On The Road Travel Essays

back to index


Population: 165,000. A fast-growing city, Grenoble is the capital of the Dauphine region. With Innsbruck (Austria) the only large city located in the mountains. Today, Grenoble is one of the most popular places for Frenchmen to move to. The "Denver" of France: a boom town, with much new industry with many new jobs and opportunities available. The people like to live here, to work and play (ski) in the same community. Thousands of Frenchmen are leaving their old jobs in other cities, and resettling here. Hence, there is much rebuilding, with an increasingly "new" look to the city.

The Origins  The city is situated at a river junction: the Rivers Drac and Isere. It was a natural place for a community to form: in the basin in the midst of high mountains; rivers provided transport; the mountains themselves provided defense.

Emperor Gratian: The Romans built a bridge, and surrounded the small settlement with walls. The original name was Cularo. Then the Roman Emperor Gratian raised the settlement to the rank of a Roman city (able to collect taxes from the whole district). The city, grateful for this new status, renamed the city Gratianopolis (city of Gratian), which became "Grenoble." During the French Revolution, an attempt was made to rename the city Grelibre ("Free Will"), but it didn't stick.

Floods: The River Drac provided fresh mountain water and transportation, but exacted a price: disastrous flooding. During the Middle Ages, an especially bad flood (1219) destroyed the main bridge and carried off most of the houses. Flood control remains a major task of the city administration today. The worst season is the spring thaw due to melting snow from the mountains.

The Dauphins: During most of the Middle Ages, Grenoble and the area around it was ruled by the Counts of Albon (originally from the city of Vienne, on the Rhone). In the 12th century, the wife of one of the counts (she was from England) gave her son the surname "Dolphin" (French: Dauphin). The title became the name for the province, Dauphine. It was also used as the title for the Crown Prince of France. The rule of the Counts of Albon came to an end in 1349. Humbert II, last of the Dauphins, spent his treasury dry, and to raise money, sold the province to King Philip VI for 200,000 florins plus an annual stipend of 24,000 pounds. It was at this point that "Dauphin" came to be used for the Crown Prince. (As "Prince of Wales" signifies that Wales is subject to the English crown, so "Dauphin" came to signify that the Dauphine was subject to the French crown.)

Vaucanson's Inventions  Characteristic of mountain dwellers: develop meticulous, painstaking skills. Obviously true of the Swiss. Also true of Grenoble. A man of Grenoble, Vaucanson (1709-82), developed some of Europe's most ingenious mechanical figures. He invented a "mechanical priest" who turned the pages of the prayer book, two little angels which bat their wings, chess-playing devices, a mechanical duck that paddled, ate, and even "digested" grains, a mechanical snake that whistled in a stage play about Cleopatra, etc. But Vaucanson overreached himself: he was an inspector of silk factories, and invented a device for automating silk processing. This became unpopular with workers put out of work. The idea's time hadn't yet come. Vaucanson died a member of the French Academy of Science.

Revolutionary Temper  The people of Grenoble — like the mountain dwellers generally — have always been fiercely independent, and rebellious against central authority. An example is Grenoble's "Day of the Rooftiles." June 17, 1788: the people learned that King Louis XVI was about to close all local courts in France, and lock members of the French parliament out of the parliament building. Seeing their local liberties threatened, the people of Grenoble went on a rampage: they raised barricades, went up on roofs, plucked tiles loose, and hurled them down on troops representing the king.

Another example was the "Gauntlet of Grenoble." In 1832, under the reign of King Louis-

Philippe, the local Prefect learned of a masked ball at which Louis-Philippe's regime was to be satirized. The Prefect put a ban on the ball. The citizenry, outraged again, demonstrated under the windows of the Prefecture. Soldiers of the 35th Regiment were called out, charged the crowd with bayonets, leaving 26 citizens dead. The popular exasperation forced the government to withdraw the regiment. As the regiment left, the townsfolk lined up in a gauntlet, and as the soldiers passed, hooted and hissed insults, tossing rotten fruit, etc.

Industrial Development  The 19th century was a period of rapid growth: coal mining and processing, cement, and above all, paper manufacturing. Grenoble is France's great paper-mill city. People call the paper "white gold." Metallurgy was developed in this century: electro-chemical plants, also nuclear energy research. (The Nuclear Research Center is located just out of town.) In Grenoble and its environs live a quarter of all the people in the French Alpine region.

Grenoble Olympics  The city has become a major ski center. The Winter Olympics of 1968 were held in the city: a skating rink was built, ski runs, and toboggan runs, etc. It became a center of permanent winter-sports activity, stimulating further growth of tourism.

Life in Grenoble  The French writer, Stendahl, born in Grenoble, said "What I like about Grenoble is that it has the look of a city, not just a large village." He meant that the city's growth had been solid and steady, not an overnight mushroom. The city has absorbed the increasing activity, and lives up to Stendahl's observation even today. Life is bustling and active. There are many parks and gardens, large, tree-lined avenues that give the city a classical look. The University of Grenoble, founded in 1339, has an excellent reputation, with labs for engineering, nuclear research, metallurgy, and other (mainly technical) subjects. There is a large body of foreign students.

Chartreuse  A few miles outside of Grenoble is the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse. It was founded by St. Bruno (1084), and developed a unique pattern of life, widely imitated throughout medieval Europe. During the French Revolution, monks were expelled, and the monastery dissolved. After the Revolution, the monks returned, and started making a unique liqueur, colored a pale green. It provided the principal revenue of the monastery. From this liqueur comes the word "chartreuse." (The monastery flourishes today; alas, not open to visitors.)

Features of Grenoble

Fort of the Bastille: An old fort, on a rocky height overlooking the city. It is reached by the teleferique that crosses the River Isere. You have a splendid view from the top.

Ice Stadium: Built for the Olympics. It is a futuristic design, with the whole roof supported by four pillars located outside the building.

Town Hall, of modern design, is 12 stories high. Implemented here is the ingenious use of glass windows.


passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.

Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA


Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:


51 Union Street Suite 106
Worcester, MA 01608

Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2022 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy