Grenoble: like a foretaste of Provence in the Alps

Geography lesson: the café at Grenoble's art museum
Geography lesson: the café at Grenoble’s art museum

All that’s left for breakfast is French toast and muffins. I look at the waiter, then at the muffins, and at the waiter again. We’re not especially late but the café, just off the main drag in Grenoble, has run out of croissants and fresh bread. It looks a friendly place, with a nice terrace getting the morning sunshine, and it would be a shame to leave. I turn inquisitively to godfather P and Dr K who appear just as disappointed. Before we have to make up our mind whether to settle for what’s on offer, the waiter volunteers to pop over to the baker’s around the corner. A few minutes later we’re sitting down with freshly squeezed orange juice, a large cup of coffee, and half a fresh baguette each with butter and jam. It’s an auspicious start for our two-day stay, the first stopover on our way to Haute Provence, near Apt.

Mid-morning on the old market square
Mid-morning on the old market square

Most of Grenoble’s charm comes from strolling around the streets of the old town. We’re still in the Alps, despite being only at 212m altitude, but there is a southern nonchalance about the place. Shaded streets, café terraces spilling onto cobbled squares, parks with tall plane trees – it’s like a foretaste of Provence.

For a town of this size – the modest Roman Gratianopolis has grown to become the 11th largest city in France – there are surprisingly few major tourist attractions. But there is plenty to do, starting with a ride up to the bastille, the fort high up on the hill on the other side of the Isère river.

In a few minutes the 1934 cable car takes us up to 460m, to a vantage point with astonishing views stretching almost 360 degrees and encompassing three mountain ranges – the Chartreuse, Belledonne, and the Vercors. From there you get a sense of how big the former capital of the Dauphiné is, stretching at the confluence of two rivers along a wide flat plain, with long straight avenues disappearing south-east towards Italy.

Grenoble from the bastille
Grenoble from the bastille

The translucent bubbles of the cable car, installed in 1957, have become strangely synonymous with Grenoble. They go in groups of four or five, and the overall experience is a little unnerving. Up to six passengers sit with their backs to a central column, their faces a few inches from the curved glass walls of the cabin, looking straight out over the void.

Bubble, bubble: little toil and not much trouble in the 1934 cable car
Bubble, bubble: little toil and not much trouble in the 1934 cable car

By the time we’ve admired the views and strolled around the 19th century fortifications, it’s nearly lunchtime and we decide to walk back down. It’s a pleasant stroll through a semi-wild forest of oaks, acacias in bloom, and pines. It’s very warm already, but that doesn’t stop the numerous joggers and mountain bikers, who are merrily sauntering up the hill, their pink faces glistening with sweat.

Old houses along the Isère, and the musée Dauphinois
Old houses along the Isère, and the musée Dauphinois

Back in town, it’s warm enough to eat outside and we sit ourselves at a restaurant terrace in the pedestrianised centre. They serve traditional fare, including a scrumptious salad with cold murçon, the local sausage flavoured with fennel seeds. It would be nice to order another glass of rosé but Dr K manages to get us moving and pursue more cultural interests. Notre Dame, the cathedral, is first on his list. Built from the 10th century on a site occupied by a fourth-century baptistery, its history is perhaps more interesting than the building itself. Likewise the ancien évêché next door, the former bishops’ palace, now a local history museum.

Notre Dame cathedral and its eponymous square
Notre Dame cathedral and its eponymous square

After that, we hop over to the Stendhal museum, a flat on the third floor of a building where the 19th century French novelist spent most of his childhood. It’s nicely presented and there are some good paintings, plus a temporary exhibition on Stendhal’s political interests, which reflect with reasonable insight into French politics at the time. But the museum only occupies a few rooms of the large original two-storey flat, and we’re soon outside again, ambling in the shade at the nearby Jardin de ville, the public gardens in the centre of town.

Ambling in the shade of the tall plane trees in the Jardin de ville
Ambling in the shade of the tall plane trees in the Jardin de ville

The high point of our stay, however, is the art museum, just outside the old town. It’s vast, spacious, and it has an extensive and eclectic collection (a good chunk is viewable online). We skip past a full-height statue of Champollion by Bartholdi, through to the large selection of 17th – mid-century paintings – some good (Tiepolo, Monet, Derain etc.), some mundane. We linger before a few stunning large-scale Alpine landscapes by local painters Achard, Bertier and Guetal.

Twentieth century installations, Egyptian antiquities,  French impressionists and avant-garde videos, the musée de Grenoble has it all
Twentieth century installations, Egyptian antiquities, French impressionists and avant-garde videos, the musée de Grenoble has it all

Some of the modern stuff is very striking: clean etching portraits by Thomas Schutte, a compressed moped by Cesar and a guitar pyramid by Aram, a series of large ‘leaves’ by Giuseppe Penone that look like the imprint of a brain, and Philipe Cognée’s modern impressionist plasterboard paintings of carcasses. There is also a Bruce Nauman one-hour video which I try to like, but it’s not his most arresting work.

Penone's leaf-brain prints
Penone’s leaf-brain prints

We could spend the whole day there but Barcelonnette, our next stop, beckons. There is sadly no time to visit the other museum, the musée Dauphinois, in a former convent on the hill, which is dedicated to the history of life in the Alps. But there is just about time for lunch in the museum’s café, a chilled little place serving fresh food made with local ingredients and with super friendly staff. And on the wall, between two old school maps, a guitar that we reckon Aram forgot to put on his installation.

Chilled: friendly staff and good food at the museum's café
Chilled: friendly staff and good food at the museum’s café

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