A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Grenoble

View Benelux 2022 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Grenoble was another addition to the original itinerary. We could have gone straight from Annecy to Lyon but I saw Grenoble on the map and it stood out for reasons I couldn't really put my finger on. Had I read about it in a novel? Had the city played some major role in history? I read up on it in my guidebook and didn't come across any overwhelming reason to visit but I decided to include it anyway. Since we had already visited Provence we might never find a reason to return to southeastern France and the opportunity might be lost forever. If the city proved to be superfluous we would only lose one night from our itinerary and the Saturday markets would probably make up for it.

It didn't take long for any concerns we had regarding Grenoble's worthiness to be assuaged. After checking into yet another bland Airbnb in an apartment complex well outside the center we selected a restaurant from the review sites. We drove into a neighborhood called Championnet just southwest of the old town and we were immediately blown away. The area was filled with narrow streets lined with colorful antiquated townhouses displaying classical French architectural touches. Many of the buildings had restaurants and cafes on the ground levels which were mostly filled with customers on this Friday evening. There was elaborate street art on the sides of many buildings and just enough graffiti to confer a hip vibe without marring the beauty of the neighborhood. It was kind of like that ideal bohemian neighborhood in Paris that everyone imagines but could never exist because it would immediately be overrun with tourists, creperies, and ice cream shops. Here in Grenoble far from the tourism track a neighborhood like this could thrive without being destroyed by its own success. Although we were the only customers at our chosen restaurant the traditional French food was excellent and we had an interesting chat with the owner about travel and different cuisines.

After dinner we realized that we weren't that far from the old town so we decided to walk rather than deal with a parking garage. The bars had filled up and in several places crowds of young people filled the sidewalks holding their drinks. It reminded me of Greenwich Village in New York City back when I was in high school before it lost its local vibe. Some people looked at us bemusedly as we gently wound our way through the clusters of revelers.

Just outside the old town we came across the large open square Place Victor Hugo. By a stroke of luck there was an Italian culinary expo that was just beginning to wrap up as we arrived and we were able to enjoy some of the amazing variety of salumi and wines in a picturesque location. The only thing that detracted from the scene was an unsightly dry fountain pool in the center of the square but the kids made the most of it by organizing a game of tag.

The old town was pleasant enough to explore but didn't have the same bohemian energy as Championnet. We passed ancient churches and several interesting town squares before we ended up in Jardin de Ville. This beautiful park was created as a private garden by the Duke of Lesdiguières four hundred years ago to adjoin his palatial mansion, which is now an exhibition hall. The portion of the garden in front of the mansion was divided into four neat rectangles of grass each of which was occupied by several clusters of people talking and eating. In the center a statue of Hercules kept watch. It was an idyllic evening scene until I heard some familiar-sounding squeals of distress coming from nearby. I turned around and saw Mei Ling had Spenser in a headlock and was attempting to extract the loose upper incisor he had been nagging about for a couple of days. Fortunately Spenser's protests never grew loud enough to disturb the tranquil surroundings and Mei Ling eventually gave up on her mission.

On the other side of the Jardin was another of France's noble rivers of Alpine origin, the Isère. Across the river there was a solitary row of townhouses before the ground began to ascend steeply into the beginning of the Chartreuse mountain range. A cable car known as the Téléphérique takes passengers across the Isère to the Fort de la Bastille in bubble-shaped pods. This was part of our plan for the following day but at this point all we could think about was completing the long walk back to the car and eventually getting to bed. We had explored the Annecy market, the Gorges du Fier, Chambéry, and Grenoble in just one exhausting day.

In the morning I had a nice list of three morning markets in Grenoble. This would be our only Saturday in France and I wanted to be sure we made the most of it. We started at Marché de l’Estacade a little to the west of Championnet which is largely situated underneath a train overpass. It was a long market with an excellent variety of produce and prepared food. Of course it wasn't comparable in setting to the Annecy market but we appreciated its functional appeal to a local clientele. We combined savory crepes with some fresh fruits and vegetables and pickled artichokes to take care of our breakfast needs.

Back in the center of town we found a parking garage which was substantially less expensive than what we had become used to in Switzerland. There was an outdoor market in the Place aux Herbes which was much smaller than l’Estacade and looked to be mostly resellers so we kept moving through the old town. In some way it was even more charming than Annecy because the streets didn't seem curated for the admiration of tourists. There were empty boxes piled haphazardly on the corners, peeling posters on the lamp posts, and all the other signs of an energetic central neighborhood simply going about its daily business.

Our final market of the morning was Halles Sainte-Claire, a classic French brick and glass market building with ornate masonry. Produce kiosks were doing a brisk business outside the market which I imagine was a Saturday practice. It wasn't close to the largest covered market we'd seen in France but the vendors did a wonderful job of displaying their local products in an intriguing and appetizing fashion. Best of all there was a perfect hole-in-the-wall market bistro with mixed French and Argentinian cuisine. Even though it had only been a couple of hours since breakfast we couldn't resist taking two of the three tables for a lunch of shellfish, empanadas and assorted local cheeses washed down with red wine and ice cold Quilmes.

After a short break at the playground in Jardin de Ville we bought our tickets for the Téléphérique and watched the city recede from us as we crossed the Isère in our own little bubble. We could see how the rooftops filled the valley until the city's expansion was blocked abruptly by the steep slopes of the Vercors Massif. It was easy to forget while strolling the quintessentially French streets of the old town that Grenoble was actually a remote outpost surrounded by three foreboding mountain ranges. At that moment the city seemed to have more in common with Medellin and Albuquerque than it did with Avignon or Orléans.

Once we reached the fort we found ourselves surrounded by young people wearing giant puppet costumes who seemed to be rehearsing for an upcoming event. Mei Ling found the director who explained that it was an amateur performance group and children as young as ten could enroll. We kept it in mind as a possible future activity for the kids if we ever decided to spend an entire summer in France. From the upper level of the Bastille the view was even more dramatic than it had been from the Telepherique.

We were surprised to discover that there was an entertainment complex called Acrobastille that offered numerous activities such as ziplining and tree-climbing as well as a number of indoor labyrinths. It was a bit confusing but eventually I bought a stack of tokens for the indoor games and the kids disappeared into a narrow boxes at the entrance. There were some video screens set up for anxious parents to keep an eye on their kids and every once in a while I caught a brief glimpse of one of them rounding a corner. Eventually they emerged and dragged me into one of the boxes which led to a very uncomfortable twenty minutes of squeezing through narrow tunnels and surmounting a series of annoyingly cramped obstacles.

The kids played the indoor games for so long that it was mid afternoon by the time we got back to the garage. We set a course for a town called Bourgoin-Jallieu about two thirds of the way to Lyon where I had discovered a Saturday afternoon market while doing my itinerary research. We were well on the way when I realized I had completely forgotten my plan to visit the Domaine de Vizille. This estate contains elaborate gardens and a Renaissance castle that played an important part in the French Revolution. Somehow in my desire to make up time after our prolonged stay at the fort I overlooked the Domaine in my planner. I initially felt quite upset about this since it was unlikely we would make it back to Grenoble for a long time, if ever, but I came to the realization that we would be seeing so many castles over the course of the next month that one less probably wouldn't make that much difference. We made it to Bourgoin-Jallieu in good time for the market but it was almost a total wash as there were only three vendors working out of trucks and they didn't have anything particularly interesting or unusual.

We were now on schedule to arrive in Lyon earlier than I had planned if we went straight there. Once again the temperature had risen into the nineties and the kids had been grumbling about the paucity of swimming since Zürich so I decided to study our route on Google Maps. Surprisingly enough I found a lake called Fallavier that had a beach area fairly quickly and we drove straight there. Parking close to the lake proved impossible on a hot Saturday afternoon so I dropped everyone off and found a road some distance away where other beachgoers had parked on the grassy shoulder. By the time I had walked to the beach the kids were already playing in the lake. It was quite a beautiful place full of locals looking to cool down during the heat wave. All the bathers were clustered in a small area that I figured was the boundary of the shallow area. Cleo kept migrating over to the edge and the boys would follow her so that I got hoarse from shouting at her to stay close to the beach.

When I created our itinerary the ancient city of Vienne was a maybe. We only had two days in Lyon and I felt like we'd already seen enough Roman ruins throughout Europe. However our abbreviated visit to Bourgoin-Jallieu had given us some extra time and I thought that perhaps we could have dinner in Vienne and then dash into Lyon's old town before tucking in for the night. In modern times Vienne is just a small outpost on the Rhône that seems insignificant compared to the behemoth of Lyon twenty-five miles north. However, two thousand years ago Vienne was an important Roman colony that predated the founding of Lugdunum, later to become Lyon. Vienne stands out from other charming riverside towns in the region due to the surprising preservation of Roman architecture through the millennia. When we parked in front of the town's art museum we saw an attractive old-fashioned square but nothing to give away Vienne's ancient provenance. That soon changed when we encountered the Temple of Augustus and Livia in the very next square. As an American I'm always amazed when I see these two thousand year old structures in the midst of busy areas in modern cities, with cafes and stores conducting business all around them. Rome is especially remarkable in that way but Diocletian's Palace in Croatia is also breathtaking. The Temple of Augustus and Livia is so well-preserved due to its having been converted to a Christian church before eventually being restored to its original magnificence.

We strolled around the center for a short time admiring the charming narrow lanes and ancient buildings such as the Abbey of Saint-André-le-Bas. Even though it was Saturday night there were few people in the streets and the only restaurants that were busy were the ones directly around the temple.

We settled on a Portuguese restaurant next to the abbey and were seated at an outdoor table just as it opened. It proved to be an excellent choice as we were served generous portions of Portuguese specialties like caldeira and stewed codfish on one of the most atmospheric streets in the old town.

After dinner we did a little more exploration in the center but I was eager to drive onward to Lyon and get settled before the hour grew too late. I was glad that circumstances had led us to Vienne, even if it was only because we had missed Domaine de Vizille. In the end I expected that we would remember this enchanting old town and its precious temple much more than yet another castle with a mountainous backdrop. Even though we loved Vienne we left in such a rush that we neglected to look at the town's other Roman edifices such as the amphitheatre and an odd little monument known as La Pyramide. As usual there simply wasn't enough time in a day to devote the time that each city justified.

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:01 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog vienne tony_friedman family_travel_blog bourgoin-jallieu

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

Comment with:

Comments left using a name and email address are moderated by the blog owner before showing.

Not published. Required
Leave this field empty

Characters remaining: