A hot air balloon ride is often on peoples’ bucket lists when they travel to France. I took a flight in the Loire Valley back in 2011. But once is not enough and I did it again during my last trip. Was the hot air balloon in the Dordogne-Périgord better than the one in the Loire Valley? It was just as wonderful but a totally different experience.
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Booking A Ride In A Hot Air Balloon In The Dordogne
Last June I stayed in Beynac-et-Cazenac for a week in a great apartment located in the centre of town. It is in the Dordogne, which is part of the Aquitaine region. I decided to contact the company with the best ratings for running hot air balloon flights, Montgolfières et Châteaux. I gave the representative at the company my availability (ie. days and times) as flights are weather dependent. If the winds are too strong (or non-existent), there might not be any flights. They can’t really confirm until the day of your flight and even so, it might be cancelled when you arrive.
Arranging The Flight
When I was contacted I was given all the details: what to wear (comfortable clothes and flat shoes), what to bring (a camera, of course), information about the flight, and where to meet. The typical duration of the flight is one hour, but this is dependent on the weather conditions and where they can find a landing area. Time is also needed to set up and pack up the balloon, so the entire excursion is about 3 hours.
Fortunately, the meeting place was in the main parking lot in Beynac so it was really convenient for me. I arrived at 7 pm with 200 € cash and joined my fellow passengers. There were 7 passengers and 1 pilot, Mathieu, an experienced balloonist with hundreds of hours of flight. He also spoke excellent English. The ground crew accompanied us to the launch site, not far from our meeting point, which was in a field.
Preparing For Lift-Off
While I did want to get photos of other balloons around us as I had in the Loire Valley, this wasn’t possible. There simply weren’t any other hot air balloons that were scheduled to lift off. Those operators had chosen other fields and we saw their balloons once we were in the air.
The magic begins well before you lift off. Before Mathieu and his team unpacked the balloon and basket from the trailer, he and his partner released a few small balloons in the air. This was to check the air currents and direction of the winds.
When he felt that all was good, we had a safety briefing and were given instructions as to what would take place and how to get into the basket. We locked up our bags and purses in the truck as these items would have added weight to the basket. Our assistance was required to help unload the equipment and inflate the balloon. If you aren’t up to something physical, I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem. Your help is encouraged but not mandatory.
Inflating The Balloon
Once the basket and balloon are unpacked, a fan is positioned to inflate the balloon. It happens relatively quickly and when it is almost filled, the propane tank turns on the burner flame. This is when the air heats up and quickly becomes ready to take on the passengers. [Remember your science lesson: heat rises? Technically speaking, however, when the air inside the balloon is heated, it becomes lighter than the outside air. This allows it to rise].
There is a quick scramble to climb into the basket, which could hold up to 10 people. Liftoff is smooth and surprisingly quiet, except when the pilot turns on the burner flame. It’s a blast of fire into the balloon which allows us to go higher. The direction of the balloon? It’s all up to the air currents and how the pilot maneuvers us through the winds.
The Hot Air Balloon Flight
Mathieu also brought the balloon down so close to the river that we could have touched it and hooked one of those fish! He made the balloon rise and descend and smoothly sail through the air, providing us with the breathtaking views of the landscape filled with green pastures, quaint villages, picturesque gardens, and famous châteaux. At one point we got so close to a private château (Château de Fayrac) that you felt you could have joined their cocktail party that they were having on their terrace.
Here’s how quiet (and loud) the ride can be. It really only gets noisy when the pilot turns on the burner.
The Dordogne is renowned for having some of the most beautiful castles and gardens in France and during our flight, we certainly saw a high concentration of them surrounding the Dordogne river:
- Château de Beynac
- Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle
- Château des Milandes
- Château de Fayrac
- Jardins de Marqueyssac
- Village of Lacoste
- Villages that have been designated “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”: Beynac-et-Cazenac, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, and La Roque Gageac
This differed from my hot air balloon ride in the Loire Valley. Our launch was near Château Royale d’Amboise, but we did not see any other famous chateaux, like Château de Chenonceaux, Chambord, or Blois. We did see private châteaux far away but not the ones I really wanted to see. Perhaps if I had booked a different company or chosen a different “flight”, I might have seen some of those famous fairy tale castles.
My advice would be: when choosing to do a hot air balloon ride, check what castles you are will see. Nothing is guaranteed as everything is dependent on the weather; however, usually, reviews can tell you how frequently the operator has been able to get the passengers close to certain châteaux.
When I did this hot air balloon ride in the Dordogne it was late June and while we lifted off a bit later than usual (8:30 pm), it didn’t start to get dark until 9:30 pm when we landed. Mathieu and his team communicated with one another to determine where to land. He found a perfect spot on the open grounds of a château-hotel. When landing, we were advised to hold onto the sides of the basket and crouch down. It was all for our safety. We had a “soft” landing and the basket did not tip over. A successful landing for sure!
When we landed, we helped pack up the equipment into the trailer that met up with us and then we toasted to a great flight….celebrating with beer, cider, and walnuts. The hot air balloon flights can take place at sunrise or near sunset and in the winter I understand flights can take place during the day.
Consider adding a flight in a hot air balloon in the Dordogne-Périgord to your bucket list. It will be worth it!
- Hot air balloon operator that I booked: http://www.montgolfiere-chateaux.com/
- Cost: 200 €
- Duration in the air: 1 hour (but can go to 90 minutes depending on the weather)
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