GRENOBLE, France — At first glance there seems little to stamp this town as Gallic: the surrounding Rhone Alps and innumerable lakes creating a Swiss atmosphere, lovely pastel buildings and a sea of Italian food stores and restaurants picking up colors and tempo from Italy's frontier to the east.
Yet a closer and longer look brings out the essence of a French city, one proud of its historic role in helping to launch the French Revolution, with more monuments to heroes of the World War II Resistance than we can remember anywhere, a gaggle of cyclists on the outskirts preparing for that most renowned national spectacle, the Tour de France.
Grenoble's 14th-Century university is one of Europe's most revered, equally acclaimed Chartreuse liqueur has been brewed by monks on a nearby mountain since 1605 and regional chefs account for more than a third of France's three-star restaurants.
With all its visual, historic and cultural appeal, it took the 1968 Winter Olympics to bring Grenoble to the attention of most foreigners. Since then skiers--more than 8 million yearly--have stopped here en route to the exciting slopes of Deux Alps, Chamrousse, Villard de Vercors and d'Huez.
And any ardent Francophile will find total satisfaction sitting at an outdoor cafe on Place Grenette, or taking his cafe filtre surrounded by the Renaissance and flamboyant Gothic buildings of Place St. Andre in Old Town.
Here to there: Air France and TWA will fly you LAX to Paris nonstop, Pan Am and American with one, British Caledonian, Air Canada, British Airways and Delta with a change. Take French National Railroads' 170-m.p.h. Tres Grande Vitesse from Paris in just over three hours; the new France Vacances rail pass is now good for nine or 16 days' travel within a month, not including stopovers.
How long/how much? Two or three days for the town and environs, longer for serious skiing. Lodging and dining costs reasonable.
A few fast facts: The franc was recently valued at 15 cents, about 6.6 to the U.S. dollar. July and August are crowded with the French. May and June for mountain wildflowers. September and October for foliage. March best for skiing as there are no school holidays then. Bus rides are 60 cents; cabs are reasonable.
Getting settled in: Hotel des Skieurs (Le Sappey en Chartreuse; $27 double with bath) is a beguiling little chalet six miles from town in foothills of the Alps. Small simple rooms, rustic decor, stunning views from balconies, young owners incredibly friendly and cheerful. The dining room draws guests from Grenoble regularly.
Port de France (27 Quai Claude Bernard; $28.50) is another small one, 200 yards from rail station, five minutes from town center on Isere River. Colorful rooms very functional, place only seven years old, the lobby comfortable and cozy, with TV and lots of magazines to thumb through. Breakfast only.
Bastille (25 Ave. Felix-Viallet; $24) has a fine location near station and a main shopping street. Contemporary decor and furnishings, breakfast only in a sunny and colorful room. Again, a super-friendly woman at desk, rooms quiet thanks to double-glazed windows.
Regional food and drink: The universal excellence of food in every corner of France never ceases to surprise even the most demanding, and Grenoble takes its place near the top. Game is a staple here: venison, wild boar, pheasant and duck appearing most of the year.
This region grows more walnuts than any place in Europe, served in such delights as salad Grenoble with greens, croutons and ham. They also find their way into many desserts, particularly tortes, but local almonds add to the fresh trout on every menu.
The town's sausages are coveted throughout the country, sassenage a great blue cheese we found as savory as bleu de Bresse. Gratin dauphinois makes you realize what can be done with potatoes, while Savoy wines may be drunk with everything, mostly white but some nice, simple reds as well.
Moderate-cost dining: Everything about Les Skieurs is geared to the enjoyment of good food: a summer terrace with mountains as a backdrop, long dining room with picture windows and the same view. There's a huge and rustic fireplace for grills, overstuffed chairs before it for the pre-meal aperitif.
We thoroughly enjoyed the local Saint Marcellin cheese served warm on toast and sprinkled with herbs, flaminche aux poireaux, a heavenly torte of more local cheese and leeks, and chicken prepared beautifully with a crayfish sauce.
We ended with a local favorite, fromage blanc in a bowl with cream, sugar on top and eat it with a spoon. Unusual but marvelous. Nothing beats a French brasserie for hearty food at reasonable prices, Table Ronde (7 place Saint Andre) dating from 1739 and Grenoble's oldest. Tournedos au bleu d'sassenage for $11, gratin dauphinois, $3, enough of both to feed three. Summer dining outside on the square is worth planning for.