A Hot Air Balloon Journey at Sunrise over the Rhine River Valley, Germany

Story by Theresa Catena
Photography by Paul Aizaga

Though waking up long before sunrise while on holiday in Europe sounds downright foolish, the lure of a hot air balloon ride over the Rhine River Valley in Germany is undeniably worth the effort. The oldest passenger-carrying flight technology, hot air balloon travel was established in 1783 where the first successful voyage was ignited in Paris. Beginning our pre-dawn adventure in Strasbourg, Germany, our minivan ride snaked along very dark, single-lane country roads until we reached a vacant and seemingly boundary-less meadow, where we waited with our driver in the eerie stillness of the morning. A second set of truck lights flooded the far corner of the field as an immaculate, vintage 1950’s canary-yellow jeep towing a matching trailer pulled up nearby. Trekking across the dew-covered grass, we met up with our Ballooning 2000 chief pilot, Rainer Keitel, and his cohorts to help assemble the gondola and yellow balloon emblazoned with a Warsteiner beer logo.

Intensely bright, random explosions of roaring flames slowly inflated the balloon with seven tons of air, expanding it to tremendous proportions. With the sky turning from gray to blue, and glimmering rays of reddish sunlight peeking over the Black Forest mountaintops, we hopped into the gondola. Within minutes, and without any warning, the wind swept us off the ground toward the rising sun. A patchwork of countless green hues, the Rhine River Valley is an enthralling landscape dotted with sprawling farms, clusters of half-timbered-house villages and small patches of dense forest trees. From time to time, and as Rainer skillfully managed the bursts of fire above, we’d catch a glimpse of the tiny truck and trailer below as it chased us along the winding roadways.

Ninety minutes of intrigue and tranquility passed a bit too quickly, but fortunately the fun wasn’t over when we landed roadside, adjacent to another empty field. With the balloon deflated and stretched across the pavement, a few motorists waited patiently as we helped to roll it up and stow it back in the trailer. Still captivated by the experience, we headed to the outfit’s headquarters in Baden-Baden, where a lavish morning picnic peppered with local delicacies was laid out for us. There we discussed the varied destinations they regularly explore, from piloting over the Swiss Alps to navigating the Sahara dessert – not to mention unconventional wedding ceremonies, where they can take to the skies with up to 100 guests.

Lastly, a ballooning ritual followed our meal where our heads were lightly doused with champagne – all in the name of obtaining an official flight certificate. While sipping a departing glass of bubbly, only two questions remained; where and when to take the next hot air balloon ride.