Seeing as I have no lectures or classes for the whole of January (amazing, I know!), I am taking full advantage of my free month for travelling. For my first adventure away from the city smog and bright lights, I headed east to the Région Rhône Alpes to visit my fellow Warwick Frenchie Sarah in Grenoble. After a three hour train journey (which gave me more than enough time for a cheeky nap), I arrived late afternoon, had a quick tour around the city and sampled Grenoble’s coffee and crêpes. Back at Sarah’s uni residence, I finally saw what all the fuss was about when talking about French halls… It wasn’t the first time I had been in French halls, I have been several times to my friend Cristina’s at Cité U here in Paris – I knew that they were considerably more basic than ours in England. Still, I was rather surprised, as Sarah described hers as the ‘best’ in Grenoble. With stained floors, tiny bedrooms with barely any furniture and dysfunctional kitchens with no ovens and equipped to the bare minimum, not to mention the majority of the inhabitants not daring to leave their rooms, I can understand now why Warwick warned us that French and English university residences are poles apart. Here the internationals (the English in particular) seem to stick together in a huddle which they are afraid to break free from, which is such a shame! That being said, I met some lovely Spanish girls and French guys, which just goes to show that there are always exceptions and friends to be made, it just sometimes takes more of an effort than back in England. We went out the Friday night in the city centre and ended up in an Irish pub (always a popular place to be here in France), which was a fun night. We chatted for a bit in halls after getting the last tram home before the others feared that security would come round to break things up (they are apparently far more strict here – which doesn’t surprise me considering the sheer desertedness of halls in comparison to the lively banter in English ones!)
The early-ish night was to do us some good seeing as we were planning on hiking up one of Grenoble’s famous ‘hills’ – though after climbing it I’m calling it a mountain!! Situated at the top, the Bastille is a fortress overlooking the city and is the main tourist attraction. In preparation for our hike up, we fuelled up in a local café with hot chocolate and a galette des rois each (my second already since back in France). You may be impressed that we had chosen to hike up to the top, but in fact we didn’t really have a choice – the Téléphérique (cable cars) or ‘boules’ , as called so by the students, are under maintenance during January, which meant we had to brave the long climb up to enjoy the spectacular view. After having lazed around and eaten lots during the whole of the Christmas holidays, this was quite a work out, yet well worth the breath-taking view at the end. I was so lucky that the clouds and fog which had worried us at first during the morning had cleared after lunchtime and had given way to a flawless day. In contrast to the Parisian cityscape I can see out my window, the sheer natural beauty of snow-capped mountains stretching across the region quite literally blew me away. From the top you can also fully appreciate Grenoble in its impressive mountainous setting, which I later found out is the flattest town in France. We were even lucky enough to spot Mont Blanc, the highest point in the Alps. We then meandered down to the grottes (grottos), a hidden away underground passage which gives an idea of the extensive defensive system that was once in place. After trundling all the way down the hillside again (which was definitely far easier than struggling up), we found warmth in the Grenoble’s Archaeological Museum located conveniently enough at the bottom of the Bastille. Home to a restored Romanesque 12th-century church and 6th-century crypt, it is a fascinating historical site that I would definitely recommend to anyone visiting the area.
All the hiking had knackered the both of us, so we headed back into the centre for our second round of sweet treats for the day – which more than deserved after all the exercise we had done! We found a lovely quaint little patisserie whose mouth-watering display tempted us in (quite literally drooling). Whilst Sarah opted for a café gourmand (which looked absolutely amazing), I decided to sample one of Grenoble’s specialities, le gâteau au noix, a walnut and almond-based pastry created especially for Grenoble’s 1968 Olympic Games. Satisfied and slightly sleepy, we made our way to the local Casino for some bits and bobs for dinner. Though this was not just any ordinary Casino: but a Casino géant. I was astounded by its massive scale and all the things sold in there in comparison to my local, very small and limited city Casino. I could not get over the cheese aisle here (when I say ‘aisle’, I mean aisles) – I didn’t even know so many different types of cheese existed!
The next day we headed off to Lyon, which was about an hour and a half on the train. Being the capital of the Rhône region and the second largest city after Paris, there was more than enough to see and do to keep us busy for the whole day. Nestled between the Rhône and Saône Rivers and the hills of Fourvière and la Croix-Rousse in the Rhône-Alps region, the city offers a spectacular mix of old and modern sceneries and remnants of its Gallo-Roman past. Lyon is also famous for its Fête des Lumières , which takes place in early December. After not quite knowing where to go once getting off the train, we managed to find our way onto the metro (which to me seemed a hell of a lot more modern and cleaner than the Parisian one – though far less used). Our first stop was Place Bellecour, one of the largest town squares in Europe, home to a grand Ferris wheel and a statue of Louis XIV. We then strolled across the river to make our way to Vieux Lyon, the original medieval city, which is certainly a must-see. The district has an undeniable charm found in its boutiques, bistros and courtyards situated along its quaint cobbled streets. It is also home to the region’s best-kept historical remains and is Europe’s largest Renaissance quarter, showing off an array of beautiful architecture, with weaving narrow passageways and townhouses dating back to the Middle Ages.
Lyon prides itself on its rich religious heritage, possessing several remarkable buildings which deem the city as one of France’s most famous historical sites. Constructed between the 12th and 15th century, the Cathédrale Saint-Jean is a mix of Roman and Gothic architecture, and is also home to an impressive astronomical clock. Vieux Lyon’s most grand attraction is undoubtedly its Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière, situated on top of the colline de Fourvière overlooking the entire city. Having done a lot of hiking up hills yesterday, this one was far less of a challenge, but made my already rather delicate thighs burn. Unfortunately the main interior of the basilica was closed for maintenance, though we did get a peek inside the crypt below. On top of the colline de Fourvière we also spotted what is deemed as Lyon’s very own « petite tour Eiffel ». When saying that no one in Paris would be fooled if I were to take a photo and pass it off as the original, Sarah accused me of being a Parisian snob!
Fact for anyone who’s interested: the so-called Tour métallique de Fourvière (by the fact that it is situated on top of a hill may I add), technically stands higher than the Eiffel Tower at 282 feet. We then had a ride down the steep hill on Lyon’s Funiculaire, which is the world’s oldest inclined railway that is still actively used. Having been constructed during the 1860s, the ride in one small carriage furnished with wooden seats was like going back in time – and very different to the metro indeed! The theme of time travel was to continue with our next stop – the ruins of the Gallo-Roman Amphitheatre of Fourvière, which even today is still used as a cultural venue. Moving forward in time, we then headed back over the river again to the modern city to take a quick look at Lyon’s Opéra National, Hôtel de Ville and Place des Terreaux, where we enjoyed an amazing caramel Latte in a Haagen Dazs café. We had a quick visit of the Parc de la Tête d’Or, however it was already way too dark and it was pretty impossible to navigate our way round, so we soon gave in to the cold and headed back to the station and back to Grenoble.
So, all in all, a very jammed packed touristy weekend – though it was straight back to Parisian reality after my train back the Monday morning!