tomorrow we can actually sleep in so we are pretty excited about that. Then our crazy biking tour begins. Wish us luck!