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Blown Away in the Dordogne Valley

balloons in dordogne

“Blown Away” is a winning entry in The Good Life France 2014 Writing Competition. The judges loved the great pace and visual descriptions in the story…

The sky was empty.  Abandoned carousels of postcards creaked in the breeze. Crumpled serviettes tumbled down the cobbles like something out of a Spaghetti Western.  A few chilled tourists huddled around cafe tables sipping steaming cups of coffee.  A lone Citroën van sped past, towing a small trailer with a picture of Obelix on the side.

“Where are the balloons?”
“Les Montgolfières?” shrugged a waiter.  “C’est fini, Madame.”
“But it’s only ten o’clock.”

Posters all over the Dordogne Valley proclaimed we must not miss the Rocamadour Balloon Festival.   We’d planned carefully to get there before the crowds.  We thought it would last all day.

We’ve been to Rocamadour many times, taking in the stunning views from its perch on the cliffs overlooking the lazy river Alzou.   We’ve climbed its 216 pilgrim steps and toured its Saint Sauveur Basilica.  We’ve visited the Black Madonna in the Chapel of Miracles, and breathed its one thousand years of history.  But we’ve never managed to be there for its hot-air balloon festival:  Les Montgolfiades de Rocamadour.

So a year later we’re back.  Up before dawn on the last day of our holiday, we hurry along the winding road, eyes peeled for a glimpse of colour in the early morning skies.  Nothing.  Are we too late again?

The road rounds a hill and doubles back toward the village.  We quickly pull in and park.  Below us, on the floor of the Alzou Canyon, trailers and technicians scurry around a dazzling multi-coloured carpet.  They’re preparing dozens of balloons: some already peeking above the trees, some slowly heaving themselves from the grassy meadows, some still being carefully unrolled.  We hastily unpack cameras, lenses, and tripods as the first globes lift into the light breeze.

Brilliant reds, yellows, oranges, and blues in all sizes and shapes float into the late September morning.  A cartoon duck chases giant harlequin eggs.  Gas jets hiss. Pilots call to each other and to crews on the ground.  In twos and threes the Montgolfières drift out of sight over Rocamadour Castle.  But something is still on the ground, obscured by trees.  What is it?

obelix balloon

From the depths of the canyon, like a giant awakening from a long sleep, Obelix unfolds himself from a grassy field.  He twists and bows to the crowds surrounding the valley, his red plaits fluttering in the wind.  Shrieking children run up to his basket clamouring to fly with the tethered Viking.  A lucky few are allowed on board.  He rises above the treetops before the crew deftly hauls him back to earth.  Excited children scamper back to their parents chattering about their thrilling adventure.

His ropes untied, Obelix takes a final bow, and with a roar of his jets, leaps into the air and sails after the other balloons.  The crowds wander off.  Obelix’s crew gathers equipment and stows cables and canisters into a trailer bearing his likeness.  They hitch it to a Citroën van and dash up the winding road, pursuing the fading figure down wind.  The spectacle is over.  It’s ten a.m.

“Are you coming back tomorrow?” asks a Dutch tourist, noticing the British number plates as we pack our cameras into the car.
“No, we’re leaving tomorrow.  Why?”
“That’s a shame,” he said.  “On Sunday, the festival lasts all day.”

Shelley Harrington is an American freelance writer based in England, who spends as much time as possible at her second home in France. When not writing and editing websites for small businesses and charities, she is working on a children’s picturebook and the Great American Novel.

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