Where to stay

Grand Hotel & Spa Uriage Typical of the mid- 20th century spa tourism era and located a little outside the city, revamped bedrooms are chic, with antiques and photos of A-listers providing links to its glamorous past. The spa combines hydrotherapy with massage treatment rooms and its own wellbeing products. Doubles from £123. 60 place Déesse Hygie, Uriage-le-Bains, 00 33 4 7689 0462, grand-hotel-uriage.com

Hotel Musée de l’Eau
Once outside Grenoble and in the Vercors Regional Natural Park, hotels can be hard to come by, but this comfortable one in a unique, pretty village is an offshoot of the Musée de l’Eau, and its restaurant highlights the district’s specialities: walnuts, Saint-Marcellin and ravioles. Doubles from £67. place du Breuil, Pont- en-Royans, 00 33 4 7636 1790, musee-eau.com

Okko A next-generation city hotel with compact but efficient rooms. Le Club, a kind of lounge- diner, offers free cold drinks and coffee through the day, with cheese and charcuterie on sale in the evening. Doubles from £58. 23 rue Hoche, 00 33 4 8519 0010, okkohotels.com

Residhome Caserne de Bonne An apart-hotel in the eco-quarter of Bonne, with studios to three- room apartments. Studios from £64. 21 rue Lazare Carnot, 00 33 4 7686 8888, residhome.com

Travel Information

This city in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of south-eastern France is haloed by mountain peaks, lying between the Drac and Isère rivers and surrounded by picturesque villages and sprawling vineyards. Time is one hour ahead of GMT and currency is the Euro. Grenoble-Isère Airport has limited service to the UK, but there are more regular flights to Lyon-Saint Exupéry, an hour’s drive away, which take around 1 hour and 35 minutes.

GETTING THERE
Easyjet offers flights from Bristol, Edinburgh and London Gatwick to Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport. easyjet.com
British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Lyon. ba.com

GETTING AROUND
Grenoble is best explored on foot, but for travels further afield, opt to rent a car from Alamo France alamo.co.uk. Don’t miss panoramic views of the historic centre from the Bastille fort, accessible via Grenoble’s iconic cable cars, known locally as bulles.

RESOURCES
Grenoble Tourisme is the local city tourist board, full of inspiration and handy advice for planning your journey. grenoble-tourisme.com

Where to eat

Prices are for a three-course meal for two people with a bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated

Café de la Table Ronde In summer most of the crowds flocking to this café sit outside and people-watch, but the brasserie inside has a Third Republic vibe and filling dishes including regional sausages and ravioles. From £60. 7 place Saint-André, 00 33 4 7644 5141, restaurant-tableronde-grenoble.com

Caffè Forté Insiders come here for one of the largest and tastiest beef tartares around – to finish the hand-cut fries that come with it is a challenge in itself. It’s a simple, tucked-away bistro with a wine bar attached overlooking the river on one side and quiet square on the other. From £60. 4 place Lavalette, 00 33 4 7603 2283, caffeforte.fr

Chez Le Per’Gras
Best reached by cable car, followed by a walk through the old fort, Bastille, it’s an institution with more than its share of weddings and family gatherings. The cuisine on the set menus has a simple classic precision – and the gratin dauphinois baked in Le Creuset dishes always hits the spot. From £145. 19 chemin de la Bastille, 00 33 4 7642 0947, pergras.com

Jardin du Thé
Choose from over 300 teas, sourced from around the world by co-owner Gaël Le Gloan – many blended by him – at this tea room in a pedestrian street. His iced mojito tea makes a refreshing accompaniment to the likes of lemon curd cheesecake. Tea from £2.40. 2 rue Millet, 00 33 7 6351 4638, jardin-du-the.com

L’Epicurien
Cuisine bourgeoise with the kind of gigantic portions Grenoblois love. Permanently busy with middle-of-the-road cuisine sourced from top suppliers. The sharing Assiette Epicurienne – a medley of charcuterie and cheeses – is a meal in itself. From £68. 1 place aux Herbes, 00 33 4 7651 9606, lepicurien-grenoble.com

Le Fantin Latour
By day, it’s an upscale brasserie and at night, you’ll experience Michelin-starred gastronomy as the foraged ingredients of Stéphane Froidevaux become more ambitious – he’s a dab hand with sauces. The garden – almost a miniature park – is popular. Lunch from £61; five-course dinner from £154, both excluding wine. 1 rue du Général de Beylié, 00 33 4 7624 3818, fantin-latour.fr

Maison Aribert
Christophe Aribert is a star of French gastronomy whose café, restaurant and five rooms match his philosophy of building menus and recipes around produce, whether wild or cultivated, from the Vercors. From £60 (café); 4-course menu (restaurant) from £215, both excluding wine. 280 allée du Jeune Bayard, Uriage-Les-Bains, 00 33 4 5817 4830, maisonaribert.com

Food Glossary

Food and Travel Review

Day and night, the cable-car pods Grenoble calls bulles (bubbles) rise and fall between the old part of town and La Bastille, a rocky once fortified crag. En route, they cross the swirling black water of the Isère river and pass the grafitti-daubed ruins of what was the university’s geography faculty. Below them is an untidy green tangle of maquis or scrubland.

From the top, the cityscape in the valley tells its own story: the kernel of a provincial town encircled by the anarchic residential blocks of its suburbs, with the mountain-range of Belledonne, an outcrop of the Alps, dwarfing them all. Turn around and the jagged massifs of Chartreuse and Vercors recede towards the Italian border.

Grenoble could have inspired the phrase ‘between a rock and a hard place’. In describing his home town, 19th-century novelist Stendhal speaks of ‘a mountain at the end of every street’. Wandering through it today, the individual peaks still point you in the right direction as well as any compass.

Vertiginous scenery exacts a price, however, acting like a basin and trapping carbon emissions and, a generation ago, this was France’s most polluted city. Now, with a Green mayor and a big concerted effort, it’s becoming one of its cleanest. An eco-zone, the Quartier de Bonne, has transformed a military barracks into lakes and gardens; trams run along tree-lined avenues; newly pedestrianised streets and accompanying changes to the one-way system play havoc with motorists’ sat nav; and roadworks building new cycle lanes could pass for post-modernist installation art.

And this is a place that takes street art seriously. The enormous Giacometti-style stick-man enmeshed in zig-zag lines that covers the book-end of an apartment, 12 rue des Bains, is part of the annual Street Art Fest. ‘We created a person dragged down and held back by the ties of family and society. He can’t escape because he’s trapped by reality,’ explain street artists Maye & Momies. This year has seen walls across town newly spray- gunned with political, surreal, cartoonesque images, some 15m high, others just a few centimetres, that sit well with an evolving town.

Frescoes painted on stanchions supporting the railway line into the station are less about street art than social realism – spread over 600m, they depict the day-to-day life of the outdoor market, l’Estacade, pitched here. It splits into two halves: at one end the revendeurs (retailers) who trade fruit and veg, charcuterie, cheese, meat and fish. At the other, small producers do the same with what they grow or rear themselves. Bring a jar and you can fill it with chestnut or acacia honey ladled from stainless steel vats, or pour unpasteurised milk into a bottle at the twist of a spigot. It’s where to buy walnuts and their oil from Vercors orchards, or murçons – chunky sausages – and caillettes, faggots blended with spinach.

For a more old-fashioned, covered market, make for Halles Sainte-Claire, a pint-sized copy of Les Halles in Paris, built for a city with a third of its current population. Le Bistroquet café open from 7am until lunch, reflects its scale with, at a pinch, enough seating for a butcher, baker and candlestick maker; anybody else has to stand at the bar. Crewed by a handful of stallholders, the market mirrors the habits of millennial shoppers, packed at weekends, ticking over Monday to Friday.

Bernard Mure-Ravaud’s Fromagerie Les Alpages in rue de Strasbourg deals in the ‘hautest’ of haute couture cheeses. The moustachioed master cheesemonger supplies Michelin-starred restaurants across France and, with shades of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, the cheeses have their own brass plaques on the pavement outside his shop. A Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF), the highest award given to artisans, he’s a regular television pundit with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Alpine cheeses Comté and Beaufort. As though speaking to camera, he eulogises his region’s produce from well known tommes de Montagne, carré du Trièves, St Félicien and Bleu du Vercors to goats’ cheeses made by creative young farmers. He discourses at machine gun speed on his selection of Saint-Marcellin, a small, flat, cows’ milk cheese from the Vercors: ‘There are hard ones we call séchons, in between ones, softer ones, and creamier ones we’ve ripened for 37 days,’ he says. ‘We have fresh Saint-Marcellin and related ones with walnuts or chives – your choice will depend on how you want to eat it.’

In contrast to the master cheesemonger’s old-school passion for his craft, patissier and chocolatier Thierry Court keeps his tongue firmly in his gummy-bear cheek a few streets away. He has created a cult following with sweets and chocolates modelled on the snacks children grow up with – think Snickers, Maltesers, Twix, Bounty, M&Ms. His motivation, he admits, is partly nostalgia and partly greed. ‘I make things I want to eat,’ he says simply. ‘Things have to be accessible and I refer to the things we make as little treats. They’re the opposite of the centrepieces displayed for show – my chocolates are for everyday eating.’

The big difference between his take on a Nux (like a Topic) and the mass-produced original lies in the choice of raw materials. ‘We don’t use low-cost ingredients,’ he says. ‘We leave out the additives, reduce sugar and the shelf-life – it may be as short as a week.’

For centuries, Grenoble acted as the de facto capital of the Dauphiné, a region that has since split into four départements. On that basis, it claims the world-famous potato dish gratin dauphinois as its own. The potato-cream-garlic recipe is simplicity itself, but perfecting it can take a lifetime. Cooks in the know parboil sliced potatoes in seasoned cream and milk, rub the buttered gratin dish with garlic, add the potatoes in their cream (with an extra dose of cream) and bake it slowly. The devil is in the detail: which cream, which potato, how much garlic, which gratin dish and what temperature. And the personal touches? A knob of butter on top during the last few minutes of baking or perhaps, as one chef advised, a smidgin of turnip mixed with the potatoes.

Try a classic version at Le Per’Gras, a short amble from the Bastille cable-car terminus, which has commanded an eagle-eyed view of the city since 1896. The original kitchen with its coal-fired range, bread oven, shelves and equipment is still used as the staff dining room and to entertain favoured guests. Under its refectory table, patron Laurent Gras keeps the dough box in which his grandfather kneaded bread and which, during the Second World War, served as an arms cache for the French Resistance. ‘The German soldiers would be eating at the table and the rifles were underneath,’ says Laurent. The wine cellar still has the concealed door behind which the resistance group Compagnie Stéphane hid.

Le Per’Gras is happy to serve unabashed classics, and dining in Grenoble has more to do with insider knowledge than accolades from famous guides. L’Epicurien, in the place aux Herbes, dishes up hearty portions of local favourites such as saddle of rabbit stuffed with fish and served with gratin dauphinois, and giant platters of charcuterie paired with Les Alpages cheeses.

Under the summer sun, Grenoblois lunch in the garden of Stéphane Froidevaux’s Le Fantin Latour. At the risk of a pecking, children play with his chickens while parents tuck into the brasserie specials: roast pigeon, perhaps, or turbot. In the evenings, the ex-sous chef of Marc Veyrat displays his passion for the wild herbs and fungi he forages himself: trumpet royale mushrooms, kohlrabi and truffle sauce; sea bream and ground ivy or a suprême de volaille delicately sauced with Parmigiano Reggiano and Vin Jaune.

Grenoble likes to promote itself as one end of a European Silicon Valley that winds its way to Geneva. Among the IT giants in Bernin, 15 minutes’ drive away, Domaine Finot is reviving a vineyard that flourished 150 years ago, before the phylloxera pandemic wiped it out. Replanting and nurturing old grape varieties, Thomas Finot and his partner Laure, a professor at the world-renowned Suze-la- Rousse University of Wine, make barrel-aged biodynamic wines that have some of France’s top sommeliers sniffing at their door. Le Zinc, a wine bar behind Halles Sainte-Claire, ‘where winemakers are more important than appellations’, fill glasses with his red persan and étraire de la dhuy while playing vinyl for the regulars.

Chef Christophe Aribert in Uriage-les-Bains, 12km from Grenoble, is a fan of the Finot white verdesse. The grapes, picked in autumn, yield a golden wine where acidity balances the sweetness of ripe fruit. His café-restaurant-with-rooms, Maison Aribert, opened in 2019 next door to the Grand Hotel & Spa, where he’d been presiding for over a decade. The two establishments, now rivals, have a fascinating contrast of styles. At the hotel’s Table d’Uriage, you can sit under the terrace awnings while lightning crackles on the Belledonne, and chef Carmen Thelen offers the kind of cuisine the French refer to as bistronomique – fresh, filling and not too pricy.

Christophe is up-front about his own aspirations: ‘My goal is to apply ethical practices whether they relate to food, agriculture, wellness or education.’ In the café, that translates into permaculture tomatoes from his garden with a mustard ice cream, followed by a burger with figs, Saint-Marcellin and fries, and a caramel and tonka gateau. His menus feature char farmed in the mountain lakes of the Vercors, and dishes along the lines of a cabbage millefeuille dosed with liquorice elixir Antesite (a liquor invented in Voiron). It’s a very un-Grenoble-like cuisine with almost no butter or cream.

Less interested in reinventing local cuisine is Café de la Table Ronde in place Saint-André. Why should it, since it opened in 1739 and is still going strong? Its menu devotes a whole section to ravioles – not the Italian kind, but fingernail-sized pasta bites filled with fromage blanc, Comté and parsley. They come coated in a creamy morel sauce, or with slices of Savoyard sausage, air-dried ham and Parmigiano Reggiano or, for boat-pushers, half a lobster.

Nearby, students have nicknamed rue Chénoise as the city’s rue de la Soif (Thirst Street), presumably because of the bars that rock ‘n’ roll into early morning. But penetrate the arched doorway at No 10, next to the Patisserie Orientale, and a perfectly maintained Renaissance courtyard wraps itself around you. Grenoble, with all its pressing modernity and youthful vigour, still has traditional charms aplenty. Some, like the cache in the Per’Gras cellar, are hidden; others are tucked away in plain sight, ready to be discovered.

Words by Michael Raffael. Photography by Mark Parren Taylor. They travelled courtesy of Grenoble Tourisme and Isère Tourisme. grenoble-tourisme.com alpes-isere.com

This feature was taken from the July 2022 issue of Food and Travel. To subscribe today, click here.

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