The stories of a couchsurfer

Grenoble: A perplexing relationship

Téléférique de Grenoble

This blog has touched many times on the great advantage that France has – that of it’s variety in landscapes, including cool and rugged coastlines in the north, warm and sunny beaches in the south and rolling countryside hills playing host to luscious vineyards throughout the centre and western regions.

As somebody coming from the flatlands of Australia however, the area that is likely to be the most different and most exciting is the mountainsides of the Alps. So far, the journey covered by this blog hasn’t ventured through the Alps yet, and so when I disembarked from the train in Grenoble, the impression was almost immediate.

Of course, taking the train there, one experiences the entry into the Alps and so it’s not completely unexpected, but when you first get a chance to sit back and observe the surroundings it’s hard not to be amazed at the geographical location of the city.

Grenoble is literally surrounded by mountains.


To the north the Chartreuse. To the east the Belledonne and to the south and west the Vecors. In the middle of them, on a small opening of relative flatland carved out by the river Isère lies Grenoble.

Despite it’s ancient history – it was a city of the Roman Empire – Grenoble is very much a modern work in progress. The inner city main streets are a network of construction sites as the city attempts to further it’s existing tram network.

This is good news for the local Grenoblois and it’s a prime example of Grenobles acceptance in moving forward. Where many other French cities prefer to bathe in their rich history, Grenoble has pushed forward and it’s this that has allowed it to remain an industrious city.

It houses one of the largest high-tech scenes in France and it’s modern football stadium is a testament to it’s scientific and mathematics community. The combination of effective tram use and an adequate road network means that traffic – at least through the city – is not overflowing, and it manages to nurture a relaxing environment.

This environment is supported by a series of near hidden squares that play host to restaurants and terraces. Here, one can, despite Grenobles progressiveness, still feel the history of the city. Much like Montpellier, Grenoble has managed to almost perfectly balance the new with the old. Monuments lay scattered across town squares and in front of old, beautiful, white stone buildings.

Perhaps the most evident example of this is La Bastille, an old fortress that overlooks Grenoble upon the Chartreuse mountains. It has prime location, and can be seen from almost anywhere when walking along the river Isère. Such a landmark it is considered to be, Grenoble installed a téléphérique (cable-car) that rises from Grenoble to the fortress.

The best way to see it though, is to hike up there yourself. “Hike” might be a strong word, as the track is very comfortable – although on a hot summers day can be thirsty work to conquer. It provides satisfying views of all of Grenoble and it’s here that one can appreciate the layout of the city and how well it has been planned.

It’s also here that you spend much time not necessarily looking at Grenoble, but the nature and the mountains that surround it. It really is a remarkable location to construct a city and the mountains provide the locals with loads of recreational activities, whether it be summer or winter. The vegetation is thick and lush and scurrying through the forests, discovering off beaten tracks and little caves in the hills is a great explorative way to spend a day. There’s so many different tracks that one could continue to discover for years.

But amidst the beauty of the place, both natural and artificial, lies something quite unsettling. Something that just doesn’t fit.

Grenoble is beautiful, but it’s not welcoming.

Walk around town for a few days and you’re bound to feel it. Each city discovered brings with it it’s own brand of perceived hostility, but usually only for the first day, or even just hours. And it’s in a different form. Here in Grenoble, it doesn’t fade away and there lingered an uncomfortable sense. It was impossible to put a finger on it, and perhaps that’s what was so unsettling and eerie about it.

On face value, Grenoble should have been very comfortable and enjoyable. Yet it wasn’t. Perhaps the timing was bad. Perhaps on another time of year it will be different. But not then.

I don’t want to blame it on the people, but everybody else here does. Talk to a local in Grenoble, and it’s a fantastic place. Talk to someone who lives here but originated from elsewhere, and chances are you’ll get a negative review. This was such a strange phenomenon to witness.

The visiting French here do not like the local Grenoblois at all.

They consider them unsocial and nasty.

They are second only to Parisians in the despised French ratings.

Yet, the experiences with the Grenoblois were generally positive. They didn’t go out of their way, but they didn’t make me feel like an outcast either. There were one or two instances where some not-so-nice locals were met, but this happens in every city.

You can’t help but possess some kind of wariness, particularly when the negative opinions are so consistent from the visiting French.

Perhaps Grenoble is a seducer. She lures you in with the beauty and promise of fun and happiness. Then, after a number of years, perhaps even months, you begin to uncover the real Grenoble. The near inescapable uncomfortable feeling that lingers everywhere you go.

Absolutely nothing went wrong in Grenoble, yet there was still a feeling of relief when the train left the station.

Grenoble remains and unsolved mystery guarded by the mountains that surround it.

It probably forever will.

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