Grenoble – Capital of the Alps

Grenoble - Capital of the Alps

Before coming to Grenoble I was somewhat surprised to learn that it’s often referred to as the ‘Capital of the Alps’: After all, the Alps run for 750 miles between France and Slovenia, and Grenoble is at the extreme western edge of the mountain range – and as far as I’m concerned, is not actually even in the Alps.

I thought that maybe somewhere like Innsbruck would have a better claim to the title, so I looked it up and can you guess what I found? Yep! That’s right, Innsbruck is also called the capital of the Alps.

I’ll leave it to the powers that be to decide which they think is the best candidate for the title, but if nothing else, it did focus my mind a bit more on how the city of Grenoble sees itself.

There’s no doubt that its location in south-eastern France, where the Rivers Isère and Drac meet, would have been a natural place to build a settlement, and from its humble Gallic beginnings in 43 BC, Grenoble has grown into a fair-sized city.

The official population is around the 160,000 mark, but if you include the sprawling suburbs of the metro area that stretch up through the valleys either side of the Chartreuse Massif, the population is nearer to 700,000.


The Isere

Grenoble is not a city that is devoid of any history, but it struck me that it was much keener to look towards the future rather than dwelling on the past.

The large university, for example, adds youth to the city’s character and provides labour for the high-tech industries, such as the Nuclear Energy Commission, European Molecular Biology Laboratory and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. That’s quite a mouthful I know, but I’m sure you get the gist.

At the heart of the city though, there is still an Old Town (Vieille Ville), but whether this was where the original settlement of Cularo was, I couldn’t say because the historians aren’t sure either. What they are sure about though is that by the 4th century AD the fortified Roman town of Gratianopolis took its place.

It wasn’t a particularly important town, just a regional centre, and after the Romans departed, it fell into relative obscurity right up until the Middle Ages when it became a city divided by the ruling Counts of Dauphiné and the local Bishops.

The Vieille Ville

At the time, Dauphiné was a state and not a part of France, and the Counts (who were known as Dauphins), ruled from the area around Place St. André. The church of the same name was the family’s private place of worship and final resting place, but as churches go it’s nothing exceptional, but it’s worth paying it a visit, if only to see where the Seigneur de Bayard is laid to rest.

Pierre de Terrail Seigneur de Bayard, to give him his proper title, was a late 15th/early 16th century French knight more commonly known as the Chevalier de Bayard, and if you were wondering who the character on the plinth in the middle of the square was, well now you know.

Place St. André is probably the best place to soak up the atmosphere of the Old Town, but as this was late December (between Christmas and New Year) there wasn’t a lot of point in hanging around, and so we popped into the Café de la Ronde for a coffee to warm up.

As you would expect, it had all the ambience that only a French café can have, but more than that it claims to be the second oldest in France after the Café Procope in Paris.

Place St Andre
The Chevalier de Bayard
Cafe de la Table Ronde (founded 1739)

As much as I could have stayed in here all day, it was time to move on and check out the rest of the Old Town. Even though it was the ‘Twixmas’ period it was good to see that the markets were still operating – one in the Place aux Herbes and another in the St. Claire Halles. Other than that, it was the wrong time of the year for sightseeing really. We stopped off at the Notre Dame Cathedral, which didn’t actually set my pulse racing, and moved on to the Isère Resistance and Deportation Museum.

Place aux Herbes
St Claire Halles

Some of you will know that I have an avid interest in events of the 20th century, the Second World War being one of them, but before you dash off, I’d like to reassure you that I’m not going into any significant detail here about a forgotten army of brave people who fought and died for France during the Nazi occupation. It wasn’t just those who fought against Petain’s Vichy government who are remembered here, but also the Jews that were sent east to those places that they never ever returned from. Enough said.

The Isere Resistance and Deportation Museum

One of the things that travel does is open your mind to things that you never realised before, and visiting this museum was one of those things. Now that I’ve been to this region, I can start to understand what those resistance fighters were up against, because we were now off up to the Bastille – and the highlight of any trip to Grenoble.

There are two ways to get up to the Bastille – you can walk, or you can take the Bubbles, a cable car that some people might not care for too much, but for me it would be the Bubbles every time. Before I go any further, I would have to say that the Bastille isn’t very exciting from a monument point of view, but the view from the Bastille is incredible.

From here you can see how Grenoble is surrounded by mountains – the Chartreuse, the Belledone, and the Vercors: You can even see Mont Blanc, 70 miles away, and I could now start to understand the terrain that those resistance fighters were having to contend with. My mind wanders off in all sorts of directions when I think of these things, but that’ll do for now – let’s just get back to those views.

It’s only when you come up here that you can see the reason why Grenoble was awarded the Winter Olympics in 1968 and why it sees itself as the Capital of the Alps. I’ll stop talking now, and just let you enjoy the views.

The first carousel shows some views of the Vercors first thing in the morning, the second shows some views of Grenoble and the Belledone from the restaurant during the day, the third shows the Chartreuse, the Belledone and Mont Blanc as the sun went down, and finally, Grenoble as the lights came on.


19 thoughts on “Grenoble – Capital of the Alps

  1. toonsarah

    Very interesting – not a city I knew anything about. The market looks colourful, even at that time of year, but the views of the mountains are what sells it to me! Those and the bubbles – I love anything like that and would happily ride in them even if there weren’t much a view at the end of the ride 😉

    1. Easymalc Post author

      The same as me Sarah. I just love views, and these days, the easier to get there, the better as far as I’m concerned 🙂

  2. Alli Templeton

    I’ve never been to Grenoble before, but it looks a good place to explore with some interesting and varied history. Great photos, as ever, and I cold feel the cold of late December as you wandered around. But as I expect you can imagine, I’d have had to meet you up at the Bastille as there’s no way you’d get me on one of those bubbles! My head started swimming just looking at the pictures! But the walk would be well worth it for the views – stunning scenery. Thanks for taking us round this version of the Capital of the Alps, Malc. 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      It always makes me laugh that you don’t mind flying a plane but can’t handle something like the Bubbles. Anyway, I’m glad you could see the views without getting vertigo. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

      1. Alli Templeton

        It is a strange thing, I admit it. I know what causes the vertigo with tall buildings and the like – it’s because I’m on something very high up that goes all the way to the ground. But I’ve no idea why cable cars affect me like that too. Flying is very different, somehow. I think I’m probably just strange. 😉

        1. Easymalc Post author

          It’s not as daft as it sounds. I’ve often had a compelling urge to jump off of high buildings which seem closely connected to the ground. One of those places was Florence Cathedral at the top of the dome. The dome seemed to entice me to jump, if that makes any sense

          1. Alli Templeton

            It’s a known phenomenon, I know that, so you’re not alone there. I don’t get the urge to jump – it’s my head that starts swimming and I feel as though I’m going to pass out. I’m OK and I can just about cope as long as I only look straight out to the horizon, but if I look down, then it all starts going to pot.

                  1. Alli Templeton

                    Ah, it’s ok if you drink a lot of water too (alkaline water is the best). That’s how I get round it… 😀

                    1. Easymalc Post author

                      That’s obviously where I’ve been going wrong, but it might have been better if I’d just drank water without the hops in it in the first place

  3. Simone

    I haven’t been to Grenoble yet, so always curious to learn what a city is like. And wow, it looks like it is totally worth going up in the Bubble: those views are quite stunning!

    1. Easymalc Post author

      I love grandstand views, especially if it doesn’t involve a lot of hard work 🙂 Thanks for taking a look Simone

  4. Stuart Templeton

    Fantastic views – but there’s no way in hell you’d ever get me in one of those bubbles!

    A great post Malc – Sounds like the place had a very interesting history. Stunning photos as ever!

    1. Easymalc Post author

      My wife didn’t like it in there either, but it doesn’t bother me. Thanks again for your smashing comments Stuart. They’re always very much appreciated.


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