Buzz Laika is in Sassenage, parked in the motorhome parking area where we’ve spent two peaceful nights. Sassenage is a tranquil little town in the outskirts of Grenoble and a stone’s throw from France’s Regional Natural Park of Vercors. The aire is very pleasant, right next to a small man-made lake with an outdoor cafe and cycle paths along the river making it a good choice for a break from travelling and a chance to catch up with ourselves. It’s also situated right underneath the ‘Sassenage Fold’ where arching layers in the rock face perfectly demonstrate the force involved in its creation and a recognisable part of the landscape from the view we were later to see in Grenoble. We cycled into town past an enormous suspended rock fountain and we took the opportunity to do some laundry, buying a couple of maxi chocolate cookies in the process in order to get some change for the machine – the things you have to endure to do a bit of laundry on the road!
Chambery was up next, and we hadn’t realised that it was ‘Assumption Day’, one of France’s many national holidays, and virtually everything would be closed except the odd cafe. It took about an hour of wandering around seeing every single shop closed at 11am for us to cotton on that it wasn’t a normal day.
We’re so used to everything being closed half the day anyway we hadn’t noticed but when even the hairdressers, or coiffures, are shut you know something’s wrong. Speaking of which it seems that in every town in France, however small, every other shop is a hairdresser and every other one after that a cafe or tattoo parlour! Nestled between lakes and mountains Chambery is an attractive town and we enjoyed exploring it nevertheless. The old part makes an interesting walk through narrow streets lined with tall buildings providing welcome shade linked by dark and mysterious alleyways designed as shortcuts between streets and buildings.
The ancient Rue Basse du Chateau is home to the last remaining overhead footbridge and is full of history, charm and character. This little street runs from the Place du Chateau, built for the Dukes of Savoy and the bygone home of the Holy Shroud, joining with the Rue de Boigne leading on to the unusual Fontaine des Elephants, otherwise known as the ‘bottomless four’ for obvious reasons.
Unfortunately even the Cathedral Saint Francois de Sales was closed which was disappointing as it contains one of the largest trompe l’oeil paintings in Europe which we would liked to have seen.
Continuing South and driving through kilometre after kilometre of walnut groves we arrived at Grenoble, the home of the AOC (protected designation of origin) walnuts and the ancient IGP (protected geographical indication) Saint Marcellin cheese. Nestled at the foot of the mountains and between the Drac and Isère river, Grenoble is a scenic university city buzzing with life and modern living, the 18th century Bastille fortress on the hilltop a stark historical contrast reminding us of the city’s past. Easily accessed by small spherical cable cars (the first urban cable car in the world, built in 1934), the top of the Bastille offers a sweeping 180° panoramic view over the flattest city in France.
If you’re a bit more intrepid than us you could try taking a hike up on of the many trails to the top but we weren’t feeling that energetic and it looked VERY steep! Even travelling by cable car was thirsty work and when we’d walked around the top taking in all the views from the Geologues terrace we were ready to retreat into the shade of the restaurant and top up our fluid levels!
Back down at street level we set out to get our hands on some walnuts and cheese and sadly arrived at the covered market of Halles St Claire just as they were clearing away – very disappointing. However we did manage to locate both elsewhere and had to immediately seal the cheese in a plastic box in the fridge as soon as we got back to make sure it didn’t walk back out on its own!
We’re gradually making our way towards Italy now and so a 3.5 hour drive East was our next leg. Parking up in the aire at Briançon, France’s highest city at 1,350 metres above sea level we were almost there. We got Buzz parked up then made our way to the old fortified city via the giant stone gateway, the Porte de Pignerol. One of 12 Vauban sites on the World Heritage List, the area is awash with important well preserved fortifications and architectural heritage. In a key position high in the Alps the town dates back to the 13th century with a densely packed old town, the main part condensed into several steep and narrow cobbled lanes.
The Grand Rue these days is alive with visitors and residents, tiny town houses alongside little shops, restaurants and bars. The central water channel is still in place, having been built to provide water to the town and help deal with fire breakouts which caused extensive damage to the timber built dwellings in the 17th century.
It’s a bit of a climb up to the top of the fortress at the peak but surrounded by Alpine mountains, the views over the Durance valley are pretty good and make it worth the effort.
If you’ve still got some energy left a walk around the side of the town will lead you to the UNESCO classified Asfeld Bridge, one of the links in the defensive system designed by Vauban, spanning a magnificent gorge with cascading river originally built to connect the upper town and the forts located on the left bank of the Durance.
Briançon was our last town in France for the time being before we made our way to the Italian border and it certainly left us wanting to come back for more. It has been a pleasure learning to become ‘motorhomers’ in France and on the whole the roads have been kind to us, but onwards and upwards, or actually Eastwards and Southbound as we head to Buzz’s homeland – Italy!