|Where to Stay||Sightseeing|
Balloon rides aren't just a luxury for well-heeled sightseeers. In Paris, the offers 10-minute rides to an altitude of 150 meters, or about 500 feet, for only €14. (That's for an adult ticket; children from 3 to 11 pay €7, and kids under 3 years of age are free.)
The balloon is at the Parc André Citroën in the 15th arrondissement, on the left bank of the Seine within leisurely walking distance of the Eiffel Tower.
It's a tethered or captive gas balloon, making it a spiritual descendant of "l'Entreprenant" ("The Enterprising"), a hydrogen balloon that the French Army used as the world's first aerial military observation post in 1794.
Captive sightseeing balloons have a long and honorable tradition: From 1884 to 1899, the Frenchman Louis Godard operated captive balloons around the world, from Paris to Chicago to Buenos Aires.
In Paris alone, one ballon did 1564 ascents over Trocadero and carried 19,194 passengers over a 161-day period; later, in 1895. another of M. Godard's balloons operated for 110 days at the Champ de Mars (near what is now the site of the Eiffel Tower).
The present-day tethered Parisian balloon began service in 1999, when an insurance company sponsored the balloon and offered free rides to Parisian children during pre-Millennium celebrations.
The balloon then went into storage for several years until it acquired a sponsor. It was relaunched as the Eutelsat Balloon in 2004; more recently, it was renamed "Ballon de Paris" and is currently sponsored by Generali France.
The Aerophile balloon used by Ballon de Paris is claimed to be the largest balloon design in the world, measuring 22 meters or 72 feet in diameter. Its fabric envelope is held within a net formed by 9,000 knots, and the balloon is tethered to the ground by a winch-controlled cable.
The balloon's spherical shape is preserved by a fan that blows air into a "balloonet" underneath the helium-filled envelope. The round profile minimizes the effects of wind as the helium expands and contracts with changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature.
The current balloon, which was introduced in spring of 2008, also serves as an air-quality indicator: Its color changes from green to orange, depending on pollution levels.
The aluminum gondola or basket is designed to hold 30 adult or 60 adult passengers, with an overload capacity of 1.5. (The 150-meter tethering cable can resist up to 44 tons of traction, even though the balloon pulls a maximum of 3 tons.)
If electricity fails, the balloon can be reeled in with a backup diesel winch.
The Ballon de Paris is in the Parc André Citroën, a few blocks from the Balard station on the Paris Métro.
(Take the Métro in the direction of Balard, which is at the end of Line 8.) Signs will direct you to the park.
If you're coming from the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d'Orsay, St-Michel, or other neighborhoods on the Seine, take RER Line C along the Left Bank toward Versailles Rive Gauche or St-Quentin-en Yveline and get off at the Boulevard Victor-Pont RER station. The park is hard to miss--just look for the balloon.
The balloon normally offers 10-minute rides from 9 a.m. until 30 minutes before the park closes, but the schedule sometimes changes, and rides may be cancelled for a day or two at a time because of windy weather.
(For aerodynamic reasons, the balloon's capacity drops as the wind increases, and rides are cancelled when anticipated winds or gusts exceed 35 km/h or about 20 mph.)
For up-to-the-minute visitor information, check ballondeparis.com or call 01 44 26 20 00. You'll also find practical advice in the photo captions below.
The Ballon de Paris tethered balloon peeks over a waterfall in the Parc André Citroën.
Between 10-minute rides, the balloon's gondola or basket rests on a paved circle in the middle of the park.
The ring-shaped gondola has a maximum capacity of 30 adults or 60 children on a windless day.
During our most recent visit on a weekday, fewer than a dozen people were on board.
The ticket office is a few steps from the launch area, facing the balloon.
Go inside to buy tickets, view the exhibits, and browse the small gift shop.
(Looking for a bargain? For a euro or two, you can purchase a small bilingual book, Aerophile: The history and technology of the large tethered balloons, which is packed with color illustrations and technical data. The booklet was out of stock during our most recent visit, but maybe you'll get lucky.)
After you've bought your ticket, you'll go to a waiting area near the balloon.
When it's time to board, you'll step into the gondola, which is enclosed by nets to keep passengers from falling or jumping.
The balloon has a pilot. In this photo, he's getting ready to launch the balloon by using an electronic control panel.
The ascent is gentle and almost silent. It's also surprisingly quick: You'll see the ticket office and launch pad recede as the balloon climbs to its maximum altitude of 150 meters or nearly 500 feet.
As the balloon continues climbing, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the Seine and the Port de Javel-bas, where river cruisers (such as the Viking Pride, shown above) depart for Normandy every week from through fall.
Here, you can see the rooftops of Paris and the skyscrapers of La Défense.
Take your eyes off the Eiffel Tower, and you'll see the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur atop the Butte of Montmartre on a clear day.
Take a moment to sample the view from the gondola's central opening, where you can look down on the Parc André Citroën.
In this photo, the balloon is reflected in a park pond.
The Ballon de Paris casts a large shadow, as you can see in this picture from ground level.
Toward the end of your 10-minute ride, a winch will haul the tethered balloon from 150 meters of altitude to ground level.
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