Grenoble was set to be my first destination ever in France, and it proved to be a great franco-training city. In the early hours of January 2 Luke and Catherine deposited me at Gatwick for an EasyJet flight to Milan, Italy. Milan is over the Alps from Grenoble, and I had arranged for a BlaBla Car from Milan to Grenoble. The trip from England to Italy was uneventful, and after a short bus ride into the Italian city I found myself in a drab neighborhood waiting for my driver and companions across the Alps to France.
The drive was pleasant, and also uneventful. We drove across the northern Italian plain to Torino, and then we started driving upwards into the mountains. Before long the sides of the roads were snow-covered and we were snaking through mountain tunnels toward the French border. There were one or two old cliff-side fortresses that we passed on the ridge lines above us. Then we entered one tunnel, and when we came out on the other side the road signs had switched from Italian to French. We were in France. An hour or two later, after descending from the mountains, my driver dropped me in Grenoble and they continued onward to Lyon, where, if I recall, they all study.
Grenoble is small French city in the southeast of the country, about an hour south of Lyon. Grenoble sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Isère and the Drac. Surrounding the city are three Alpine mountain ranges, casting the city in impressive relief with the Alps. Grenoble is very much the gateway city to the French Alps, and this year it is celebrating the 50th anniversary of hosting the Winter Olympics.
One of the rivers, the Isère, snakes around a massif that buttresses the mountain-side of the city. At the base of the massif is a beautiful quayside neighborhood with handsome, tall, colorful homes. Interestingly, this neighborhood attracted many Italian immigrants in the 20th century and is known for having some of the best pizza restaurants in Europe. On one occasion when we ate at one of the gourmet pizzerias my friend, Eric, complimented the waiter, telling him that it was some of the best pizza he has ever had, including from Italy!
High above the restaurants and river homes is the Bastille, once a stronghold overlooking the city and now a beautiful overlook with views of the entire city and the mountain ranges. As an added treat, the easiest way to access the Bastille is taking the cable car pods from the far side of the river. There are a series of ramparts and switchbacks that otherwise lead up to the Bastille. Local university students use these when they want to avoid the cost of the cable car, and fitness enthusiasts also run up and down these paths to get a good workout. Engorged on pizza, we opted for the pods. From the Bastille it was clear enough to see all the way to Montblanc in Italy, the tallest mountain in Europe. That day happened to be 55 degrees and sunny in Grenoble, while the United States was suffering from one of the most severe cold spells ever. I had my wool cap on, mostly to prevent sunburn on my scalp.
Grenoble has its own unique history, stories, and fables, but the city has always been small in comparison to Lyon, which is one hour’s drive north. However, in the last half a century it has established itself as an educational, scientific, and industrial powerhouse in France and Europe. It is a large student population and locals often remark that English, not French, is the predominant language due to the large number of multi-national companies in the city’s research parks and the EU’s liberal immigration policies. This was the scene that brought us to Grenoble. Our course was a two-week immersion in the business of technology and innovation, with Grenoble as an appropriate setting for a European perspective on these important trends. Grenoble Ecole d’Management (GEM), our host, has staked its reputation on preparing business leaders for technology and innovation.
In addition to a number of seminars presented by professors at GEM, we were able to visit the French government’s science and technology research center, ARaymond, and Schneider Electric (my favorite of the bunch). ARaymond designs and manufactures small plastic and metal fasteners, primarily for automotive applications. It is one of those companies that you never hear of but their products touch our lives on a nearly daily basis. We also visited the Chartreuse liqueur storehouse, which was quite an interesting study in operations management (my particular field of study in business school) and Courchevel ski resort in the Alps. My one short day in the Alps offered me the most beautiful skiing I’ve ever had. Every turn is an impressive view of beautiful mountains. However, I believe that skiing in Utah is more challenging, and Colorado may offer more all around skiing, ranging from terribly difficult to more long and pleasant runs.
On the day that I had planned to go to Geneva, I instead had a pleasant day strolling through Grenoble and visiting some of the city’s museums. After the aborted train trip, I went back to bed until 10 and then devoured a good portion of my planned picnic before setting out into Grenoble. My first stop was the fabulous Grenoble Archaeological Museum, in an old riverside neighborhood nestled in the ramparts below the Bastille. The city’s earliest settlements were around this quay, and the community has been anchored for millennia by a church and abbey. The site is no longer a church, but instead has been converted into a medieval excavation site. By carefully digging through the various layers of history of the church and laying see-through glass pathways over the excavations the museum presents a cross-section of the history of the site. In the process they’ve uncovered over 1,000 human burial remains (many visible) and various pieces of artwork and architectural elements from the early church.
My second stop, on the other side of the river in the medieval city center, was the Musée Dauphinois. Adjacent to the city’s main Catholic church, the city has converted the bishop’s residence into a museum of the history of the city and the surrounding region. Again, the story was told with an impressive number of artifacts and dioramas. In the basement of the museum the church’s old baptistry has been excavated and is open to museum visitors, similar to the Archaeology Museum on the other side of the river. If I recall, the remains of the baptistry were not discovered until the 19th or 20th century, possibly while they were building the city roads or the tram line. Unfortunately, the Grenoble area, and much of Western Europe, had been experiencing very heavy rains, and the baptistry had flooded (or the electrical and lighting were having problems due to the excessive rainwater). The baptistry was, most unfortunately, closed, and I was not able to visit.
My third and last museum of the day was the Museum of Resistance and Deportation. As with all sites related to wartime Europe and the Holocaust, it was a saddening and moving experience. There were excellent exhibits on the French resistance to the Nazis. I love the name of the French resistance movement: the maquis, which was so excellently adapted by Star Trek. Grenoble, being set up against three mountain ranges, was a center of maquis activity. The museum has excellent maps, displays, and dioramas of the encampments of the maquis in the mountains around Grenoble and stories of their engagements with the Nazis. Like many stories from World War II, and most war in general, tragedy met most of the maquis. However, it serves to reinforce the reason why we have war museums, memorials, and genocide remembrance museums: avoid wars and genocides in the future at all costs.
Mid-afternoon, after three museums, I was intellectually, emotionally, and physically tired. I decided to head back to my AirBnB for a rest. It was at this time that everyone else in the study abroad group began to stir and set out into the city. A group of folks headed to the large art museum in Grenoble. They invited me, but despite the impressive collection of modern and contemporary art, I declined to join them. They said that the museum was quite nice. Hopefully I will find myself in Grenoble sometime again in the future and have the time to visit the art museum, among the other attractions in Grenoble.