Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Grenoble - Capital of the Alps

Mountains around Grenoble

We left Paris on a rare bright sunny day, bound for Grenoble in Southeast France. Just three hours from Paris by TGV, Grenoble sits on a vast plain at the confluence of the Isère and Drac rivers. Only 214 meters (702 ft.) above sea level, Grenoble is the flatest city in France. That might sound like a dubious distinction, but in the case of Grenoble, it provides a perfect viewing site for the majestic peaks of the French Alps which surround the city. The writer Stendahl, talking about his hometown, said that at the end of every street in Grenoble, there is a mountain.  It was already dark when we arrived so that view would have to wait. 

A short walk from the train station took us to the Royal Hotel. The rooms there are small and minimally appointed, but that fact was offset by the cleanliness of the hotel and the genuine friendliness of the staff. The next morning, after a good breakfast in the hotel dining room, JR went off to the university and I set out to explore Grenoble. I began with a walk through the old town, planning to wend my way toward the river. Grenoble, in spite of the surrounding mountains, does not get much snow, but today was an exception The snow was falling fast and the sky was grey and low. Stendahl’s mountains at the end of every street were nowhere to be seen. Signs posted along the main streets reminded citizens that “snow removal is the responsibility of all.”  That collective all did not seem to translate, however,  into the individual I. Not a snow shovel was to be seen and the sidewalks became increasingly slippery and snow-filled. This was not a day for a walk. It was, on the other hand,  a perfect day for a museum, and Grenoble happens to have one of the best.

The Grenoble Museum of Art was founded in 1798, but it is housed in a modern, light-filled building that was constructed 20 years ago.  There was so much to see that I spent the entire day there. I began with a great temporary exhibit of modern sculpture by the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone and then wandered slowly through the ages beginning with Egyptian antiquities and ending with the museum's renowned collection of 20th-century art. In between, I took time out for lunch at the museum's restaurant, Le 5. The restaurant was completely booked, but I was able to get a seat at a big communal table.  The food was great and my lunch companions were friendly and talkative.

Our first day in Grenoble ended with a wonderful dinner at the home of a mathematician friend who at one time thought of becoming a chef. He chose mathematics, he says, because it was easier!

The next morning, I set out early to explore the city in earnest.  Most people begin a tour of Grenoble with a cable car ride up to the Bastille, a medieval fortress built above the city. The cars are bubble shaped and on a clear day provide a great view of the river, the town and the surrounding mountains. As I gazed up at the Bastille from below, its ramparts were just visible below the clouds. I decided to leave the the cable car ride for another visit.

The old town is located where 2,000 years ago Grenoble came into existence as the Gallic village of Cularo. Remnants of these early settlers can be found in the town's archeology museum. In today's old town, there are remnants of the town walls and small cobblestone streets lined with medieval and renaissance dwellings. More modern 19th-century buildings are grouped around airy squares and parks. The parks were all in winter repose, but having just walked through Grenoble's covered market, where colorful fruits and vegetables were heaped high, it was not difficult to imagine the gardens filled with similarly bright flowers on a sunny summer day. 

The history of Grenoble is told through a series of exhibits at the Musée de l'ancien évêché. Housed in the splendid rooms of the old palace of the local bishop, the museum traces the history of the region from paleolithic times to the present day. While there, a museum guard  also gave me a good tip for a restaurant for lunch, La tavola calda, a nearby family owned restaurant.  Eating Italian in the home of fondues and gratins may seem odd, but, in fact, Grenoble has a large Italian population and dozens of Italian restaurants. La tavola calda turned out to be a place where no one, except me, entered without kissing and being kissed by the pizza chef, who was installed in front of his wood-burning oven in the middle of the restaurant. On the advice of two regulars sitting next to me, I ordered pasta and was not disappointed.  Contact established, my seat mates and I talked about everything from architecture, to Fox New's Paris "No-Go Zones," to the rebirth of Detroit.  At the end of the meal, they introduced me to the chef, the waitress and the woman whose father started the restaurant. I'm pretty sure if I went back again, I would be welcomed with kisses.

Big department stores line the main streets, but the old town is full of small artisan shops.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, Grenoble was famous for its high-end leather gloves which were sold the world over. Less-expensive imports signaled the decline of the industry, but there are still one or two luxury glove makers in Grenoble. The glove store was closed when I went by, but I did buy a hat at a small shop nearby. (A new company, FST Handwear, is trying to revive the glove industry in Grenoble by giving a new look to classic Grenoble gloves. Their products are available online.)

On Saturday with the sky over Grenoble still grey and heavy, we decided that if the sun would not come to us, we would go to the sun. With borrowed snowshoes, we piled into a friend's car and headed toward the ski resort of Chamrousse, one of many ski resorts near Grenoble. As we twisted and turned up the mountainous road, the snow became heavy on the trees and the fog became denser. Hope began to wane, but then, like magic, we drove through the clouds into an enchanted world of crystal blue skies, brilliant sunshine and and new, pure-white snow sparkling like diamonds. 

We parked the car, put on our snowshoes and started up the trail at a place called Bachat Bouloud at 1,735 meters of altitude (6,000 ft.). Jackets, sweaters, hats and gloves came off as we climbed to our destination, 400 meters (1,300 ft.) up the mountain. The trail begins in a pine forest that eventually gives way to open slopes with, on most days, a bird's eye view of Grenoble in the valley below.  Today, however, Grenoble was lost under a lake of snow-white clouds, which, rather than diminishing the view, only added to its mystical quality. We climbed to a pass where we could see two mountain ranges; spread our coats on the snow; and dined on fresh baguette, comté cheese and fruit.  After a little nap in the sun, we headed back down and ended the day with a beer on the terrace of a mountain cafe.

After a great four-day visit, we left the next day on a morning where the sun did make some brief appearances. Finally I was lucky enough to get Stendhal's view of the mountains from Grenoble. 

To see more photos, click here.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor