In France's southeast corner, the Rhône-Alpes marries urban sophistication with alpine idyll. Its borders with Switzerland and Italy are guarded by Mont Blanc-at 15,571 feet, Europe's highest peak. From late December until March, the countryside becomes a skier's snowy paradise of downhill pistes and cross-country. Of course, the mountains are just as enticing for summertime ramblers.
Yet attractions do not only revolve around fine dining and sporty activities. Think Roman ruins. Think lush valleys filled with orchards and golden-stone wine villages. Think ancient monasteries such as Chartreuse, who monks concoct a fiery green liqueur that's perfect for livening up an après-ski hot chocolate. Think world-class museums and distinctly wacky museums like Grenoble's Musee des Automates – stuffed with "living dolls" and other mechanical figurines dating back to the 18th-century.
Grenoble is a small city surrounded by many smaller ski villages and not far from some big name resorts such as Trois Vallees, Val d'Isere and Chamonix; All in the Rhone-Alpes Grenoble is a city on two rivers, the Drac and the Isère. It's more provincial than its big sister, Lyons, but has a pleasant, laid-back feel. Its status as a university town adds a good dose of student liveliness and the alpine setting is spectacular. Few other French cities can boast of having mountains at the end of every street. Grenoble's population numbers around 160,000-or 424,000 if you include the entire region, which is growing all the time. Grenoble and its environs have become one of the main centers of France's high-tech industry-a kind of French Silicon Valley.
Grenoble hosted the 1968 Winter Olympics, you will not find anywhere more walkable. After being surrounded by peaks, it lays claim to being France's flattest city and that's excellent news for those who do not much like clambering up hills. Not that you need to deprive yourself of the kind of views that usually require extreme muscle effort. In all months but January, a cable car traverses a rocky fortified outcrop called the Bastille. From here you get a jaw-dropping panorama of surrounding peaks and Grenoble's red-tiled roofs below.
Although Grenoble's historic core is tiny, it has plenty of quirky corners with stories to match. Place Grenette – complete with an old-fashioned carousel – was where heretics were once burnt at the stake. On returning from exile in Elba, Napoleon holed up in what is now the Auberge Napoleon (7 rue Montorge), Grenoble's fanciest restaurant. Across the river is the appealing scruffy area of St. Laurent, once the center of the town's glove-making industry.
During the French Revolution, Grenoble was a hotbed of republican fervor. In fact, its citizens started on the revolutionary trail almost a year before the rest of France. Because Grenoble contains the word "noble" – most politically incorrect in those days – the revolutionaries decreed they'd much more live in Grelibre. (Libre in French means "free".)
Those who live and work here have wonderful access to the mountains. And so do visitors. With Grenoble as your base, you can ski a plethora of different areas everyday … and still be back for dinner. For around $ 25, the local bus company offers special day packages that include a lift pass to a number of villages in the Grenoblois Alps. Chamrousse, Villars-de-Lans and Alpe d'Huez are three of the most popular. Or just go for lunch in the mountains: return fare to Villard-de-Lans is an equivalent $ 9.70. Prices quoted in this article were in effect during the '05 -'06 winter season.
A place to stay? Hôtel de l'Europe claims the status of Grenoble's oldest hotel, but the grandeur has faded over the centuries. Still, the location could not be better- it's located in the pedestrian zone on Place Grenette, the town's main historic square.
Grenoble's vicity takes in a number of mountain areas: Belledonne, Chartreuse, Vercors, Oisan and the southern Dauphine. Each has its own clutch of resorts. An hour by bus from Grenoble, Villard-de-Lans is a traditional-style alpine village of around 4,000 people. (Many French ski resorts are purpose-built.) There are four points of access to the downhill slopes-the nearest is Le Balcon, serviced by free ski shuttles.
The downhill area takes in 78 miles of slopes, 29 ski runs and 27 ski lifts. Two-day lift passes for adults start at $ 50, but the longer you stay, the cheaper it works out. (A pass for the season costs $ 480.) There are reductions for the under those 16 and over 60, but visitors over the age of 72 get their lift passages for free.
Ski shuttles also serve Bois Barbu, a cross-country skiing area that opens onto over 100 miles of trails. If you've never tried ski nordique before, two-hour group lessons cost $ 21; Individual lessons are $ 35 per hour. Equipment rental (skis, boots and poles) costs $ 15.60 per day or $ 79 for a week.
Several high speed trains (TGV) from SNCF link Paris to Grenoble every day, for a three-hour trip of 640 km. Full price is about 70 Euro for a one-way ticket. Getting around in Grenoble is easy as there are two tramways lines that cross the town every few minutes (every quarter of hour on Sundays) and a lot of buses (lot fewer on Sundays). Another way to get around is to rent a bicycle at the railway station As mentioned before, despite its proximity to mountains, Grenoble is flat, so you will not experience steep slopes in the town. If you feel like it, you will find slopes in the near mountains. A nice and easy ride is to follow the two rivers that cross Grenoble. There is a cycle track along the Isère for several kilometers and again along the Drac. There is also an old bicycle track along the Isère river passing in front of the town center and various dedicated lanes along the main boulevards.
The cable car is the easy way to see the town from upside and the trip in those plastic bubbles is impressive. You will get at the top of a fortress, called the Bastille (no link with Bastille Day), 300 m above the town. When you arrive at the top, you can visit the ruins of a fort, walk for some hours in the nature on the hill or simply enjoy the view of the town and the mountains, or have a break at the restaurant.
And finally, for the best local shopping, stop at Victor Hugo tramway station (tramway A or B). The tramway station is next to the Grenette place, which is the center of the town. This place and all streets around are reserved to pedestrians (and tramways). You will enjoy the small streets with lots of people in the shops and restaurants.