“There is a mountain at the end of every street.” Grenoble is often described in this way and we wholeheartedly agree! Then, when the Alps are covered in snow; they become breathtakingly beautiful.
Nov 3, 2018
Known as the Capital of the French Alps, Grenoble lays in a valley surrounded by three large mountain ranges.
Le Vercors mountain range in the south is particularly popular for paragliding. The jagged Le Belledonne range in the east offers hiking and hosts oodles of ski resorts. And finally Le Chartreuse mountain range, made famous by local monks, who in 1737 began distilling a wonderful green liqueur and named it Chartreuse, after the mountain range.
Descente Des Alpages
We arrived in Grenoble on a Friday evening and on Saturday morning set out to discover the city. To our surprise, on our first foray, we happened upon a celebration going in the streets. We quickly discovered it was called the ‘Descente Des Alpages’ or ‘Return from the Alpine Pastures’.
This charming and authentic festival acknowledges a past way of life and the origins of the area. Cows that have spent the summer months grazing pastures in the Alps were being driven down, and through the streets, to lower pastures ahead of winter. The cows heads were decorated with traditional colorful floral arrangements and large bells hung around their necks. There is an annual competition and we were able to see the beautiful cow that won the Golden Bell Award of Paris.
The festival includes crafts, demonstration of old trades, the parade of the Alpine herds – cows, sheep and goats and folklore music. The best part for us was tasting the local products. The cheese in France is incomparable.
Descente Des Alpages celebrates the beginning of autumn and these annual fetes take place throughout the Alpine regions of France, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. The second Saturday in October is a good date to remember when visiting the Alps.
What a perfect start to our stay in Grenoble!
The Bastille, first built in the middle ages, is a large fortress located high in the Chartreuse mountain range overlooking the city of Grenoble.
Mid-October on a warm sunny morning we took the ‘bubble lift’ up to explore the fort, the Mandrin caves beneath the fort and a small but interesting military museum. The air is incredibly fresh and the views of the mountains and the city below are spectacular. Two weeks later, at the end of October following 48 hours of rain, we awoke to a gloriously sunny day so this time we hiked up to the Bastille.
What had been rain in the city, was snow on the mountains. The mountains were breathtaking with their first of the season covering of snow.
Museum of Grenoble
Not far from the beautiful Isère River, the Museum of Grenoble, founded in 1798, is both a museum of fine art and contemporary art. It has over 4500 paintings and more than 6000 drawings and has the distinction of being the very first museum of modern art in France.
One large piece of sculpture by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi caught our attention. Bartholdi (1834 – 1904) was a French sculptor who is best known for designing the Statue of Liberty.
Another of his works, the Bartholdi fountain, can be found in Washington DC. He was born in Colmar, France, a city we are hoping to visit in the next couple of weeks.
Grenoble has a number of great museums, but Musée Dauphinois may have been our favorite. The museum is housed in a beautiful 17th century convent and along with a lovely chapel it showcases captivating exhibitions about this local region, formerly known as Dauphiné.
One fascinating exhibition called ‘Gens de l’alpe’ or ‘People of the Alps’, shared the way of life of the people living in Alps.
Toughened by the environment and weather, these Alpine peoples soon evolved their own distinctive identity and culture. As you passed through each room, audio recordings would play throughout the exhibit, giving additional details of their lives in the mountains. One exhibit was a wonderful display of how they made bread (a family would make their own bread, stamp it with a wooden tool that would have a carving on it, like a brand, which was unique to each family and then take the loaf or loaves to a local oven to bake. The baked bread that belonged to you was then easily identifiable). A similar identifying process was used to make cheese.
We learned about their talent for carving and lacework and in general the life of a shepherd and of his family. Although somewhat independent, they did rely on the travelling salesmen that would hike up the mountains in the summer bringing goods that the Alpine people couldn’t produce on their own. The people of the Alps lived by this creed:
“Learn if you are wise, for knowledge is worth more than an inheritance. An inheritance will fail you, knowledge will feed you.”
Another excellent exhibition titled ‘Le Rêve Blanc’ or ‘the White Dream’, shares the history of skiing and winter sports in the Alps. They had a great display showing how the shape and size of skis have evolved over time.
The temporary exhibit called “Grenoble 1968, The Olympic Games that changed the Isère”, was very engaging. The X Olympic Winter Games were hosted by Grenoble in 1968 and in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the Olympic Games in Grenoble was cause for a large celebration. If you have never attended the Olympic Games, this exhibition is an opportunity to gain a sense of the excitement, production and competition of the games.
We spent a number of enjoyable hours in this excellent museum.
Parc Paul Mistral
Parc Paul Mistral is a wonderfully large 67 acres of parkland. Although it provides plenty of activity options, it was relatively quiet each time we strolled through it. In the center of the park is the 95 meter / 312 foot tall Perret Tower.
It is an observation tower, erected in 1925 and the first tower built of reinforced concrete in Europe. You can see it from nearly anywhere in the city so (as long as you can see it) you generally know where you are.
Natural History Museum
Grenoble’s Natural History Museum has the best display of nature we have found yet.
The museum primarily displays beautiful alpine plants and animals and wonderful specimens of gems and minerals.
However you will also see many specimens of insect, moth, bee, butterfly and others found around the world. We thought it was a well presented, informative and educational museum.
Another first for us, we visited a solar clock, Horloge Solaire, that is found nowhere else in the world. In 1673, a Jesuit father, Father Bonfa, and his pupils painted large reflective frescoes covering 100 square meters on the walls and ceiling of a particular staircase in the Jesuit College. This sundial not only still keeps time today but also accurately tracks the seasons, the solstices, astrological signs and the movements of the moon and much, much more. Today it is protected by thick panes of glass but it was wonderful to see nonetheless.
After exploring the major sites in Grenoble one morning we decided to follow the walking pathway that was on a map the tourist office had provided. Although we had previously visited most of the statues, fountains, churches and museums, it was still an interesting walk. We discovered where Napoleon had stayed during a visit and along the Passage du Palais de Justice, we found a melancholy courtyard filled with plaques depicting various historical somber events. During the French revolution, this courtyard was apparently used as a staging ground.
We didn’t learn until later that you are able to rent an audio guide for this walk. C’est la vie.
Walnuts are an important agricultural crop in Grenoble. The French people adore them. Other nuts are good, but for the French none can compare to walnuts. Noix is both the French word for nut and also for walnut. It is said that at one time, residents could pay their rent in walnuts. Grenoble claims to produce the finest walnuts anywhere, so it would have been remiss of us to not sample at least a couple of ways in which they are used. We found walnut filled cakes and cookies, walnut pie, fresh walnuts in a salad, walnut mustard and walnut vinegar and oil.
It even comes as a beverage such as the local ‘vin de noix’, a sweet aperitif. November is called the month of the walnut, when the nut is generally harvested, which is then followed by the ‘Fete de Noix’ or ‘Walnut Festival’. Unfortunately we will miss this festival this year.
We began our month of October in Seville, Spain in 90°F / 32°C temperatures and ended the month in Grenoble, France with 45°F / 8°C temperatures. We have experienced summer, fall and winter in less than 30 days. It rained for two days the last week of October in Grenoble, but the good news is that that rain turned to snow in the surrounding mountains and the mountains are now even more striking than when we arrived.
The air is so fresh and crisp and when the sun shines, nature begs you to get out and enjoy it. Nestled at the foot of the French Alps, we are grateful we were able to spend time in Grenoble and this magnificent setting.
Santé from the Grenoblois,
Ted and Julia
(click on any picture to go to slideshow view)