On workdays, daily train trips between Annecy and Grenoble run every hour. Some of these require a change of train at Chambery approximately halfway along the route; others require two train changes, one at Aix-les-Bains, thirty minutes after leaving Annecy and the other at Chambery. Only one train daily is direct, leaving Annecy at 10:37 am and reaching Grenoble almost two hours later. To avoid the hassle of changing trains, it is advisable to take the direct train unless you envisage stopping for an hour of sightseeing (a really worthwhile option) in Aix-les-Bains, Chambery or both. In this case, one can still resume the Grenoble-bound trip on a subsequent train using the same Annecy-Grenoble ticket.
Leaving the station at Annecy, the train wends its way westwards for about fifteen minutes through a chain of monotonous residential suburbs. But as the train changes course and veers south beyond the town of Rumilly, the humdrum blocks give way to spectacular rolling hills, still sprinkled with patches of melting snow in the first week of June when I was travelling across. On approaching Aix-les-Bains, the gentle rolling hills transmute into soaring mountains, a grand massif of overlapping snowcapped peaks fissured by deep gorges, rich with greenery and streaming water.
Aix-les-Bains deserves more than a one-hour stopover. To do justice to this small graceful spa town, consider spoiling yourself in one of its natural thermal baths unique to the region or else embarking on a boating trip of your choice on Lac Bourget, France’s largest natural lake. Short of time? Then, wander instead along the lakeside promenade in the shade of the Alpine peaks. The mountain views are spectacular; the fresh unadulterated air is as therapeutic as a dip in the steaming spa.
South of Aix-les-Bains, the railway tracks proceed along the eastern periphery of the Parc du Massif des Bauges, an eight-hundred-square-kilometre mountainous zone sandwiched between Annecy and Chambery. Taking a seat on the left-hand side of the train pays off with an incredible overdose of natural magnificence nestled at the front of a pretty backdrop of Alpine peaks. Dramatically superb, the mountains loom up large as the train approaches Chambery.
Stopping at Chambery for an hour or two before continuing to Grenoble is not a bad idea. In spite of its rather dilapidated state, the compact old quarter is ideal for a good old mosey. Consisting of cobbled-stone streets crammed with intriguing courtyards, Chambery’s Old Town is hard to beat for old-world atmosphere. Unrestored and fully authentic, walled in by a ring of ruined bastions, this is an untouched place of history-trodden streets, quaint squares and ancient buildings, bequeathed to posterity by the Savoy dukes in the sixteenth century. The Musee Savoisien, on the east edge of the old quarter necessitates a visit not only for its impressive range of exhibits (the thirteenth-century wall frescoes are particularly interesting) but also for the charming quaintness of the Franciscan monastery inside which it is aptly housed. On the southwest corner of the old quarter is the ghostly Chateau, a huge fourteenth-century castle that demands a visit (group visits only, English audio-guide available on demand) more for its historical aspect than for its architectural beauty or grandeur.
East of Chambery, the train tracks cut across more spectacular landscape, hugged from the north by the Parc du Massif des Bauges and from the south by the Parc de Chartreuse. The setting cannot be more impressive: a terraced tract of greenery, dense with spruce and beech forests rises gently on each side out of the Chambery valley depths in the direction of the looming mountains. Before long, the train reaches the spot where it takes a sharp turn south en route for Grenoble. But the landscape views persist with rising slopes of forest sprinkled here and there with an odd promontory of bare rock or a deep rift filled up with cascading water. Running close to the River Isere for the final part of the trip, the train affords a full half-hour of river views enhanced by a pretty backdrop of soaring hilltops and low-lying mountains.
Grenoble train station, though small in size is great on facilities. Besides the usual shops (patisserie, fast-food restaurant and newspaper kiosk) that cater for people on the move, the station boasts an excellent ticket-sales office and information point. Information assistance comes quicker than expected, although the queue of people requesting a service never seems to die down. Out of the station, one finds oneself on Place de la Gare, a modern busy area sweet to linger on in fine weather. The no-frills electronically-controlled fountain on one edge of the central zone is simple, yet utterly charming, particularly when the act of spewing out foaming water becomes unexpectedly intensely vigorous. More charming than the fountain are the spectacular views of the Vercors Mountains that hang over Grenoble from the west and the Chartreuse Mountains that shelter the city from the north.
Right opposite Place de la Gare is Rue Emile Gueymard, a busy one-way thoroughfare that leads north to the suburb of St-Egreve. The streets in the vicinity of Rue Gueymard thrive with good-value hotels, conveniently located within earshot of the train station. Line A and Line B trams go around Place de la Gare (where they can be boarded) before they take an eastbound route along Avenue Alsace Lorraine in the direction of the historic quarter. The tram journey from Place de la Gare to the historic centre lasts only five minutes and is not worth neither the wait on the tram stop nor the price of the ticket. But to venture beyond the historic quarter, either further south (take Line A) in the direction of Parc Paul Mistral or further north (take Line B) in the direction of L’Ile Verte, the trams are a must.
Facing the fountain on Place de la Gare is Avenue Felix Viallet, a long uninspiring thoroughfare that affords a direct undemanding link between the train station area and the historic quarter. A walk along the entire length of Avenue Felix Viallet past three successive junction highways takes only twenty minutes, winding up on Rue de Belgrade, a narrow street on the western edge of the historic centre. A stone’s throw away is the charming Jardin de Ville, a cosy flower garden that in spite of its smallness sustains rare species of flowering plants and shrubs. The extensive old building towering over the garden is the Ancien Hotel Lesdiguieres. Architecturally appealing and historically prestigious, this building, used as a Town Hall for almost a century was where the initial underground meetings that led to the French Revolution were organized. At least, that’s what the commemorative marble plaque next to the doorway claims.
East and south of the Jardin de Ville is a rambling network of immemorial twisting streets that collectively shape up the historic centre, a compact car-free (but not tram-free) zone, so characterful it’s practically one complete well-preserved relic from a bygone age. Three squares linked to each other by way of narrow pedestrianized streets dominate the historic centre.
Place Grenette, an elongated promenade crammed with street cafes is a noisy yet elegant parade ground for the well-heeled. In such a lively atmosphere of leisure and clatter, it is easy to forget that Place Grenette is not merely a get-together hotspot but is in addition a showplace of fine architecture so well-cared-for it appears much less aged than it really is. The grand allegorical stone fountain on the extreme corner of the square is a perfect example of craftsmanship in restoration and refinement.
Place Grenette is connected to Place St-Andre by Grande Rue, a gem of a street that together with the other side streets that radiate out of it form the heart of the historic centre. Grande Rue is indeed grand not in terms of dimensions (it’s merely a narrow lopsided passageway) but rather on account of the old-world feeling it imparts to the thousands who come here to while the time away window-shopping. The northernmost end of Grande Rue unfolds into Place St-Andre, an ancient square dominated by a central bronze statue and two grand buildings. Lining the length of the square is the white-and-grey Palais du Parlement du Dauphine, an old building of stature graced with an elegant combination of Renaissance and Gothic features. Facing the ancient parliament is the Collegiate Church of St-Andre, a thirteenth-century brick building crammed with authentic peculiarities. The bell tower towering above the rest of the buildings on the square is particularly beautiful.
Rue Brocherie links Place St-Andre with Place Notre-Dame, an extensive open space that shelters a concentration of must-see attractions. Imposing and rich with religious art is the Cathedrale Notre-Dame. But the Musee de l’Ancien Eveche, housed in the former fourteenth-century bishop’s palace just round the corner from the cathedral is no less attractive, in this case more for its wide range of historical exhibits rather than for its religious aspect. The Roman crypt (entrance from the museum) under the cathedral is particularly impressive.