Grenoble: La Ville Belle
En route to Grenoble. Turin Train Station sat against the foothills of the Swiss Alps with a morose shadow. The train was set for departure and I was still crossing the platform to find my carriage. The train carriages stretched for miles across the monotony of the platform. A day of travel began at 11am and was set to conclude around 8.30pm and I still had yet to find myself a hotel where I would stay for a few days until I was settled.
The mountain pass that separated France from Italy was truly heavenly against the backdrop of the tunneling marbles of granite rock that shot like mushrooms from the crust of the valley below. The bullet train wrestled with the track in a gentile meandering manner as it guided us through the inland passage. Tunnels guided us inside the mountains
. Marvels of human ingenuity. The blanket of darkness began to cruise past us as we gathered at Chambery station – 45 minutes from our destination. It was here that I met the direct link to Grenoble.
As I cruised along the valley basin – a flat almost distinctive feature of ancient granite and marble rock, I could witness the earthly shape of the night sky take over as we approached the opening to the Grenoble valley. A central range fell into a gentle basin as two shapely massifs took hold of the urban surroundings. The cover of darkness still gave me a sense of my surroundings as flat-top massifs drew up from the basin below to form crescent-shaped peaks. The grassy knolls of the foothills merged with the plateau of the granite crops.
The flatness of the basin formed a nice central location for the city, one of Europe’s flattest cities with one of its longest continuously straight streets – Jean Jaures. The train snaked its way around the precipice of the city until it came to a rest at the Grenoble Central Station. The doors opened to my new home.
Grenoble’s a ghost town, early July and the early hours of the night have left the surroundings devoid of any life. A few hotels sit around the outskirts of the train station. I could spend the whole evening looking for a place to sleep but I am way past tired so I’ll just go for the first place I can find that’s comfortable. I choose a generic franchise brand – something like an Accor hotel, knowing it’ll be comfortable enough for my needs.
My French is barely audible but for communication purposes at a hotel, I think that it does the job. Surprisingly, it’s not as easy as I lead myself to believe nor is it difficult. The room is nothing special but the bed’s comfortable.
The next day, I wake to the sun penetrating my room. It’s gorgeous, warm and sunny and as I would quickly learn the perfect way to spend a day in Grenoble.
In 1968, Grenoble hosted the Winter Olympics and trinkets of its past glory still lie in relics around the city, such as the city park next to the Municipality building. With its cauldron-statue at the southside of the park, it is here you will find a chapter of the city’s history where it played a major role during the Second World War. “Les Bleus Diables” (the Blue Devils) were a battalion of men who fought to keep the invasion of Italian communist soldiers at bay. Their bravery is considered legendary in Grenoble and sets a benchmark for French patriotism.
The city’s prominent fortress which sits at the front of the Chartueuse Massif features a prominent role during the city’s heyday in WWII. As the invading Italians began to make ground and encroach upon the city’s limits, the French soldiers created a barricade to withhold the Italian forces. Unbeknown to the defenders of the city, the Italians had a secret battle plan in place.
The Italians rammed steel rods into the granite rock wall of the massif cliff. These penetrating steel rods enforced into the rocks, became known as ‘Via Ferrata’. The steel rods caress the side of the rocky outcrop and are today a popular sporting activity for local outdoor enthusiasts. This trend of rock ladders as now spread to all four corners of the globe with many Via Ferrata spots found around the European Alpine Territory.
La Bastille has become a popular park and tourist attraction in more recent times where you can benefit from the plethora of healthy trails that scale the hillsides, clifftops to the summits of surrounding peaks as well as the Bastille fortress.
The fortress has two functional parts. The first is an impenetrable wall built of stone from the surrounding mountain quarries: chalk and granite alike. A stairwell tunnel separates the next part. Once you have reached the second component, you will be able to follow a walled park trail with grand views of the surrounding Belledonne and Vercors Massifs with a stunning panoramic 360 degree view of the city below up to the main fortified site.
The main fortress can also be reached by a gondola (“telepherique”)from the city’s riverside. It consists of a small cafe and convenience store as well as a museum with featured exhibits
and a much larger and fancier restaurant where you can sit outside enjoying a coffee and taking in the marvelous views of the cityscape and mountain landscapes around.
From the rooftop of the Bastille, you can also learn about the history of the region and have an even more stunning view of the region. It is also possible on a fine day to see Mt Blanc (France’s highest mountain) basking in its glory up the valley towards the border region.
The fortress is a wonderful experience if your time is limited to a quick tour of the city, but given a few days or a few spare hours then the trails that go beyond this fortress will give you an experience that supersedes anything else on your touring agenda.
Following the gateway path above the Bastille leads to a small park and a second more secluded restaurant. Take the pathway up behind the restaurant and Grenoble’s splendor will indulge you in a treat of exhilaration and tranquil-indulgence.
The path snakes its way along the ridge for a few minutes until you are offered a second trail pointing down
the hillside, this will lead you back towards the suburbs. Further up the hill another trail break offers you an opportunity to walk back down into a peaceful country valley with beautiful picturesque brick village homes and lush rolling pastoral fields where sheep, horses and cows graze on nutrient rich mountain grass.
Ascending the ridge, the rocky core of the summit starts to take hold as you fight against two-dimensional rock slabs of jagged rock and earth-penetrating tree roots that linger above the surface. The forest dense in pine and natural flora breaks briefly to offer visitors an astonishing panoramic view of the city and mountains beyond. On a warm summer’s day, temperatures can reach the 40’s and the sun’s glow can shock your system from the gentle breeze of the high mountain air as you become exposed to the natural elements.
The ascent to the summit can be difficult for first time hikers as the scarcity of protection from the exposed pine needles takes its toll on you. But the summit view is something more extraordinary than you can imagine as you are met with an heavenly eyeshot of the surrounding Chartueuse valley and the Rhone Alps as it transcends history on a grand scale. Both sides offer widely dynamic viewpoints with the deep-cut valley of the farmland side offering a glimpse into rural French life with glorious postcard mountain meadows and giant scaling rocky monolithic outcrops penetrated by sparsely spotty villages of medieval Europe and beyond.
On the otherside, an awe-inspiring valley of flat river bed guided by the Chartueuse and Belledonne chains snakes its way towards Chambery and beyond. Follow the ridge beyond from the precipice of this ridge and you will come to a country road that cuts through the crest of the Chartueuse range. Cross the road and ascend to another fortress and viewpoint known as Fort du Saint Eynard, popular with paragliders and adventure enthusiasts alike – here you can find a bookshop and a small restaurant/cafe to enjoy a daytime snack.
At the southside of the city lies an historic bridge built during medieval times has become a fixture on weekend excursions for locals. The surrounding Drac River valley ensures that there are plenty of river trails to follow as well as foothill trails which have become popular with local horse riders at the weekends. The bridge has in more recent times being joined by a companion bridge to prevent degradation of the original structure.
The trails meander through the arboreal rich foothills of the Belledonne. Trails sometimes become small country lanes before you meet with a new trail and wander back into nature. All trails are color-coded with each trail following an assigned route, however mixing and matching is the norm and can lead to an adventure into some less well-maintained routes which have eroded away or come under the control of thick vegetation in recent years.
The beauty of the trails is that they sit close to suburban areas yet maintain a tranquil pristine natural environment with limited human contact.
The Belledonne Massif blissfully watches over Grenoble with a luscious and rich tapestry of perfectly pyramid-shaped pines, cradled by a sweeping vista of rocky peaks that reach over deep gorges and valleys in the interior of the range. It is here that many trails and cool mountain lakes and streams welcome visitors each summer for a spot of wild camping.
Although technically illegal, it is considered acceptable to camp in the mountains for 24 hours (although some stay longer due to a lack of restrictions in some regions). During any given Sunday in the summer, campers navigate into the hills to camp beside the popular Lac Archard. Cradled in a dome behind the Chamrousse Ski Resort, Archard offers panoramic views of the surrounding alpine terrain as well as majestic trails that straddle the alpine saddle with gorgeous views across the deep interior gorges.
Lac Archard can be reached via the mountain road leading towards Chamrousse, or a 40-minute walk from the car park following the main trail in behind Chamrousse.
Once there you will be richly rewarded for your troubles by one of the most spectacular views of the European Alps. The rocky interior mimics the stunning panorama of Canada’s Rocky Mountain chain as well as offering a virtually untouched wilderness in a country with a population encroaching on 70 million.
During the winter months, the Belledonne hosts the commercially popular Chamrousse ski resort as well as avenues for backcountry skiing on the multiple hiking trails which convert into ski trails during the cooler winter months. Snow can drop as early as late September but the ski season generally doesn’t run until December or January until March.
The vibrant suburb of St Bruno, across the central transportation hub features a melting pot of cultures from the Middle East, North Africa and former French colonies who come together to form a community that represents modern France.
It is here that you will be seduced by the aromas, colors and ambiance of the city’s central markets. Behind Cours Berriat and situated in Place Saint Bruno you will find an extravaganza of sorts with the daily market providing cheap clothing, store goods, Middle Eastern snacks, fruits and veges, as well as cultural festivities during Ramadan and Muslim holy days.
Down the street, lying under the train tracks is the city’s true calling to market superiority – the Farmers Market lies parallel to Rue Vizille and hosts an unquantifiable consignment of produce and other delicacies including fragrant fish, freshly baked breads, orgasmic cheeses, and an unbridled selection of deli saucissons. The French truly have mastered the art of cuisine and it is here that it becomes apparent as to why.
Walk towards the train station end of the market and you’ll come to the local regional produce section where you will be greeted by a vast array of local delicacies to compliment and master any French meal.
Saint Bruno that beats like no other in the city, an inner sanctuary that’s as colorful as the mountains that surround it. 15 minutes from the markets, you will come to the Drac river with its dual trail set against the backdrop of the Vercors. Nature and urban development blend well in Grenoble, making this one of France’s premiere exploratory cities.
What Grenoble lacks in architectural gems, it makes up for exploratory feats. A contemporary city with a modern mix of North African descended migrants known as the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), blend in with a mix of former colonial migrants (predominantly West African, and Congolese), as well as the local inhabitants of the Rhone Alpes region. This global dynasty ensures a rich mix of cultural activities lays on offer while the pleasant environmental attributes ensures that there is never a shortage of things to do.
In the summer, a healthy abundance of river trails snakes alongside the Drac and Isere rivers as they converge into one entity – the Isere which meanders through the southern part of the country, before it flows into the Mediterranean sea. Beneath the pleasant straight-lined Vercors range exists a popular series of trails that follow the riverside from St Claix through to the city’s central hydro-reservoir up the valley towards Lyon.
The walk takes around 90 minutes to 2 hours to do one way in total and can also be a chance to explore some of the older boroughs of Grenoble. Sassenage is a village surrounded by the greater metropolis. With its quaint brick and mortar houses and cobblestone streets is an example of the city as it once was. Until 50 years ago, the valley was home to a majority of small scale village farms with simple country living that was overtaken by the metropolis around the time of the 1968 Winter Olympics.
Sassenage boasts a colorful town square and historic country estate that is mostly closed off to the public like most of the historic estates in the region whom are all privately owned.
The town sits at the foothills of the Vercors and a view above the town is worth exploring. An historic church sits cradled against the backdrop of the Vercors while worth up the hillside crossing the stream will bring you a series of amazing caves which are open to the public during the summer months. It is recommended to visit with a guide for safety.
Heading back through town along the Isere, you will pass a series of Pizza restaurants combined with a small range of ethnic restaurants. Historically, these restaurants date back to when the Mafia were influential in this region (Grenoble lay at the crossroads of the thriving mafioso empire where north met south). It was during its heyday, the pizza restaurants filtered laundered money through the restaurants where it would get cleaned and cycled back into the organisations coffers. It is for this reason that the restaurant business is thriving and a mainstay of the local scene. Today the Mafia have all but whittled away into the background but the city maintains strong ties to its Italian and Sicilian community with a large portion of the population centered around the borough of Echirolles.
Follow the river towards the Belledonne passes the historic cemetery, and the city’s major university campus which combined with two other universities in town to form a mega-agglomeration. Adjacent to the university lies ‘The Island of Love Park’, popular with families and barbecue enthusiasts at weekends. The park offers a pleasant view of the surrounding peaks as well as a labor of love walkway that is slowly gaining in size as more of the trails expand to encompass more of the region.
If you are brave enough to walk to the end of the track, you can pass through farmland and crop fields that house maize and weekend horse riders out basking in the warm glow of the summer and spring sunshine.
The trails are continuously expanding and if you are brave enough to walk or cycle, it might even be possible to reach Chambery some 40 kilometers away.
Explore the Rhone Alpes
To explore the region requires a set of wheels, a car or if you are game a bike will suffice. The majestic nature and endless winding roads make the alps a source of many great adventures. Grand Lac de Laffrey is the communal point for many Grenoblois during the long hot days of summer when the temperature gage can sometimes penetrate 40 degrees C. This is the cool soothing waters of the Laffrey can be not only refreshing, but also welcoming.
Grand Lac de Laffrey sits beside a popular hiking trail set amongst the backdrop of awe-inspiring vista with panoramic views of the lake, a popular water sports hub for local windsurfers, kayakers and swimmers who enjoy the lake’s pure spring waters with a stone layered bed. Many of the locals enjoy a picnic or a barbecue here with their friends and family before taking a stroll along the lakeside trails or high into the hills on the opposite side of the lake.
Approximately 60 minutes out of the Grenoble agglomeration sits the Ecrins National Park, one of France’s greatest treasures with a plethora of wilderness to explore. Deep up the valley from Vizille lies the tiny hamlet of Venosc. Within a 45 minute walk from the carpark you’ll be greeted with an extravagant view of Lac du Lauvitel – a manmade lake that houses a quarry, as well as herds of wild mountain goats and friendly marmots that gingerly pass between the lake and the nearby quarry. Nestled between the ridge, an extensive trail of alpine hiking tracks forms a network of alpine routes that extend across the Ecrins National Park’s borders.
The Vercors offers an extensive range of activities for outdoor enthusiasts from paragliding, and hiking to fishing. Take a leisurely Sunday drive through the mountain roads to explore medieval villages and family farms with historic 15th century estates.
Popular with motorcycle enthusiasts from across the continent during the summer months, the Vercors massif cuts between the historic settlement of Romans-sur-Isere and Valence (with a sizable Armenian community who escaped their homeland during the Turkish genocide). During the summer months, it offers an abundance of walking trails for locals and tourists alike to explore.
Grenoble Is A Lifestyle
Grenoble is one of the most livable cities in France. It blends contemporary European culture with a burgeoning outdoor lifestyle. The colorful mix of university students and international arrivals offers the city something that no other city in France offers – diversity that openly embraces the changing face of the continent. It’s a city with one foot in the door of traditional French culture with another which showcases the beauty of the region.
Grenoble has the second highest per capita rate in France for Anglophone influence. As a prosperous work hub, it is the French center for science and research with CERN close-by in Switzerland. The city doesn’t feel French, yet it has some qualities which allow it to sit on the precipice of this rich culture. It is a hybrid of modern and old, a center of influence as well as exuding wanderlust.
From the famous monastery which helped create a legendary French liqueur – Chartueuse, to the birthplace of Stendhal and Andre the Giant. It seems that all you need is a little bit of imagination, and you let Grenoble do the rest.