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Austria: Around the Alps in 7 days

By Eleni Berger

Filzmoos hosts the International Flaga Hot-Air Balloon Week every winter.
Filzmoos hosts the International Flaga Hot-Air Balloon Week every winter.

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(CNN) -- For one week every winter, the skies above the tiny mountain hamlet of Filzmoos, Austria, come alive with color and the ground teems with tourists.

The village, tucked into the Alps about 45 miles southeast of Salzburg, hosts a winter activity not found in the typical mountain resort: an international hot air balloon competition and festival.

"Ballooning in winter is really something special," says Eva Salchegger, director of the Filzmoos Tourist Board. "The thermals are very good. In summer, it's almost too dangerous in the mountains and can only be done very rarely."

Filzmoos, she says, is known as the ballooning capital of Austria.

"In the last 10 years, a few more places have started holding winter ballooning gatherings," Salchegger says, but prior to that, "Filzmoos was practically the only place."

This year's festival, which began Saturday and runs through next Saturday, will see 38 balloonists from 10 countries -- mainly Austria, Germany and other northern European countries -- compete in contests such as long-distance flying, destination races and fly-ins.

"The balloon race in Filzmoos is probably one of the most sought-after ballooning events in the sport today," says Nancy Thomas, the lone American among this year's competitors. Thomas has competed in other European races, but this is her first time flying in Filzmoos.

As many as 8,000 people come to Filzmoos for the highlight of the festival, the
As many as 8,000 people come to Filzmoos for the highlight of the festival, the "Night of the Balloons."

Filzmoos, a one-time mining village of just 1,350 people, has been hosting the festival since 1978.

"Ten balloons participated in the first Balloon Week and the competition was quite serious, with very strict rules," Salchegger says. "But for the last 15 years or so, the competition hasn't been as strict. ... The balloonists don't have to take part in the contests; they can decide whether to compete or just fly for fun."

Thomas, a FedEx pilot based in Paris, says that aspect is part of the enjoyment of the Filzmoos event. "Who wins and who doesn't pales in importance to the experience of flying in the amazingly beautiful valley."

The alpine setting has another draw, too.

"Mountain flying is a bit more challenging," Thomas says, noting that pilots have to carefully study current weather conditions and forecasts, as well as the micro-climates of the departure and landing sites, and topographical features that could affect air currents. "However, the colder the air, the better the balloon flies because the air is so much denser and it requires less fuel to stay aloft."

Another bonus: Because the air warms later in the day, pilots don't have to get up before dawn to avoid encountering dangerous thermal currents. It's "much more civilized than the summer events," Thomas says, which require 6 a.m. briefing times.

The combination of cozy atmosphere and cool competition is a lure for tourists as well as balloonists.

Balloon teams from 10 countries are competing in this year's events.
Balloon teams from 10 countries are competing in this year's events.

About 3,500 guests, mostly from the surrounding region, stay in town for the week, Salchegger says, while 8,000 gather for the highlight of the festival, the "Night of the Balloons," during which competition vehicles are inflated and tethered in the center of town.

Races and competitions are held every morning, with several hundred people typically looking on.

"Filzmoos is especially nice as the competitors are all very skilled mountain fliers, exceptionally good sportsmen and -women, very nice and great fun to party with in the evenings after a day of flying together," Thomas says.

Visitors who get bitten by the ballooning bug can arrange a flight with the local tour company, Dachstein Tauern Balloons. An hour-long flight costs about $260 per person (255 euros). Warm clothing is, of course, recommended.

Those who prefer to keep their feet on terra firma can enjoy downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, hiking along cleared footpaths, sleigh rides and sledding.

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