Travel Stories

FRANCE: From the City to the Hills – Grenoble & Vienne

I’d never really thought of Grenoble as a spring/summer destination. To me Grenoble, the capital of the Alps, meant ski, ski, ski. Apparently to Adam’s friend Nigel it meant the risk of nuclear irradiation. Chernobyl mate, that’s Chernobyl.

One, two, three… minutes – the approximate time it took to get off the plane, through passport control, and pick my bag up off the carousel. The airport was empty. Empty.

During the winter 350,000 passengers make their way through Grenoble airport, I’m guessing it will get somewhat busier with the new summer flights offer (Ryanair £9.99 each way, 3 times per week – and the reason we were there) but I was totally surprised by it all (and slightly worried I was in a re-make of The Langoliers).

After dropping our things at the hotel we headed out for dinner, walking between the modern apartment buildings and down through Victor Hugo Square with its renaissance facades, palms, orange and chestnut trees.

 We were off to Restaurant Chez le Per’Gras, a 5th generation, 120 year old restaurant, situated in the Bastille, high above the city. There seemed to be three popular ways to get there – to drive, to run, or to take the cable car.

Grenoble’s cable car was one of the first in the world, built in 1934 it’s a real must-see for the experience as well as the view.

263 metres high, hanging in the air in a 1976 Plexiglas and aluminium bauble, I wondered if I really did need a dinner after all.

Turns out fate had the same idea about my dinner needs – the restaurant really struggled to cater for my allergies. Still, I could have been content with just the incredible views. As the sky turned pink over the mountains, I savoured my leaves of Little Gem.

Darkness fell and we took the cable car ride down into the city, gliding towards the sparkling lights, and headed towards a cocktail bar for a Chartreuse Mule (made from Chartreuse, lime and ginger beer). Chartreuse is the famous ‘green liqueur of health’ created by monks of the region, the recipe dating back to 1605 and made from more than 130 plants.

In the morning we took a street art tour. For the past few years Grenoble has held a Street Art Festival in the summer. Artists from around the world volunteer their time to create the works of art and help put the city on the cultural map. We walked the streets, turning each corner to see something new, from basic tags to massive murals: Antony Lister’s Mime, the amazing Nevercrew’s Ordering Machine, RNST’s la Fille du Printemps, and a 70 metre long mural showing the history of graffiti font on the wall of la Piscine Jean Bron.

We ended our trail at le chat of Christian Guemy, then rushed to the Fromagerie Les Alpages to meet Bernard Mure-Ravaud, Guinness World Record holder and chief cheese geezer.

So much cheese. So many eyes bulging with delight. I can’t eat the squishy cheese, but I was very happy to take double helpings of sweet and nutty tasting Comte, made from the summer milk of cows who spend the season eating sweet herbs in the mountains. Apparently, in October there’s a week-long festival in the street where they bring the cows down from the mountains and parade them, now that’s got to be worth seeing!

We ate an amazing lunch at L’Epicurien: local sausage salad with onion confit, perfectly cooked entrecote with pepper sauce and dauphinoise potatoes, macarons and sorbet. Proper traditional French cuisine in a friendly and welcoming restaurant. It was Lucy’s birthday and this felt like a really joyful celebration.

There are 23 museums in the city. With only a couple of hours to spare we legged-it round Grenoble’s top-notch Museum of Art, getting a whistle stop tour of some of the best art from 13th Century to the modern day. Rubens, Canaletto, Gainsborough, Renoir, Gauguin, Pissarro, Modigliani, Picasso, Monet, Miro, Caulder, Klee, Arp, Matisse… the list goes on. I was particularly taken by Thomas Couture’s portrait of Madamoiselle Florentine de l’Opera.

Although the museum was founded in 1798, the current building was built 1994 and has some amazing spaces, some left empty-walled, giving the sense of immense and valuable space.

There was a huge amount I missed, most disappointingly the Caro (I tried to sell one of those at auction once) and George Rickery Conversation mobile – I’ve been mesmerised by his work before at the Kroller Muller Museum in the Netherlands.

Onwards, from the city into the hills, to the beautiful vineyard of Domaine Corps de Loup (body of the wolf!), in the hillsides of Cote-Rotie and Condrieu.

I’ve never been to a vineyard before, but this was exactly what I’d imagined it would be, apart from the big ol’ dog, I’d not accounted for him.

In the cellars we tasted wine. I tried to describe the flavours. I’ve not mastered my vocabulary yet, but when ‘it’s like a papery leathery Indian emporium, all rich and dusty,’ becomes an acceptable description, I’ll be totally ready for my new wine swigging pastime.

Our next stop was the city of Vienne, and dinner at Muse. The restaurant doesn’t have a website, you might struggle to find them online, but if you’re going to Vienne please don’t miss out.

I could have eaten several more bowls of the amazing green asparagus and smoked duck vichyssoise. It’s not often I eat something so delicious that it stays in my thoughts for days after. There was that rice pudding in Neemrana, and that chai latte in Copenhagen, and now this soup, all added to my ‘when I get a teleportation device’ list. The rabbit risotto was also really good – really French, really local.

After a drink outside the roman temple we headed back to the hotel. Lynsey instructed John on the shoe buffing machine, (he seemed hesitant, but in the morning he was very pleased with his shiny shoes) and we all headed off to bed.

Next morning, we took our lives in our hands and boarded the frantic jazz tram for a trip to the chapel on the hilltop and through the city streets.

As the recorded commentary told us ‘Vienne is nicknamed little Rome’ (at volume level eight, the driver told us, he was training his friend to be in charge of the volume controls) we wound our way up the narrow road, grabbing a glimpse of a cemetery, to the top, for the view.

From Mont Pipit we had a panoramic view over the city – the red tiled roofs, bridges and towers, the weird long boats that bring cruises of American and German tourists, and the Roman amphitheatre which had been rebuilt in 1930s and has hosted the famous jazz festival since 1981.

All of a sudden, the tram started to pull off. We looked at each other with concern, ‘Get on!’ We charged, every man for himself, leaping and clambering through the open doors. We gasped and sighed with relief, glad we’d not been abandoned on the top of a mountain and left to find our own way down. Then the driver walked by, he was training his friend to turn the tram around. We weren’t going anywhere.

When the tram did get going again, we headed down the narrow roads and circled the Roman Pyramid, taking a double trip round the roundabout, past the temple and the Cathedral St Maurice. Children waved at us as we rode by in our caterpillar-like bus tram, an old lady asked if she could hitch a ride and I was tempted to drag her in, her shopping bags looked interesting.

Our final destination (luckily without the tram) was Phillipe Bruneton’s tea and pancake house, in the hills of Pilat Regional Natural Park.

In the kitchen the air was heavy with the scent of raspberry, intense and rewarding after the long and windy drive through the mountainous countryside.

I was more than ready for pancakes, but that wasn’t to be, my hunger was to be satiated by some taste testing and a bit of flavour guessing – peach and verbena, apricot and lavender, geranium and cherry, pomme tarte tatin. Sweet sticky spoonful’s of award winning confiture.

With a taste for jam and a particular desperation for fresh raspberries our journey was almost over.  Luckily there was a sunshiny caesar salad lunch stop at the Bar et Gourmet in Condrieu.

Remember when I said the airport was quiet? It was, and you know what that means? More time for security checks, frisking and generous prodding. This might be a selling point for some people!

After being patted down for the third time and prodded hard in the stomach (I’m not hiding anything round my middle, that’s just my body!) I was spun round. I felt the air on my back, my dress had been lifted up and then… no!… leggings pulled down, not all the way, but enough to provide a partial moon and white out. There’d be no chance people didn’t see, I’m pale and round, they’d be naturally drawn to the glowing bright whiteness of skin that’s not normally exposed. My eyes caught those of the girl queuing behind me, ‘I’m sorry’she mouthed, with a look of concern. ‘You’re next!’ I replied as I was spun back round and pointed back towards my bags. After packing my things away and finding my passport on the floor, it was time to join my travel buddies for the short flight home. Phew!

I had great time exploring Grenoble and Vienne, and I’m already planning a trip back for cheese, honey, markets and museums, but next time,  I think I’ll wear an all-in-one to travel home in!

With the greatest thanks to Grenoble Alpes Isere Airport, Grenoble Tourism, Vienne Condrieu Tourism and Heaven Publicity for making this trip possible. As always, my opinions are my own.