The Best of the Minibreaks: Grenoble, France

Facebook Memories tell me that today marks two full years since my Skyscanner whims took my husband and me on a pair of £27 return Ryanair flights from Stansted to Grenoble, in France, a city which sits on the very edge of the Alps.

“It’s an industrial sort of a city,” said a Francophile friend before we left, a friend who hadn’t visited but had lived in the general area. “Full of ugly buildings and basically just a transport hub.” “It only exists for ski-ers to fly into during the winter,” said another friend. “Not sure how it’ll work for a summer holiday.” But I’d done my (Google, yeah, but it counts) research, and I was certain we could spin a decent three-dayer out of its environs.

Thankfully, I was right, as it turns out. It remains my favourite mini-break I have taken in my life thus far.

There was a heatwave in England when we left, and this was magnified tenfold when we arrived into a wall of solid dry heat in Grenoble. The airport there is tiny, and even from our one small flight the passport control queue was long and sweatily daunting, in a glass-walled room under a corrugated plastic roof. It was so hot, in fact, that staff were handing out small bottles of water and plastic fans.

Grenoble airport sign

Queuing ordeal done (why, why had I worn bloody jeans?) we climbed onto the only coach in the car park (blissfully air conditioned) and paid about ten euros each for the one-hour trip to the centre of Grenoble. All the way, I oohed and aahed at the mountainous lanscape. It was beautiful.

The city didn’t look “industrial and ugly” when the coach parked at a large, modern sandstone station and we Google Mapsed ourselves to the hotel we’d booked. (I’d been careful with its central location and I’d made sure we had air conditioning, but it was still not expensive). The city still didn’t look industrial and ugly when we set off, in the slightly cooler early evening and wearing far lighter clothes, to explore and find somewhere for dinner. It was all pale walls and large squares with central fountains; wrought-iron railings and low stone benches; and all of it, incongruously, set against a gentle surrounding backdrop of mauve, white-tipped, beautiful mountains. I loved it instantly.

We had traditional French food (I mean, I had a fish with its full face and my husband basically had a raw burger with a raw egg on it), sitting outside a bistro on a side street and trying to ignore the wreathing loops of cigarette smoke everywhere. The wine was cheap and plentiful. The food was oily, and not entirely perfect, but the wine was good and the atmosphere was bouncy with accordion-busking. It was joyously, stereotypically French.

In the morning – after making cheese baguettes at the hotel’s breakfast buffet and packing them in a rucksack with lots of bottles of water and some peaches – we set out to explore the steep hills which are accessible from Grenoble itself. From the town centre it’s a short walk across a wide bridge to the imposing castle, around the ramparts of which there’s a meandering, criss-crossing hill path which climbs and climbs through a miasma of chirping crickets to reach lofty views from the top ramparts. My smartwatch told me every few minutes that I’d climbed the equivalent of a full flight of stairs. Ten, twenty, thirty flights flashed onto the screen.

As we climbed the air got slightly cooler, but not much. There was dappled shade below the trees, but it was still a blisteringly hot day. Too hot, really, for proper hiking, but the prettiness of everything around us made it worth it. It even justified my husband’s jaunty sweat-absorbing bandanna, which was quite the look.

When we got to the top of the castle walls and could look out across the city below – and to the mountains on the other side – it was overwhelmingly exhilarating.

The descent was much faster and much more shaded, and when we got to the outskirts of Grenoble we had our picnic on a table under trees. Then it was onward to some villages on the outskirts of the town. This part reminded both of us of the area around Parc Guell in Barcelona – the same narrow dusty tree-lined streets and sense of being up high. The same pale stone and statues and carvings.

In the evening we had (gorgeous) pizza and beer on the castle side of the river, and another walk along its wide banks in the now-bearable cooling temperatures. There was some manner of football tournament afoot, and we then went for a drink to a sports bar, which I suspect was the highlight of my husband’s holiday, but he hasn’t dared admit as much.

The next day, we’d already decided on a coach trip to a higher mountain. We got up early, made another breakfast-buffet picnic and then took the bus from the station to Chamrousse. The route took us on a twisty mountain road with terrifying corners on which the bus would labour screechily and we’d peer, fearfully, over the ineffective roadside barriers to the spiralling rock faces below. The bus made it though – of course it did – and deposited us at a strangely deserted ski resort halfway up the mountain.

A ski resort in the middle of summer is the most incongruous thing. The button lifts swung spookily and pointlessly, and although the day was gloriously hot and sunny, the shops were all shuttered and closed.

The height made it cooler, and it was a lovely walk as we started to climb. More crickets chirped away, and I’ll always remember the strange, almost oppressive herby smell from the tiny leaves that we crushed underfoot as we tramped up the path. There were signs warning that the air was thinner, and of course we immediately felt that it was thinner, harder to breathe. It felt like an adventure.

Our destination was Lac Achard, and we found it after about two hours of climbing. A beautiful pearl of a lake, surrounded by mountain tops, where we had our picnic (another breakfast buffet special, supplemented with crisps from the shop at the bus station) and a delightfully chilly swim.

We scampered down the mountain much faster than we’d climbed it, finding back routes through woods as we were scared of missing the bus back. But we made it and headed back to the city centre. I was borderline hangry, which is an occupational hazard on holiday and needs to be nipped in the bud for everyone’s good, so after a shower we went straight to a vegetarian fast-food place for burgers. They weren’t a highlight, but they weren’t memorably shit either. I seem to recall a very nice dipping sauce for the frites.

The next day was our last in the city. We had a wander round a flea market near the station and then we lazed in the sun in a park near the castle until it was time to get the bus back to the airport.

(Our flight would be badly delayed and the journey home would be exhausting and argumentative, but we didn’t know that yet).

Even when we did – even during the delightful screechy arguing part and the knackering drive home – that short holiday invigorated both of us out of all proportion. We’d been reconciled properly in our marriage for only 6 months, and we needed that time together. The snatched opportunity for three days in Grenoble remains our standout joint favourite of all my Skyscanner minibreak bargains to date. (And let’s face it, there’s not the greatest of opportunities for it to get knocked from the top spot this year).

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