Hot-air ballooning in ProvenceThe French word for a hot air balloon is a montgolfière. It is so named in honour of two visionary brothers from South-East France who built the first balloon to carry passengers in 1783. logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence

And today, just a stone's throw from its early roots, this low-carbon, highly pleasurable mode of transport is soaring again. Near the coast, hot air ballooning is rare because of the tricky combination of mountains, sea and unpredictable wind patterns. But a number of companies offer balloon trips in Haute-Provence.

Flights start early in the morning or late in the afternoon, depending on local weather conditions and generally last between an hour and 80 minutes, plus a celebratory glass of bubbles at the end.

These flights bring back hot air ballooning satisfyingly close to its original birthplace. While visiting Avignon, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, the son of a paper manufacturer in Annecy, noticed that paper rose in an updraft of hot air. Curious, he and his brother, Jacques-Etienne, built a box-like contraption of silk which they succeeded in making fly.

Fun fact about hot-air ballooning in ProvenceIf visiting Avignon, check out the iron rails on the upper floor windows of the house at 18 rue Saint-Etienne, where the Montgolfier brothers stayed when they were in town: they are decorated with balloon motifs.

The first "manned" flight took place in the good airship Aerostat Réveillon, which the brothers produced in collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, a wallpaper manufacturer.

Early hot-air balloon manufactured by the Montgolfier brothersThe balloon was sky blue and decorated with golden signs of the zodiac (a model, pictured, is on display at the Science Museum in London).

The passengers were a duck, a chicken and a sheep, named, the legend has it, Monteauciel, or Rise-to-the-Sky. As the gathered members of the French Science Academy and King Louis XVI looked on, the animals wafted through the air for a full eight minutes before landing unharmed. Rise-to-the-Sky spent the rest of his days in the royal zoo in recognition of his pioneering efforts.

After further experiments, on 21 November 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a physicist, and the Marquis D'Arlandes, a keen amateur parachutist, became the first men to fly an untethered balloon, keeping it aloft by feeding a fire in the middle of their basket.

Balloons soon became bigger and the flights more ambitious. Jean Pierre Blanchard, a Frenchman based in London, and his American co-pilot, John Jeffries, flew across the Channel from England to France in a hydrogen balloon.

Hot-air ballooning in ProvenceIn 1785, Rozier attempted the flight in the reverse direction - much more difficult because it goes against the prevailing winds - but died when his balloon, powered by an experimental mix of hot air and hydrogen, deflated and crashed.

This disaster signalled the downfall of popularity for hot air ballooning. However two more daring young Frenchmen were to make ballooning history once more time in Provence.

On 14 November 1886, Louis Capazza, 24, and Alphonse Fondère, 21, took off from the place Jean Jaurès in Marseille to make the first ever balloon crossing of the Mediterranean, landing in Appietto, Corsica, five and a half hours later.

Louis Capazza and Alphonse Fondere balloonists plaque in MarseilleToday their feat is celebrated on a very large plaque, pictured, on the place Jean Jaurès (at the corner of the rue Sibie), near the cours Julien in Marseille

Finally in the 1950s hot-air balloning took off again, thanks to the efforts of an American, Ed Yost, who developed a modified version of the montgolfière to transport small loads for the US Navy.

Powered by propane gas, Yost's balloon was a slightly different shape in order to facilitate inflation, and it had added safety features but it was closely based on the Montgolfier brothers' initial concept. When the Navy abandoned the project, Yost began selling his balloons as sporting equipment, and the rest is history.


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