Grenoble Life’s Christina Rebuffet-Broadus shuns the mass exodus for the beaches to check out guided tours of her adopted home town. Here’s what she found out.
The French have flocked south for their yearly dose of Mediterrannean sun, leaving the city streets all but deserted. The smaller shops have pulled down their iron curtains with fermé pour congés annuels hastily taped to the facade before migrating for the summer. Every now and then, you catch a group of tourists (without skis this time) wandering around the city.
Rather than crowd yet another beach and up the chances of getting skin cancer, city-tethered locals and French-challenged tourists may want to explore Grenoble. The Tourism Office operates a few regular English-language tours during the summer. Admit it – getting cozy with the city is way more fun than trying to squeeze onto a beach with half of the French population. Afterward, you can impress friends and family with your expertise in Grenobology.
I’m a big fan of being a tourist in your own city. Don’t take the attractions for granted—get out and do them! Start, for example, with the Tourism Office’s audioguided tour of the city center. If you’ve lived here long enough, you may already know when Cularo’s rampart was built. Maybe you can pinpoint where Napoleon marched into Grenoble on his way to power-center Paris. But you’ve probably never eavesdropped on those events as they happened.
The audioguides go beyond stringing dates, places, and names together like a 1850s history book. In about an hour-and-a-half visit through the city center, the history of Grenoble speaks to you, literally. Listen in as two tourists argue if it’s Place du Trib’ or Place St. André and let the abbot of St. Hugues church tell you what Place Notre Dame used to be.
I thought I had schooled myself well in Grenoble history and still learned a few new things about my adopted hometown. Plus, with all the other tourists walking around, I didn’t stick out so much with my map, headphones, and a remote-control-looking device hanging around my neck. When I opted to listen to some Liszt, I could peacefully contemplate the facade of the hotel where he stayed.
If you prefer flesh and blood to plastic and LCD screens, the Tourism Office also hosts two regular guided visits in English: the Bastille and the city center. I tried the Bastille tour, just because it includes a ride in the Bubbles (honestly, how many of you still haven’t taken the Bubbles?). Little did I know, the Bastille would storm me although I’ve been regularly climbing its slopes since I’ve lived here.
To begin the tour, I joined Steve, my guide in the Jardin de Ville for a short lesson on Lesdiguières and why he built the first fortifications in the 16th century. You will have to take the tour yourself to find out, but here’s a hint: If he could do it, so could anyone else, which was not good for Grenoble’s security (Hint for the hint: “it” doesn’t mean building the Bastille).
We floated to the top of the site and began by reading Grenoble from above. The roofs below told the history of the city through color. The red roofs represented the oldest parts of Grenoble from the middle ages. Lesdiguières left his mark with blue slate roofs. More recent architectural history was written in black and white.
With a guide, you can visit parts of the Bastille usually closed to the public. We explored the upper blockhouses where soldiers lived and canons once boomed. The vaulted ceilings gave the living quarters the false feeling of an early medieval chapel but the sentinels probably didn’t pray much. They never came under fire. Construction of the Bastille ended in 1845 and Grenoble could feel fully protected from potential Savoyard invasions. Then Savoie became French in 1860 and the Bastille had no one to guard Grenoble from.
As dutiful tourists, Steve and I attacked the dry moat, no man’s land, and we tunneled through Mandrin’s grottoes. All of these parts are open to the public, but with a guide, they become more than a place for a panoramic picnic or holes in the mountainside.
To understand just how ingenious the Bastille’s layout is, let the guide explain it to you on site. You will literally see how the Bastille functioned as a fort. As Steve pieced the elements together, I understood how well Haxo had planned the Bastille. He probably never even knew he was creating the star of Grenoble.
Audioguides are available for rent at the Grenoble Tourism Office for 5€. For an extra euro, you can have a second set of headphones so that two people can listen to a single device.
The Bastille visit costs 9.50€ and includes a round trip on the Bubbles.
The city center visit costs 6.50€.
You can sign up for the city center or Bastille visit at the Tourism Office or at their summer information booth at the foot of the Bubbles. The city center visit takes place at 2:30 pm and the Bastille visit starts at 4:30 pm, every day except Sunday.