City Focus Grenoble
Our City Focus editor Robin McKelvie gets to grips with the French “capital of the Alps”
Whether the seminal, locally born writer Stendhal actually said it or not is something of a moot point, as there really is “A mountain at the end of every street” in Grenoble. The city enjoys one of the most scenic settings in Europe, hemmed in by hulking Alpine peaks on all sides at the confluence of three mighty valleys and two surging rivers. This location makes it a perfect jumping-off point for some of Europe’s best and most varied ski resorts, including Alpe D’Huez, Vaujany, Vercors and Val d’Isère. But there is also plenty in this student-fuelled city to keep you going après ski, such as the MC2 venue (affectionately named the “Culture House” by locals) pictured here. This exciting space houses a theatre, concert venue and bar, and hosts performances and productions in dance, theatre and music from around the globe. So Grenoble is a more international city than you might think.
IF YOU ARE HERE FOR THE SKIING you’ll probably be off early to hit the slopes, as Grenoble is one of Europe’s top winter sports destinations. Back in town though, trek up to the Bastille via one of the steep trails that leave the city. The old fortress offers sweeping vistas of Grenoble and the mountains – and if you fancy cheating simply hop on the cable car, known locally as“the Bubbles” for their funky spherical design. (Note: the Bastille often closes in parts of January, so check opening times before setting off.)
If you fancy a coffee and a sugary waffle then pop into La Salle des Gardes café at the top station, which boasts a terrace where you can hover over the city and the Isère River far below. Further up is Chez le Pèr’ Gras, the perfect spot for lunch or dinner. Here you can enjoy the amazing views and satisfying local fare – the region is home to potato Dauphinoise and has great beef and lamb – all served up by chef Laurent Gras, whose family have owned the restaurant for five generations.
Time now to venture back down the hillside. Take the cable car if you’ve had one too many glasses of Chartreuse – the lethal local herb liqueur – or amble down and pop into the Museum Dauphinois. Here the culture and history of the region is illuminated, including a great section on skiing in the area that adds a bit of cerebral weight to any ski trip.
The most interesting part of town is Notre Dame, so ease back across the river and delve into the tight web of historic streets that buzz with shops, cafés, bars and restaurants. Lifeblood Place du Notre Dame is ideal for a coffee stop, so take a pew and enjoy a café au lait as you take the pulse of Grenoble.
Don’t miss the Museum of Grenoble – this striking modernist building is a work of art in itself and on your approach are some fine street sculptures that cost nothing to view. If you want to pay, go inside and you’ll be treated to a broad sweep of global (mainly European) art from the Etruscans and Egyptians, right through to the present day. The more modern works are the highlight, with some stunning paintings by Matisse, Picasso and Warhol.
Up until Christmas Eve, look out for the Christmas market rumbling through Place Victor Hugo and Place Grenette, with its warming wine, seasonal snack goodies and cheesy yuletide gifts. If all the festive shenanigans have finished, don’t despair and instead try out Les Halles Ste Claire. This characterful 19th-century covered market is alive with all manner of stalls, from bright fruit and vegetable offerings right through to what seems like half the Atlantic on display in the fishmonger’s. It’s great for getting a picnic together or just taking in the sights and smells.
IF YOU WANT SIMPLE, TRADITIONAL French food for dinner, go for L’Auguste, which sources much of its produce from the market next door. For something fun and funky check out relaxed Le Mandala, with its open kitchen, wines by the glass and inventive cooking – or Le Comptoir de l’Amarcord, with its hearty fusion dishes and buzzing brasserie ambience.
But the real star of the local dining scene at the moment is Le Fantin Latour, with one of France’s most exciting chefs, Stéphane Froidevaux, at the helm. Foam and purees are the order of the day, with the mountain influences of his roots being toyed with to produce some startling results.
Grenoble boasts a lively student community, and when they hit the tiles it tends to be in and around the old streets of the Notre Dame district. As this happens to be the oldest and most charming city quarter it makes for a fun night out. Place du Notre Dame itself boasts plenty of choice, as well as pavement tables on sunny days. Break away to the market area and A L’Ouest, a raucous student bar where you can choose from half a dozen scary, multi-coloured vodka shooters lined up menacingly behind the bar. Then head next door to hip Zinc, named after its shiny metallic bar where you can snack and drink.
Grenoble is home to an active gay community, and the line between gay bars and the rest of the city’s drinking dens is a blurred one. Café Margaux is gay-friendly, but everyone is welcome in this brand new chic bar. When it comes to clubbing, La Villa Bayard is a raffish bar/club with no cover charge that bangs on until 4am at weekends. Hip venues include Le Bar MC2, which attracts DJs from Paris and specialises in electro sounds. Also party at La Soupe aux Choux, a popular jazz club.
The Grenoble Gig
The classical music event of the month surely has to be the visit of the RIAS Kammerchor. Formed during the Cold War in the divided city of Berlin, this worldclass concert choir (pictured above) is coming to Grenoble to perform the works of baroque master Bach. German conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann is at the helm for the two-night stint on 21–22 December at MC2, one of the city’s liveliest cultural venues.
4 Rue Paul Claudel, Tel: +33 (0)476 007 900, www.mc2grenoble.fr
GRENOBLE ON THE CHEAP
The Grenoble Pass, available from the tourist office, is essential for budget-conscious visitors. For €12.50 you can use it for 48 hours to visit eight museums and 14 other sights. It includes a ride on the Bubbles, and there are great shopping and restaurant discounts, too. For cheap eats check out the city’s main market, Les Halles Ste Claire, on Place Ste Claire. Also keep in mind that many restaurants boast great-value prix fixe (fixed price) menus.
Take a break from all the hiking and skiing with our pick of Grenoble’s best hotels – from cheap to chic
Cream of the Crop
Overlooking the leafy Paul Mistral Park, this refined four-star is easily the best place to stay in town. Service is slick and welcoming, and the owners have made a real eff ort with the funky, diff erently themed rooms. Many boast views of the Alps, so try to snare one of these! The new restaurant, Louis 10, opened in 2008 and is one of the chicest places to eat in the city. Decked out with avant-garde fireplaces and sleek furniture, it serves up a fusion menu, including top-notch sushi and sashimi.
Closed 20 December–5 January. Doubles from €175, tel: +33 (0)47 685 8123, www.park-hotel-grenoble.fr
Not Breaking the Bank
The city is home to a number of three-star hotels, but my favourite is Hôtel Angleterre. Despite the name, it is actually Dutch-owned, and for some reason – maybe the Dutch connection – they have decided that all the rooms had to be done out in the same shade of rather garish orange. Yet on the plus side, behind the appealing, grand-old façade, are comfortable rooms all equipped with wi-fiand many with spa jets in the bathrooms – perfect for easing those tired travelling muscles.
Doubles from €105, Tel: +33 (0)47 687 3721, www.hotel-angleterre-grenoble.com
On a Budget
Two-star hotels in France can sometimes be a bit grim, but trim little Splendid hits the budget spot. You don’t get smooth service and fawning bellhops, but the rooms are neat and clean and boast free wi-fi. Room nine is one of the best, with a separate seating area and powerful spa shower. There’s no restaurant as such, but you can have a simple breakfast to set you up for the day, and chilled Champagne can be delivered to your room for just €38, which you won’t get at many five-star hotels!
Doubles from €71, Tel: +33 (0)47 646 3312, www.splendid-hotel.com
01 PARK HOTEL
10 Place Paul Mistral Tel: +33 (0)47 685 8123
02 HOTEL ANGLETERRE
5 Place Victor Hugo Tel: +33 (0)4 7687 3721
03 SPLENDID HOTEL
22 Rue Thiers Tel: +33 (0)47 646 3312
04 CABLE CAR (BASTILLE)
Tel: +33 (0)47 644 3365
05 MUSEUM DAUPHINOIS
30 Rue Maurice Gignoux Tel: +33 (0)45 758 8901
06 MUSEUM OF GRENOBLE
5 Place de Lavalette Tel: +33 (0)47 663 4444
07 CHRISTMAS MARKET
Place Victor Hugo and Place Grenette
08 LES HALLES STE CLAIRE
Place Ste Claire
09 LA SALLE DES GARDES (BASTILLE)
Tel: +33 (0)47 644 8966
10 CHEZ LE PER’ GRAS (BASTILLE)
Tel: +33 (0)47 642 0947
4 Rue Auguste Gaché Tel: +33 (0)47 651 3696
12 LE MANDALA
7 Rue Raoul Blanchard Tel: +33 (0)47 644 4980
13 LE COMPTOIR DE L’AMARCORD
18 Rue St Joseph Tel: +33 (0)47 647 4162
14 LE FANTIN LATOUR
1 Rue Général de Beylié Tel: +33 (0)47 601 0097
15 A L’OUEST
5 Place Ste Claire Tel: +33 (0)47 654 1706
5 Rue Auguste Gaché Tel: +33 (0)47 603 0744
17 CAFÉ MARGAUX
6 Place de Claveyson Tel: +33 (0)47 662 0423
18 LA VILLA BAYARD
1 Rue d’Agier Tel: +33 (0)47 615 2260
19 LE BAR MC2
4 Rue Paul Claudel Tel: +33 (0)47 600 7900
20 LA SOUPE AUX CHOUX
7 Route de Lyon Tel: +33 (0)47 687 0567
“CHEESE IS LIFE, CHEESE IS MY LIFE and the people of Grenoble really know how to appreciate cheese, which makes this the perfect city for me. I have lived here all my life and my parents are from the region too – I have never wanted to live anywhere else.
“You might imagine, as I spend my life around cheese, that I have always had a love for it or my parents were big cheese aficionados, but to be honest I just saw it as a way of escaping school. I was only 20 when I opened my first shop in Grenoble and I have never looked back. Over the years I have been lucky enough to win many awards and have even been featured in the Guinness Book of World Records. The highlight came in 2007 when I was voted the World Champion Cheesemonger, beating my rivals from a dozen other countries on the day.
“Awards are nice, but for me the real pleasure is serving people and making them happy. Everyone with an interest in cheese, or who is not converted yet, is welcome in my shop for a taste and maybe a little wine. We sell everything from small slices, right through to massive platters that people buy as birthday presents for friends or relatives.
“Grenoble is a good city for eating out in. After all, my cheese is on sale in 30 of the restaurants! We could do with a few Michelin-star restaurants, but I don’t think Le Fantin Latour is very far away from at least one, so that should really change things. The food is heavily influenced by Italy and Switzerland, and I love the fact we are so close to both. Then there are our stunning lakes and mountains, a great environment for skiing.
“Grenoble is a city that does not change very much. The old town and the Bastille are still as charming as ever, and the only real change of late has been the new football stadium and Grenoble finally getting back up to Ligue 1. I am moving to a new bigger and better shop in the same street as my current shop next year, but apart from that the cheese goes on as ever, as does this city that I have loved even longer than my cheese.”
2 Rue De Strasbourg, Tel: +33 (0)47 646 3262, www.les-alpages.fr