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I'm a nomadic mama with four lovely daughters. We're travelling Australia in a small housebus — meeting inspiring people, learning lots and re-thinking everything. I feel passionately about travel, good design, alternative education and conscious parenting.

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26 September 14

Our next outing took us to Geneva, the home of CERN, a scientific community that primarily studies particle physics. CERN was the birthplace of the worldwide web in 1989 and today marks the 60th anniversary of its formation.

Because of the cooperative nature of their ventures, the fact that CERN comprises 21 member states, and that they’re doing really cool stuff — when I was describing CERN to the girls, I called it a Rainbow Gathering of scientists. They understand that; scientists of different nationalities get together to work and play and encourage each other in their fields of passion.

Campervan parked under power lines outside CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
We arrived at CERN last night, and I parked as close as I could — which happened to be under the humming power lines that feed the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Each year, CERN consumes the same amount of electricity as 300,000 homes. No wonder I had funky dreams!

 Globe of Science and Innovation, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
When lit up at night, the Globe of Science and Innovation is a beautiful beacon of scientific cooperation. The Canadian artist Gayle Hermick's "Wandering the Immeasurable" sits alongside the globe.

Globe of Science and Innovation, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
In the morning, we discover that the globe is closed this week for special events happening around the anniversary. Usually the globe is open for public access to a permanent exhibition called "Universe of particles".

I had particularly timed our visit to CERN to coincide with its 60th anniversary celebrations, but it appears that the special events are for invited guests only. Despite our disappointment, we cross the road to the main reception area to see if the other exhibitions are still open.

Cosmic Song, in-floor sculpture by Serge Moro, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
In a beautiful fusion of science and art, the light in this in-floor sculpture by Frenchman Serge Moro changes colour, intensity and location in response to particle showers from cosmic rays that reach the earth. A physicist waiting in the lobby watched the girls interacting with the floor and explained the details of how it worked to us.

To see more details of Serge Moro’s work, visit his website. Similar installations are in place in Russia and London.

Microcosm

The Microcosm exhibition is scheduled for major refurbishment in the first half of 2015, so we’re visiting it when it feels tired and out-dated. Nevertheless, the girls are happy to run down the stairs and enter the surprisingly in-depth explanations of particle physics, how the Large Hadron Collider works and the history of computers and the worldwide web.

Microcosm exhibition, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
The exhibition starts at a basic level of physics and progressively gets more complicated. It's geared towards school-kids, and each display is explained in four languages: English, French, German and Italian.

Playing with a plasma ball at the Microcosm exhibition, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
Using a plasma ball, children can obviously see how particles can be affected by forces. A plasma ball uses electrons that are stripped from the atoms and move about freely. When the ball is touched, the surface is earthed and electrons flow through the gas, creating the threads of light.

Microcosm exhibition, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
Even though the technology for the interactions is outdated, the girls don't seem to mind and play with everything they can, learning heaps in the process.

Microcosm exhibition, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
I like seeing the exhibits of vintage computers, like this card-punching one.

Large Hadron Collider

CERN is also the site of the largest and most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider whose acronym (LHC) is as famous within scientific circles as “www”. Inside the super-chilled vacuum of the accelerator, two high-energy particle beams travel at almost the speed of light before they are forced to collide. Among other things, CERN scientists observing the effects hope to learn more about the nature of dark matter, the existence of other dimensions as proposed by string theory and the relationship between quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Aerial view of the placement of the LHC - Large Hadron Collider at the Microcosm exhibition, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
An aerial-view photo displays the size and location of the Large Hadron Collider which is actually located 100 metres below the surface.

Photo of the Large Hadron Collider, at the Microcosm exhibition, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
This is what the inside of the LHC tunnel looks like. It's a 27-kilometre ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way. Scientists use bicycles to navigate around the ring.

Microcosm exhibition, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
The display explaining the construction of the LHC is particularly interesting. (An example of the outdated-ness of this exhibit is just next door... with CDs used as examples of storing data.)

Microcosm exhibition, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, September 2014
A video presentation explaining the LHC is very well-done. We watch it twice, with the girls fully paying attention both times.

Although the displays may be technologically outdated, the information isn’t. It takes us about an hour to move through the exhibition, and this would be a great place to re-visit when the children get older and can understand more of the concepts they’re hearing.

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25 September 14

With it being immensely more appealing than a cheese factory, the girls were understandably excited about finally getting to visit a chocolate factory! Maison Cailler is situated outside the village of Broc, also in the Gruyère region, and though when we visited, construction works were happening, it didn’t faze the steady stream of tourists who came to learn, taste and purchase from the name of the oldest chocolatier in Switzerland.

Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
Outside the white building that has become synonymous with the Cailler name, a shingled pod designed by French architect Mathieu Lehanneur serves as a boutique chocolate experience.

After François-Louis Cailler spent four years in Italy to learn the chocolate-making process, he moved back to Switzerland to open the first chocolate factory in 1819. In 1929, Nestlé purchased Cailler’s business and no doubt runs it as ruthlessly as it does all its other interests. I researched intensively to find another (non-Nestlé) chocolate factory on our route, without any luck. So we went, although I still believe Nestlé is a corporate evil.

Upon entering the building, you’re immediately in the gift shop. Surrounded by chocolate. Very clever. Before they noticed the chocolate, the girls were immensely excited by the large posters and brochures everywhere that displayed a girl’s face, as they thought it looked exactly like our beautiful Australian friend Tali!

The procedure at Maison Cailler is to buy your ticket and receive an allocated spot in a tour of the appropriate language. Each tour is displayed on the TV. You have to watch for your number to come up then move to the waiting area until your group is called. While waiting — which could be a while as tour groups comprise only 20 people — you’ll have to find something to do … like browse the chocolate shop.

Browsing the chocolate at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
Fancy some chocolate? I actually hadn't heard of the Cailler brand before, and with the extra time I can read all the ingredient lists on the back of the packages to identify if one is suitable for Brioni.

The history tour

Starting the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
It's our turn, and as we head down the corridor, we're treated to a collection of vintage marketing posters.

On the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
With dramatic effects, we start the story of chocolate in South America. I wonder what the history of chocolate from a South American perspective would sound like.

On the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
We're learning that soon after it was introduced to Europe by monks, the institutional church banned chocolate, stating that it incited lust.

On the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
At many of the exhibits, the girls get up close so they can properly see the animatronics in front of the tableau.

On the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
We pause at a display of an early factory set-up. Each step of the tour is automatically guided by lights, recordings and opening doors.

The factory tour

Once the pre-recorded historical tour is over, we’re left to work at our own pace through a series of rooms that are alongside a production line for Cailler’s Branch chocolate bars — tiny sticks of chocolate about four cm long. It’s fun seeing each step of the process in their manufacture!

A bin of cocoa beans at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
Just before we reach the chocolate factory displays, we're introduced to the ingredients that go into the chocolate, like these cacao beans.

A block of cocoa butter at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
Aisha smells this block of cocoa butter that has been scratched and caressed by thousands of hands.

Bins of nuts on the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
Other bins hold the extra ingredients that garnish the chocolate. Possibly there are some visitors to the factory who haven't seen nuts before ... possibly.

Sign on the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
I find a handy guide to choosing chocolate for a vegan — at Cailler, anyway.

Chocolate branch production line on the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
Rolled lines of chocolate are cut into the correct length and then move into a tray with a nutty coating.

Chocolate branch production line on the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
As they come through the gooey coating, we can see that each piece is evenly covered.

Chocolate branch production line on the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
This layer has to dry firm before they can be wrapped in individual packages.

Chocolate branch production line on the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
Once they're wrapped, the branches drop into a box. Every once in a while, the attendant empties a box onto a tray accessible to visitors. The girls eagerly reach for the chocolates, only to discover that they don't like these ones. But I do — the day is saved!

On the factory tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
As we look into the milk-handling section of the factory, an interactive map of the site displays video showing what's happening in each part. Cailler uses milk from 56 local farmers, first condensing it and then mixing it with the cocoa. They boast that other chocolate manufacturers use milk powder instead of slightly condensed milk and this makes all the taste difference.

On the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
As we leave the factory, we're invited to write down what we think of the tour.

The tasting room

Tasting chocolate on the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
The tasting room is set up as a gourmet taste experience, expertly catered for the individual by an attentive employee who encourages us to try new things.

Tasting chocolate on the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
I appreciate being able to taste each of the assorted chocolate shapes. The girls discover which ones they like (and when they don't like one, I eat the remainder).

Tasting chocolate on the tour at Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
It was handy to have read all the ingredient lists beforehand — I know just which chocolates to offer to Brioni!

We left the tour feeling a little ill. There is definitely something as too much chocolate, and perhaps the higher percentage of cocoa meant that this chocolate was stronger (or maybe I’m just getting old). Before re-entering the foyer/gift-shop, we passed workshop rooms where classes in chocolate-making are held. That would be fun to do (or — considering the Nestlé thing — maybe not).

Outside

We exited through the gift-shop, but not before each choosing a chocolate bar for ourselves. My favourite is white chocolate with rice bubbles in it. Outside, in the sunshine, with all that sugar coursing through their veins, it was time for the girls to play again!

On the playground outside Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
The playground is arranged like an obstacle course and decorated with huge replicas of the chocolate branches I've eaten too many of.

Large pivoting mirror at the playground outside Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
Huge, rectangular mirrors pivot on a centre pole, changing the look of the whole game-space.

Maison Cailler, Broc, Switzerland, September 2014
Large mirrored panes with a pointillism tree decorate the exterior of the building. I didn't notice this before on our approach to the factory.

It’s possible that we spent equal amounts of time inside and outside Maison Cailler. As a memorable experience, I’d rate it highly, although the history tour wasn’t nearly as good as at the glass factory.

But for the Nestlé-ownership thing, I’d recommend Maison Cailler. So it’s a tricky one; consider the implications and decide what is right for your family.

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24 September 14

If there’s something that the Swiss are famous for, it’s cheese. How could we visit Europe and not tour a cheese factory? La Maison du Gruyère is situated in the dairy-rich Gruyère region of southwest Switzerland.

This famous cheese-making institution has turned their factory into a tourist attraction by adding a giftshop, a café, a small interactive exhibit and observation panels to the factory floor and storerooms. We only needed an hour to explore everything, and in our family we have only one real cheese enthusiast who happily tasted the samples given to us by Gruyère.

La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
The House of Gruyère is built around an actual cheese factory. In peak season, thousands of tourists would be coming through, so I'm glad we're here at a quiet time!

The exhibition

Once we collected our headsets and programmed them for English, we could move up the stairs and past the photos and small exhibits. Each of the girls received their own electronic guide, so we could each move at our own pace.

Browsing the interactive exhibits at La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
Early on, the voice guiding us is revealed to be a friendly dairy cow. She directs us to program in the number for each display so she can explain it to us.

Calista browsing the interactive exhibits at La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
By lifting the top of these cleverly-designed canisters, Calista can smell the scent contained within. They're supposed to correspond with the picture on the wall, but not all of them smell like pretty flowers!

Browsing the interactive exhibits at La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
A wall of items — and a couple of convenient stools — invite us to touch and explore the historical accessories of the cheese-makers.

The factory

The factory floor is visible through large glass panes from one level above. The headset continues to explain the process for each row of machines within the factory.

Gruyère publicises its cheese-making timetable — i.e. when something interesting will be happening on the factory floor — and visitors to the factory should take this into account if they want to see some live-action instead of watching pre-recorded videos of each step of the process. We watched the cheese-makers playing with curds and whey, but I expect the filling of cheese-molds would be more exciting.

Viewing the factory floor at La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
So much milk is processed to make cheese!

La Gruyère shared the facts of cheese production on the wall: A cow eats 100 kg of grass and drinks 85 litres of water per day, producing an average of 25 litres of milk daily; 400 litres of milk produce one 35 kg wheel of Gruyère cheese, and 12 litres of milk produce 1 kg of cheese.

The cellar

Depending on the season, between 4000 and 7000 wheels of cheese mature in the cellars. These 35-kg rounds are turned over and brushed with a mixture of water and salt every day for ten days. In the next two weeks, this process is reduced to three times per week, then twice per week over the next three months and once a week until they are offered for sale. (The cheese-makers are named individuals who sport industry accolades, but I think the real hero at this factory has got to be the person responsible for turning and brushing thousands of 35-kg cheese wheels every day!)

The cheese cellar at La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
Another section of the building provides viewing access to the cellar where the large cheese wheels are maturing.

Cheese for sale at La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
Sold for about A$20/kg, Swiss Gruyère cheese doesn't have holes.

Did you grow up with stories of Asterix & Obelix? One of my favourites is where they visit Switzerland and hide for a time in a cheese cellar. Ever hungry, Obelix complains that the cheese has holes and those holes don’t fill the hole in his tummy. Anyhow…

Outdoors

The large and spacious café offers all sorts of cheesy delights, but we simply threaded our way past the tables and out the back door to the playground. Brioni wanted some fresh air, and we had parked within sight of the playground and knew it would be a good place to run.

Out the back of La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
Alongside the café, a large mural on the wall celebrates the dairy cows that contribute to the cheese factory.

Aisha tasting cheese outside La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
Aisha tries out the cheese given to us in a sample pack. A sample each of three different maturities means we can open them all to taste the difference that time makes to the cheese-making process.

Playground outside La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
Only vaguely cow-themed, the playground is small but adequate. We also like exploring the factory roof which is accessible with a staircase near the playground.

Playground outside La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
We haven't ever encountered this type of swing before. After experimentation, Calista decides that standing up is the best position for getting it moving.

Beautiful Swiss house with flowerboxes outside La Maison du Gruyère, Switzerland, September 2014
Across the street, the owners of this beautiful house recognise they're representing Switzerland to the rest of the world and keep the flowers blooming.

Although I remember visiting a cheese factory in the Netherlands when I was seven years old, I don’t know if this experience was memorable enough for the girls, and in some ways I feel like I was just checking an activity off the list. Especially after the immersive experience of Glasi Hergiswil, I don’t think I’d recommend a visit to La Maison du Gruyère. Save your time for other activities (or perhaps another cheese factory).

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