When I first visited Grenoble, back in December, the city was under a heavy blanket of fog and it was freezing; the second time around, the skies were blue and a heat haze smothered the mountains to the south. Encircled by three mountain ranges, Grenoble certainly lives up to the title plastered across all the postcards sold in the city. Capital of the Alps it is, undoubtedly. With the Parc Naturel Régional de la Chartreuse, the Parc Naturel Régional du Vercors and the Parc National des Écrins (along with its foothills, the Chaîne de Belledonne) to choose from, there’s no shortage of trails to hike in this region.
From Lyon, we took an earlyish train to Grenoble, armed with a map of the Parc Naturel Régional de la Chartreuse, plenty of snacks and multiple bottles of water. After crossing the Isère, we headed up to the Bastille – though Laurence soon decided he needed a pain au chocolat to help him power up the hill. (Neither of us is very good at resisting the siren calls of the boulangeries and pâtisseries that we pass on our travels. Luckily, all our walking tends to burn off the buttery goodness of all the flaky pastries we consume.) We paused to admire the view from the Bastille, before continuing past the grottos and up into the Chartreuse.
Following the GR9 (long-distance hiking trails in France are known as Grandes Randonnées, or GR for short), we passed through woodland circling the summit of Mont Jalla. Crisp leaves were strewn across the forest floor; branches remained bare. Trail runners shot off into the distance; we plodded along soaking up the views. Grenoble sprawled across the valley; the Isère snaked its way between the rural communes.
Seamlessly blending into a rocky outcrop to our right, we spotted the Château Pilon. (It would be a devious choice for I Spy.) I imagine it commands spectacular views across the plain, but heavy snowfall could easily cut it off from civilisation over the winter months. When the path forked, we left the GR9 and joined a smaller path which looped round to the summit of Mont Rachais.
Dominating the horizon to the north was Chamechaude, the highest mountain in the Chartreuse. Its sheer face has climbing routes aplenty; for those who prefer to traverse mountains on their own two feet, there are also hiking trails and cables leading to the summit.
After a relatively gentle ascent, we arrived at the summit of Mont Rachais – a modest 1,046m, but rather puny in comparison to nearby Chamechaude and the peaks we’d recently visited in the Alps. We stopped briefly at the summit to munch some biscuits, before descending a short way and following the GR9 back towards Grenoble.
Behind the Bastille, we stopped to explore the caverns that we had seen earlier that morning. As a military garrison, the Bastille’s only flaw was its proximity to the Chartreuse, which left it susceptible to attacks from the north. Excavations were thus carried out into the rock face of Mont Jalla, to the rear of the fort. These interlinked caverns, known locally as the Mandrin Caves, were large enough to store munitions, so any would-be attackers would now come under fire from both the garrison and the caves opposite. Today, visitors can venture inside and explore for themselves – the upper levels have natural light, while the stairwells and passageways are lit by lamps (and emergency exit signs).
Upon returning to the Bastille proper, we discovered that every man and his chien was up there soaking up the sunshine vitamin. Keen to escape the crowds, we decided to head down into Grenoble and treat ourselves to a crêpe. Naturel Délice offered the best deal, so we promptly ordered our crêpes and plonked ourselves down outside in the sun.
We then pottered around the centre for a little while, before heading over to the station to catch a train back to Lyon. Grenoble and the Chartreuse rounded off both the Vacances d’Hiver and Laurence’s visit beautifully, and I have my fingers crossed for a return trip to the Chartreuse before I leave Lyon in just over a month’s time.
- If you don’t fancy walking up to the Bastille, you can catch Les Bulles – Grenoble’s iconic bubble-shaped cable cars – to the top. More information can be found here.
- Trails are generally well signposted, but it’s advisable to be armed with a copy of the relevant map – in this case, the IGN 3334 OT Massif de la Chartreuse (Sud).