Sunday, November 29, 2015

Volunteering at a vineyard for a day

My fellow volunteers snipping the vines.

I've always wanted to own a little hobby vineyard where I make my own wine and maybe have a little wine cafe that's open only on the weekends.  Yes, I'm a bit of dreamer, but you never know...perhaps one day.

In the meantime, I'm gathering information about winemaking and having tons of fun along the way.  This weekend I had the chance to help out Swiss vine owner and winemaker, Alain Chollet.

His winery and vineyard is located in Grandvaux area about 10 minutes away from Lausanne by train. With the harvest season complete in October, he needed a few volunteers to help him trim the branches off the vines and get them ready for winter.

There were four of us volunteering in total (the other 3 came from Geneva) and the work was hard, but rewarding.  Basically all we had to do is snip off all the branches on each vine stock except for the main one.  It sounds easy, but after 8 hours of snipping, I had blisters on my thumb and fingers, and my back was a little sore from the bending up and down.  But, I would do it again in a second and have already asked to on the volunteer list next time around.

Alain was the best boss and the best teacher of what to do with the vines. When I started, I was worried I was going to snip the wrong bits off and kill his plants, but he showed me exactly what to do and gave us hints on which way to work the vines to reduce the amount of work on our backs.

Here's a hint: The vines are planted on steep hills so working your way up hill is definitely easier.

During the lunch break, he gave us a tour of his cellar where we tasted three of the wines that were currently being fermented.  It was my first time trying something that was still in between the juice and wine stage, but you could already get a sense of how the wine would progress when mature.

He told us the vineyard had been with his family for generations and he said that in Switzerland, they are very strict with what you can grow.  Chasselas is the most common grape of the area and a certain percentage of your vineyard has to be that (if the vines are already there).  Alain's vineyard also had a little bit of Chardonnay (which his grandfather planted) and some red varieties like Pinot Noir. He was experimenting with a red blend that was pretty good.

We worked from 9:00 am until 4:30 pm when the sun was starting to set.  It was a hard day, but a nice way to get to know the wine and the wine maker. We also got paid in wine, which was fantastic.

Alain does have volunteer weekends three times a year: Spring, harvest and winter prep. He also holds special wine events in the cellar throughout the year so those of you who would rather drink the wine rather than work for it.

You can find out more information about these and how to volunteer on his website:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Weekend in Paris

Notre Dame in Paris
While I may be living in Europe, I am still very much a tourist in that everything is new to me -- and I take a lot of photos of things people who have been living there all their lives take for granted.

But I'm adjusting...slowly. And one of the things that I'm adjusting to is taking the time to see only a few things with every visit.

Photo bombing a couple getting their wedding photos done outside the Notre Dame.
What I mean is that in the past when I went to Paris or London or any city, I was on a mission to see everything in one day and I mean everything.

I would see all the tourist attractions, visit the galleries, eat the local food the guide books say you "must" eat and take a couple hundred photos.  I may have seen everything, but I never really "experienced" it.

Rose window inside the Notre Dame in Paris

In the last 9 months, I've been to Paris four times.  Each time just for a weekend to meet a friend as I can often find return flights from Geneva on Easy Jet for less than $140.  

These little trips are different from how I used to see a city. First of all, because now I've been often and am starting to know the neighborhoods, my friend and I usually book an apartment on AirBnB rather than stay in a hotel.  This makes it a lot cheaper.  And secondly, the things I do there are different.

Enjoying a glass of wine at midnight in a Paris cafe in the Marais neighborhood 
Last month, I met a friend there to do the Defi Run  - a 5km obstacle course (see Defi-Run website here).  We booked an Air BnB place by the Picasso Museum that was $100 a night and walking distance to a lot of little cafes, coffee shops, a great shopping area (where we found an art gallery showing a Star Wars exhibit) and the Notre Dame.

The listing for the apartment can be found here, and it was located on Rue Sainte-Anatase. And if you are interested, the Star Wars themed exhibit was at Galerie Sakura located on rue du Bourg (visit their website - It was pretty cool.

Chocolate bread -It's not a trip to Paris without it.
The perks of staying in a neighborhood rather than a hotel is that in many European cities, you'll find a local bakery close by. Plus,  when staying in someone's flat, you'll have access to a fridge and eating area.

This doesn't sound like a big deal, but knowing that you can have fresh chocolate bread in the morning (I like this bread more than croissants), and have a place to store your baquettes and cheese when in Paris, is a perk.

You not only save money on breakfast, but sometimes it's nice to relax and watch people from the patio of your own place rather than going out all the time.

Star Wars art exhibit

Because we were so close to the Notre Dame on this trip, we decided to drop in and see it in the evening when the organ was playing.  I hadn't been inside the cathedral in nearly 10 years and had forgotten how amazing the architecture and the stained glass window is.

I had been there a couple times over the years, but it always seemed I was in a rush -- or exhausted after a day of running around the city.  It was also nice to just wander in rather than scheduling it.

Column inside the Notre Dame in Paris

Next time who knows what I'll see when I go to Paris. It will all depend on which little AirBnB apartment I end up renting and which neighborhood it's located in.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Did someone say Gruyere?

The mountains were hidden by the clouds that day in Gruyere

The longer I'm in Switzerland, the better I'm getting at being a tour guide for guests. Sorry my peeps who visited me in June and July -- I knew nothing and you got a lame vacation.  Now I'm ready to entertain.

So when Taylor Timmins, one of my co-workers from my KHOU days in Houston, called and said she was in Lausanne for just an afternoon, I knew exactly where to take her to see all things "Swiss" in a day and that magical place was Gruyère.

Swiss cows...they are everywhere. Not just in Gruyere - although this one was.

In Gruyère  you can see the place where they make Gruyere cheese and you can visit the Maison Cailler chocolate factory (see the Gruyère website). Seeing both in one afternoon is too much for a stomach to handle, so we opted for the cheese.

Why the cows in Gruyere have to wear flowers, we don't know.
When going to Gruyère  there are a number of trains to choose from -- depending on when you are leaving. There is the chocolate train, the panoramic train and the "La Gruyère" Retro Train, which is also known as the Fondue Train. We took that one.

Taylor and Jennifer being tourists on the Retro Train.
The train is done up in retro from days gone by, but we didn't get fondue as we were saving that for the cheese factory. We did order some wine though to celebrate seeing each other as it had been 8 years since I had been in Houston (can't believe it has been that long).  It's amazing how time flies, but seem like nothing when you meet up with friends again.

The entrance to the village.

We arrived at the factory at 2 pm (Taylor and her co-worker Jennifer - who was an instant long lost friend - had to work in the morning so we had a noon start) and the cheese factory was just closing for the day.

What I like about Swiss people is that they don't try to sell you crap.  We asked if the museum was worth it without the Gruyere factory tour, and she told us no, not really. Really love the honesty. Why pay money for something not worth seeing?

Stack of cheese.
But the good new was that the restaurant was open and we could enjoy fondue if we wanted. Yay!! Mission accomplished.

Fondue with potatoes and bread. The potatoes with fondue are the best idea ever. Only the Swiss would think of this.

When in Gruyère, in addition to the cheese and chocolate, there are a few things to do.

First of all, you need to visit the town.  It's very old-style Swiss with the Medieval stone wall still surrounding it and everything.  You have to walk up a big hill to get to the town (I've learned big hills are normal in Switzerland and my butt and legs have learned to accommodate these over the months I've been here), but once you are in, it's flat and enjoyable.

Can't believe this is an entrance to a public toilet. So nice with the leaves!

Inside the walls, you'll find a bunch of little tourist shops, a few nice chocolate place, the palace and my personal favorite -- the Alien Bar.

This place is bizarre (and really crowded so go early if you want to get a seat).  It's tiny inside and not Medieval like the rest of the village at all (go to his website - -- and be amazed as I didn't take photos.).

It's actually called the H.R. Giger Museum Bar but everyone calls it the Alien Bar as H.R. Giger was the artist who designed the set for the Alien movies.  So the entire interior is based on this theme. It's very cool and worth visiting. It's like entering a different world.

Celebrating new and old friendships.

The day was quick, but wonderful. Thanks Taylor and Jennifer for letting me show you around!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The underground lake of St. Leonard

There are some interesting things in Switzerland that I had no idea existed -- such as the underground lake of St. Leonard.

The lake is located between Sion and Sierre in the heart of the Swiss Alps.  It's about 300 meters long -- which doesn't sound very big, but it is the largest natural underground lake in Europe so I guess it's big enough.

If you visit it, you can take a little boat ride across the lake and back.  It's surprisingly clean smelling. Considering you are underground and surrounded by water, it doesn't smell like a musty cave. The air actually smells fresh.

There is also trout in the lake.  My French is not excellent (it sucks), so I'm not sure if they put the trout in there to monitor the acid in the water to make sure it's still healthy or if the trout are naturally there. Whatever the case, they are there and they look happy swimming around -- so the water must be clean.

And to make this cave even more interesting, there is this -- because the acoustics are so fantastic in the cave, they sometimes have concerts in there.

The entire boat ride only takes about 30 minutes, but if you are already in Sion for other reasons, it's worth dropping in to check it out.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Not quite sure about Ibiza

Ibiza old town on the port

I currently have two friends who have been traveling the world for the last two years.  Every once and a while, I get a Facebook message from them saying they will be in the area -- and if I want to join them for dinner or a weekend of adventure.

Most of the time "in the area" does not mean in Lausanne (where I currently live) or even in Switzerland.  It usually means they are in Paris or Istanbul or in this case, Ibiza.

Ibiza has been a mystery for me....and after going, I'm not sure I liked it.  My party friends love it, but then my 40 year old chill-axing wine and foodie friends hate it.  I think I might in between - or maybe I need to go again, now that I know what it's all about to give it a second try.

Pool at night at the Hard Rock Ibiza

But I did like the hotel I stayed at.

I wasn't sure where to stay as most places on Expedia were crappy 2 star hotels. Yes, I'm spoiled and like to stay at nice places - even if the nice place is on AirBnB (I've stayed at some amazing places through that site).

But then I saw that a Hard Rock had just opened - and it had it had a swim up pool to the room (see the Hard Rock Ibiza website).  I've never stayed in a place that had that, so I had to splurge and do it.

My world traveler buddy (who usually stays in hostels or on a towel on the beach), was not amused at the cost but agreed to pay half for the suite to humor me.

The swim up pool to your room. Impossible to catch those chairs when they float away.
Frankly, I loved the room. From the purple neon lights around the beds (you could pick your neon color of choice), to the floaty lounges at the pool outside the room -- it was all perfect.

The one flaw with the floaty things is that they were heavy and when I was trying to maneuver it, mine floated away down the river towards the swim-up bar. Very sad face for me...but lots of humor to my buddy and our neighbors who watched me struggle to try to get it back on the deck.  I finally had to give up and set it free.

Little streets in Ibiza old town - my favorite part

What I'm not sure about is the night life -- or the maybe it's just the techno drug scene. Ibiza is famous for all-night clubbing with techno and DJ music.  So you can see David Guetta (who I love), Pacha, Amnesia, Privilege DC-10, etc. The thing is they don't go on until 2am -- and if you know me, I'm a morning runner who would rather be up and running along the beach at sunrise in my zen zone than coming home from a club at that time.

Or maybe I'm just too healthy for this scene...or too old...or both.

But maybe if I'm prepared for these late nights in the future, I could swing it and see a DJ that late. Maybe....although I still think running the beach at sunrise would be more fun.  Man...I might be too healthy and too old.

Anyway....the island of Ibiza is interesting. It's really popular even thought the beaches aren't that nice, the hotels (except for the one I stayed in) aren't that nice and the food during the day is awful.  However, the clubs are amazing -- so it's a little like Vegas without any of the poshness or shopping.

But, there are some things those of us who are more of the good food and wine type can enjoy...and that is Ibiza old town.

This section of the island is adorable and I would have no problem hanging out there until 2 am.  It's full of tiny restaurants (lots of good tapas) and little dive bars.  The streets are narrow, filled with people and the vibe is great.

I really loved this part of the island and would go back just for that. Good conversation and laughs with a good friend over little plates of food...what could be more perfect?