My first full day in Grenoble was crammed with activities: strenuous physical exercise in the morning, cultural sightseeing later and to wind up… an indulgence in local fare and wine from a cosy rustic hide-out on Rue Brocherie.
My day started early with a twenty-minute walk from the hotel to the Jardin de Ville on the western edge of the historic centre. Having been aware of the popularity this garden enjoyed among school children, I made sure I would be here ahead of school time so as to have at least an hour to follow my botanic interests undisturbed. Out of the garden, I took Rue de Belgrade in the direction of the river with the intention of taking the ‘telepherique’ to the top of Bastille Hill.
The ‘telepherique’ Grenoble-Bastille lower station is conveniently located on the riverside, only steps away from the northern edge of Rue de Belgrade and right behind the historical building of the Ancien Hotel Lesdiguieres. As I came close to the ‘telepherique’ station, I could see four red egg-shaped metal-and-glass bubbles suspended on ropes from a contraption that was delightful to inspect. But… to my dismay, the station lacked all forms of activity and seemed completely out of action. Going around however, I detected the operating schedule fixed next to the access gateway. The schedule for the month of June ran like this: Monday - 11:00 am to 11:45 pm, Tuesday to Saturday - 9:15 am to 11:45 pm, Sunday - 9:15 am to 7:25 pm.
Since it was a Monday, the first ascent was scheduled for 11:00 am. But it was still 9:00 am and so too early to keep on waiting. So, I walked along the riverside in the direction of Pont St-Laurent. This graceful footbridge, graced with decorative wrought-iron railings affords excellent river views from each side (expect a lively bubbling flow and four impressive stone bridges). Crossing Pont St-Laurent to the northern shoreline brings one right on Place de la Cimaise, a sweet lopsided square, probably the finest leisurely spot on this side of the river. Sheltered by the steep green grove of Bastille Hill and freshened by the cool swift waters of the River Isere, Place de la Cimaise is perfect to linger on.
While I was exploring Place de la Cimaise and its environs, I came across a signpost that despite its barely visible location indicated clearly the way up to Bastille Hill via trailed footpaths in the forest and gave in addition information about the duration and level of stress such a walk entailed. The steepness of the footpath, the loose stones rolling down the course and the patches of soft wet earth along the way render the level of difficulty above average. But, all things considered… shall I make an attempt at conquering the top by way of walking or shall I return to the ‘telepherique’ station and wait for the first trip?
I soon decided I should amble my way up despite the difficulties. On one edge of Rue St-Laurent a stone’s throw from Place de la Cimaise, a winding flight of worn-out steps hidden amidst dense foliage was where the walk up kicked off. As I reached the top of the stairs, I was already well above street level and the view over the river and the historic centre was by now opening wide. The footpath that followed was steep, slippery and dangerous at times; untrampled and unspoilt, it seemed completely out of human activity. Was I perhaps the sole intruder trespassing on this virgin land? Signboards conveniently scattered along the way showed that the route I was following would correctly lead me to Montee de Chalemont and eventually to Fort de la Bastille; other signboards were more instructive rather than merely indicative and referred to the names and technical details of the flora and fauna inhabiting the region.
Thick with overgrown trees and shrubs, the sides lining the footpath afforded no bird’s eye views over the city whatsoever. But along the way, I came across five lookout posts purposely positioned at optimum vantage points so as to afford spectacular city and mountain views. Viewpoint indicators at the lookout posts pinpoint the prime attractions gracing the surrounding panorama. Wooden benches, conveniently set nearby are an additional asset, maybe an eagerly awaited necessity for some after a strenuous walk uphill.
An hour or so of ruthless walking over loose stones, rocky earth and dried leaves brought me close to my destination but not before I made a last effort to climb up more than hundred steps (I lost count after hundred-twenty) to the foot of Fort de la Bastille. The panoramic views from here are dramatically superb. Set deep in a wide valley, Grenoble is surrounded by a chain of spectacular Alpine peaks whose beauty and grandeur cannot be savoured better than from this craggy overhang. A tourist brochure cheerfully and succinctly sums up the view: the ramparts are in a state of ruins and the fort demands urgent restoration. But the surrounding vistas never fail to enchant with their overdose of natural splendour.
Walking around the crumbling walls is still a good way to get a sense of the town’s layout. The historic centre with its conspicuous Notre-Dame bell tower is easily recognizable. Walking west around the ramparts (go as far as the grassy corner veranda) gives one the chance to identify the train station area and the streets radiating out of it. From the east side, the shiny glass-and-steel building of the Musee de Grenoble cannot appear prettier. Behind it but much further away is the forested zone of Parc Paul Mistral. The undulating structure in the park, discernible only in fine weather is the city’s stadium.
Touring the interior of the fort is equivalent to climbing up more steps, going through tiny corridors, passing over muddy patches of gravel and earth and traversing dilapidated courtyards overrun with weeds. But the adventure does not end here. Drawing your breath in allows you to pass through a porthole that gives access to the subterranean ammunition storehouse. No traces of ammunition whatsoever are apparent but the place is nonetheless interesting and utterly mysterious.
Climbing down from here back to the city is fairly easy and consumes only half the time but one has to be careful which path to follow since a slight swerve may take you well out of the centre. Just as I embarked on the descent, I caught sight of the ‘telepherique’ quadruple-bubble contraption making its first trip to the upper station, a short distance further up from Fort de la Bastille. I waved heartily to the folk on board, promising myself to take the ‘telepherique’ on another day, aware of the fun and the superb views it proffers.
The footpath I followed ran close to the Musee Dauphinois before it resumed its steep descent and unfolded into the river promenade. Tipped by the hotel receptionist not to skip this museum, I took the opportunity to drop in. The exhibits related to the culture, traditions and skiing history of the Alpine region are not extraordinarily appealing but the building where these are displayed is utterly charming. Envisage a three-century old convent complete with monastic chambers and refectory and needless to say… lots of old-world charm.
After I backtracked along Pont St-Laurent to the southern side of the river, I wended my way in the direction of Place Notre-Dame. The Cathedral was closed at that hour but a note next to the doorway revealed the opening times for visitors: daily except Sundays – 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm. So, with map in hand, I walked to the Musee de Grenoble located on Place de Lavalette, only five minutes away from the Cathedral. The glass-and-steel exterior of this grand building exudes contemporaneity. The interior is no less stylish, both in room design and displayed contents. Where else can one find so many prestigious modern paintings under one roof? Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and Monet are all well represented.
A ten-minute walk south from Place Notre-Dame is the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle, housed in a corner building on the extreme edge of Rue Bayard. The number of exhibits is more than one can take in a single visit but apart from the insect section and the aquarium, most are ordinary lifeless specimens that do not demand more than a passing glance. Across the street from the museum is the exquisite Jardin des Plantes, an extensive green zone that contrary to the museum thrives with living specimens of rare trees, exotic shrubs and blooming plants. The tropical greenhouse and the section devoted to experimental cross-fertilization are particularly interesting.
After going round the Cathedral and the adjoining Chapel of St Hugues, I crossed to Rue Brocherie in an attempt to look for a restaurant that serves typical ‘dauphinois’ fare. I couldn’t stumble upon a place better than ‘La Fondue’. My dish of ‘raclette aux trois fromages’ was beyond expectations both for taste and presentation.