Travels & Traditions: Winter in the Lake Geneva Region - #402

BURT WOLF: Switzerland is divided into states called cantons. The canton that runs across the northern and eastern shores of Lake Geneva is known as the Canton of Vaud. The general area is known as the Lake Geneva region and it offers some of the best locations in Europe for a winter vacation.

During the late Sixties, I lived in this part of Switzerland and spent my vacations right here. The area has all the winter sports you’d expect and comfortable accommodations. What makes it special is that unlike many of Europe’s winter resorts that are designed for the rich and famous, most of the towns in Vaud are set up for families, or couples who are considering becoming families.

Ah, the thrill of true love, like a balloon it lifts you to new heights. And the Lake Geneva region is a perfect spot for balloonists or people who just want to take an amazing ride. The microclimate in the town of Chateau-d’Oex creates ideal flight conditions and has made it a world center for ballooning. Each year during the last week of January, hot air balloonists from all over the world come to Chateau-d’Oex. Over 80 balloons from 15 different countries take part in a week of mountain ballooning, and 60,000 spectators come to watch.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Hot air ballooning was introduced during the late 1700s by the Montgolfier brothers, who were responsible for the first flight with passengers. You couldn’t actually call it a manned flight, because the passengers were a rooster, a lamb and a duck. I should say in all fairness that a year later in 1783, they were responsible for the first flight that was manned. It was over Paris, it lasted 28 minutes, and there was a pilot and a passenger.

BURT WOLF: Hot air balloons depend on the lifting power of hot air, which is lighter than cold air. Accordingly, ballooning in the cool winter air of the Swiss Alps has a particular advantage.

Xavier Feal is a licensed balloon pilot who takes part in the great balloon events, but he’ll also take visitors up for a ride.

XAVIER FEAL ON CAMERA: For the hot air balloon, when you burn inside the balloon, the hot air it’s,


XAVIER FEAL ON CAMERA: Exactly. So like this you can fly. Only control I have, up, down. That’s it. The speed and the direction I can’t control. It’s all the time the wind. 

BURT WOLF: There is no propulsion system, a hot air balloon can’t be steered. The pilot can control the height by dropping the weights attached to the balloon. He can add more hot air to increase the balloon’s height, or let some of the air out, which will lower it. The direction of travel is controlled by locating and catching air currents heading in the direction you want to go.

The longest balloon flight, both in terms of distance, 25,361 miles, and time, 20 days straight, began right here in Chateau-D’Oex. It’s still the world record, and it’s held by a local Swiss psychiatrist named Bertrand Piccard and his British co-pilot and balloon designer, Brian Jones. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1999, they completed the first round the world flight, and because they were locked

together for 480 hours, they also get credit for the first successful lighter than air psychoanalysis.

BURT WOLF: The wind currents took us into some of the more remote valleys and above some of the more traditional chalets. Originally the word chalet described a small dwelling used by sheepherders in the Alps of Switzerland, Bavaria, France and Italy.

Eventually it was used to refer to any small house on the side of a mountain or in a mountainous region. Chalets are made from heavy planks of timber that are framed together like a log cabin. The sidewalls often extend past the corners, forming private sheltered porches. The balconies are detailed with carved railings. The windows are small and the shutters are decorated. The roofs are low and slanted to deal with the heavy snow they must support. The most traditional roofs are made from hand cut wooden shingles. Olivier Veuve is one of the few master roofers in the world who practices this historic craft. He spends the winters preparing the wood and then cutting it by hand.

OLIVIER VEUVE ON CAMERA: I am making shingles. It’s to put it on roofs in the chalet in the mountains, or in towns. We have it in the forest. We don’t need big factories to make it; we can do it, our self. It protects from the snow, it’s very elastic, but in the same time it’s very solid. It keeps longer on the roof. New system can maybe it’s okay for 20 years, while this one will be for 50 years. I got into this work because when I was very young I keep the cows in the mountain and I always wanted to do this job when I see this beautiful roofs, and I ask many old people if they can teach me this work, and

after long time, I found two old men who teach me. I like it because you work from the forest to the roof, you do everything yourself. And always be outside in the mountain, and it’s nice.

BURT WOLF: All of this is surrounded by some of Europe’s finest spots for winter sports. One of my favorites is Villars-Gryon. It’s where my sons learned to ski when they were little kids. 

The main area fans out over a sunny bowl with runs for beginners, intermediates and advanced skiers. Lots of off-trail terrain. And 75 miles of downhill runs that can be reached with 45 lifts. There’s also 27 miles of cross-country trails. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The cross-country trails are also used for snowshoeing. Now if you’re just getting into winter sports, and you’re not ready to learn to ski, snowshoeing is a great activity. Excellent cardiovascular exercise, and it burns hundreds of calories an hour.

BURT WOLF: The ultimate calorie burner in the neighborhood is the GP-24 hours of Villars. A charity race that got started in 1998. It’s a team relay race, where each team tries to accumulate as many miles as possible during a 24-hour period. There are two easy downhill runs. The first one is used for the day. The second one is used at night. The team that covers the greatest number of miles wins and each mile for each team raises money for the charity, with individuals and businesses donating the funds. 

The Lake Geneva region is also the home of an organization called HandiConcept. It’s devoted to increasing the range of sporting and recreational activities available to people with special physical needs. Trained instructors and modified equipment allow people to meet the challenges of sports that had previously been inaccessible. Claude-Alain Hofer worked for the Swiss Association for Paraplegics, taking groups on trips throughout Europe. Eventually he decided to open a business that created outdoor activities for the people he had been working with.

CLAUDE-ALAIN HOFER ON CAMERA: On the wintertime we have uni-ski, that’s for the paraplegic people or amputated people. We have the dual-skis. Dual ski is the same with two ski, and this one we use for quadriplegic. And then we have the foto-ski and this one is pretty for strong handicapped people, and so when people just sitting, and I drive on the back. Also on the summer time, mountain bike, with three wheels, and then biking also with three wheels just with hands.

YOUNG BOY ON CAMERA: When I came to Villars, I heard there was a concept here. And so, I ask if I can do like everybody else, and when I start, I liked it, and so I continue.

MALE SKIER ON CAMERA: The most important is to be outside, to be in the mountain, to have fun with the sun. 

OTHER MALE SKIER ON CAMERA: For me, it’s like paradise. It’s incredible. It’s new freedom. 

YOUNG BOY ON CAMERA: It feels like a good feeling. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I’m just beginning to learn to ski.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Mostly I’m scared.

YOUNG BOY ON CAMERA: Don’t be scared. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Don’t be scared. I’ll try not to be, okay. I’ll use you as an example.

BURT WOLF: Claude-Alain Hofer’s work with physically challenged people has begun to change Villars-Gryon’s sensibilities. The entire town is becoming more and more open to what nature offers, and how to make it available to everyone. And in areas that are quite surprising. This is the restaurant Peppino in the Eurotel. The chef, Joel Quentin was born in France, and came to Villars one winter to cook for the season. Twenty years later, and he’s still in the kitchen. A while back he took a course with a local botanist and discovered that there are dozens of edible plants in the woods surrounding Villars. Almost every day he heads out into the forest and returns with a selection of herbs and plants that end up on your plate. Bear in mind however that Joel is an expert and knows what’s safe to eat and what’s not. I definitely wouldn’t try this on your own.

The meal he prepared for us started with a tomato flan with garlic leaves and baby ivy. The main course was roasted lamb with an Alpine thyme cream sauce, baby carrots and sautéed wild mushrooms.    Dessert was geranium ice cream, a small forest, and an herbed flavored cookie. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ice cream was good. Cookie was good. Joel said to me that everything on my plate was edible, so I’m going to take him at his word. Mmm. Good cup, made of sugar.

BURT WOLF: Two or three times each year, Joel runs a class where guests go into the Alps and learn which plants are tasty and safe to eat. They bring the flowers and the herbs back to the restaurant, where they learn to prepare them.

You can sit at a table and see Switzerland’s natural beauty on a plate, or you can sit on a train and just watch it roll by.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: As you travel from town to town, it’s great to have a Swiss pass. You get them in the United States and it makes it a lot easier to get around Switzerland on buses, trains and boats. But you gotta get the train to get the full benefit! 

BURT WOLF: While I was in the Lake Geneva area I stayed in the town of Leysin. Its history goes back to the year 515 when the Royal Abbey of St. Maurice was founded. The Roman Empire had fallen, and robbers were pillaging the valley. Leysin was built high up and behind a hill, which kept it hidden. Then for the next 1200 years not much happened. From time to time a priest would come up from the valley to bless the cows who’d become very religious. And that was pretty much it. BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1789, Thomas Malthus, the great British political economist, studied the life expectancy of the people in Leysin and compared it to the life expectancy of the general population in Europe. He decided that people lived longer here because of the healthful climate and the isolation. And he published that in his famous book, and that was the end of the isolation. 

BURT WOLF: Clinics began popping up and the place became a major international center for people recovering from assorted diseases. Dr. August Rollier came to town, and presented his theory that sunshine was the great cure. He believed that everyone should do everything in their underwear, so your body would get as much sunlight as possible. That’s a photograph of children sitting in class, in their underwear. When antibiotics took over the curing business, Leysin turned itself into a winter sports resort, and everyone put their clothing back on. Today it offers ski slopes for intermediates and beginners, skating, curling, ski bobbing, snow boarding, cross country skiing, and an amazing assortment of underwear shops. 

In the center of town there’s a restaurant called La Fromagerie, which means "The Cheese Farm." The building was put up in 1687 and was the home of a cheese maker. Eventually it became the center for a farmer’s co-op and finally this restaurant, which specializes in dishes that use cheese as a primary ingredient. The starring dish is a cheese fondue designed for big dippers. The children’s menu has one for little dippers. There’s raclette, melted cheese and steamed potatoes. Tomme Vaudoise, which is a disk of grilled cheese over beet, cabbage, and carrot salad. Rosti au fromage, hash brown potatoes with melted cheese on top, and there are at least three variations on each of the above. 

In the center of the room is a giant fireplace in which cheese is actually being made. It’s made from the milk of local cows, and tastes like a Gruyere. They make cheeses that are semi-hard and hard. And the aging room is right behind the bar, where they keep the real hard stuff. When the restaurant opened, the owners decided to turn the upstairs room into a museum, and invited people from the area to donate their historic farming tools, cooking equipment, and other antiques. It will give you an idea of what life was like on an Alpine farm in the early 1800’s. 

The Swiss have a deep respect for their agricultural heritage and often use the most traditional equipment. Pierre Turrian is a local coppersmith who builds and repairs the giant cauldrons used to make farmhouse cheeses. He also shapes the bells that hang from the necks of the cows that lead the herd up into the mountain pastures each spring. He’s one of the three cauldron makers left in Switzerland. And for those of us who don’t make cheese in giant cauldrons, or own a lead cow, Pierre hand makes copper kitchen utensils. 

He starts his cauldrons by taking a sheet of copper and flattening the edges. Then rolling it into a circle. The ends are fitted together and fastened. The inside edges are sealed and shaped. The bottom edge is rounded into a bowl. The rim is formed and pounded. The bottom is fitted. A handle is made and attached. 

And now back to the cowbells. Cow bells to mark the lead cow. Cow beanbags. Cow dishes. Cow potholders. It’s all part of Switzerland’s bovine bonding. The domestication of animals began about 10,000 years ago with the reindeer and the dog. But it wasn’t until hunters and gatherers decided to stay put, growing crops and living in one place, that animals were bred in captivity and put to use. That was about 7,000 years ago. Many people assumed that the domestication of cattle took place for economic reasons, as a source of milk and meat. But that was not the only reason. It looks like the first cattle to be domesticated were important because of their symbolic value in the rituals of the moon goddess cults. Keeping large beasts in captivity, and then getting them to reproduce in captivity, insured a supply of animals for cultic purposes. 

The amazing variety of cow art in Switzerland may be more about respecting ancient cultic values than anything else. Bernard Bard lives in Leysin. And like many of the town’s inhabitants, started out in the cheese business. But health problems forced him to change careers. Not wanting to go too far from his beloved cows, he started making wooden cow sculptures. And they’ve become a major example of the local folk art. They’re made from linden wood, and take about 15 hours to produce. The primary shape is cut out with an electric saw. The details are carved by hand. And finally the figure is painted. 

It looks like people have been living in Leysin with their cows, both real and sculptured, for at least 1500 years. But just down the road, in the valley below Leysin is an even older settlement. The town of Aigle where people have been living for over 4000 years. Many in the same rent-controlled apartments. A good example would be the castle at Aigle. 

The present structure was put up in the 1200s and still exhibits the architectural features that were so popular at the time. Twelve-foot thick walls that could repel cannonballs. Conveniently placed beveled slots for shooting arrows at your enemies. A pleasantly situated overhang for pouring boiling oil on unwanted guests. A 100-foot high tower for those months when you just want to be alone. And like all castles, it has always come with a complete selection of local peasants. Peasants who were trained to take care of those bothersome household chores. These days the castle is a museum with a series of displays commemorating Aigle’s long history as an area for the production of fine wines. The first vineyards were put in place by the ancient Romans. There’s an exhibition that illustrates the evolution of wine bottles, and explains that it was impossible to conduct business without a uniform system of measurement. 

If you were buying wine from a distant vineyard, and you expected the big bottle, because that’s what people used in your neighborhood, and you ended up with a little one, because that’s what they used two valleys over, you had a problem. 

In the late 1700’s, France introduced the metric system, based on the meter, which is one ten millionth of a quarter of the world’s equator. The French clearly understood how much more convenient one ten millionth of a quarter of the equator was than a foot.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The people of Vaud where I am standing did not want to give up the foot and so they standardized it at three tenths of a ten millionth part of the equator. They also introduced the hand, which they standardized at four hundredth of a millionth part of the equator.  Of course at the time people were not totally convinced as to the proper length of the equator, and so often there was a 2.0115 correction one way or the other. Are you getting this down? 

BURT WOLF: The unit of measurement for wine became the liter, which is a volume measurement based on the meter. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Attempts to understand this system, led to an outburst of heavy drinking, which in turn resulted in Aigle producing some of the finest wines in Switzerland. 

BURT WOLF: They have a light bouquet, a nice balance of fruit and acidity, and the more you drink, the more you think you understand the metric system. The Chateau has a charming little restaurant called the Pint of Paradise, where you can have an excellent lunch and test your comprehension of the metric system. 

It will however take more than a bottle of Aigle to get me to go paragliding, but I’m beginning to understand why it’s attractive to many people, and why they come to the Lake Geneva region to learn to paraglide, or just take a ride with an instructor. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Interesting but not quite for me. So let me introduce you to Sarah Perlman, my senior producer.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: who is committed to do this. And I made her get a letter from her mother and she’s all set. And this is Andy Cope who has been my cameraman for years! And he knows a lot about cameras, but nothing about paragliding, and has volunteered to do this. And he has a note from his psychiatrist. 

BURT WOLF: Jean-Francois Blaser is a licensed instructor, and will teach you the necessary skills, or just give you a ride. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And this is Emily Aronson. She is the executive producer and the boss, and we’re going for hot chocolate and to write a few postcards to our family. 

BURT WOLF: Basically what you’re doing is flying a parachute shaped like a wing. There’s no rigid frame. Just a series of fabric tubes with openings at the front edge. 

JEAN-FRANCOIS BLASER ON CAMERA: Okay, now we start to run.

BURT WOLF: The wing is launched like a kite. The pilot runs down from the top of a mountain, until he reaches a speed of about 12 miles an hour, at which point the wing is inflated, and takes off. The pilot is suspended in a harness, and controls the wing with a series of ropes connected to the front edge. The sport got started in the mountainous parts of the United States, France and Switzerland. At first mountain climbers saw paragliding as just an easy way to get down. But it soon became a sport on its own. Skilled pilots can use rising air currents to carry them over considerable distances. Flights of 100 miles are not uncommon. The world record for straight distance is over 200 miles. 

ANDY COPE ON CAMERA: Whoa! Haha! This is great. There’s nothing but the sound of wind in your ears. We’re at 3000 feet up. It is so great. 

BURT WOLF: One of the most skilled pilots is Marino Frei. 

MARINO FREI ON CAMERA: You are free like a bird, you fly, you enjoy flying, you enjoy to see the scenery. It’s so nice to fly. You have to do it to understand what is flying. 


EMILY ARONSON ON CAMERA: There they are. See the both of them?

BURT WOLF: That’s winter in the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland. For TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I’m Burt Wolf.