Grenoble, Dijon and Strasbourg, 2023

9-11 July – Grenoble, France – We thought our train trip from Toulon to Avignon was bad. Today’s bus trip from Avignon to Grenoble was as bad, if not worse. While we were waiting for a local bus, Christine got a text message to say “Sorry, but your Flixbus has been cancelled. You can have a refund, or book another one free of charge.” We checked on the App and the next bus was not until 2:25pm, two hours later than the first. No big deal, except for a longer wait. We booked the next bus and rode out to Le Pontet. We couldn’t quite believe the scene. No big bus station with shade and seats; just four lanes for buses, each with a tiny glass shelter. A tiny forlorn sign said “Flixbus”. The temperature was already around 35 degrees and we faced a couple of hours wait. A short walk towards a nearby lake yielded a park bench under a tree. Luxury! The lake proved to be a cable water ski park so there was some entertainment. Then Christine noticed on the App that the new bus was now delayed by an hour and a half, giving it a 4pm time and a 7pm arrival. This was awful. I noticed that there was also a sign for BlaBlaCar, another bus company. We checked and they had a bus listed for 12:35, so we booked it, either prepared to wear the 50€ from the re-booked Flixbus or try to reclaim it somehow. At 12:10, a different bus with AO written on it arrived so I went up to check. Sure enough, it had “Flixbus” written on a piece of cardboard in the windscreen along with “Grenoble”. I checked and, sure enough, this was our “cancelled” bus. I tried to explain, but they wanted to see a ticket and our ticket was no longer on the App. They said, “No ticket, can’t do.” I walked off, very frustrated. After a few minutes, the driver called us back. He had a young woman in tow who spoke English. We managed to produce a text message saying the first bus was cancelled, so they took that as enough proof and let us on the bus. Christine then started work on a refund for the second Flixbus, finally getting a promise of one, after much texting.   Travel in France is not going well.

Grenoble itself proved to be very beautiful. The city is in a deep valley on the junction of the Drac and Isere Rivers, surrounded by the Alps. The prominent feature is the Chartreuse Massive, immediately overlooking the city. In the distance, the higher peaks, including Mt Blanc, still had scattered patches of snow on them, although the searing heat of the next week would no doubt account for that.

Our apartment was in the Quartier Lafayette, right in the middle of the old town, a cluster of walking streets, plazas and cobbled alleyways. The nightlife was vibrant, although not disturbing. Our apartment was in a building that was originally a 15th Century Hotel and some of the features had not really been updated since then. Unfortunately, the claim on the AirBnB site that it had air-conditioning proved to be false; it had a small water cooled thing, that worked passably once I had pulled the filters out and got rid of years of accumulated gunge. Still, it was a matter of careful management of the windows, blinds and curtains to keep the apartment bearable as the daily temperatures soared above 37 degrees each day.

The River Isere (top) and the Jardin de Ville (below)

Arriving on a Sunday, everything was very quiet, with few of the numerous eateries open. A nearby bar did sell drinks and the odd snack so we relaxed there, before finding a small supermarket. We found that Monday was also quiet, with many attractions closed and only about half the eateries open. There is also a prolonged siesta period from about 2pm to 6pm, the hottest part of the day so much of the time was spent in the apartment trying to keep cool. People in Grenoble spend a lot of the day doing nothing.

We did take a cable car up the mountain to the Bastille, a 19th Century fort built above the city. The car consists of five plexiglass bubbles, each taking six passengers. We got a superb view of the city and the river as we rose up, the old part of the city standing out with its terracotta roof tiles compared to the glass and cement of the newer city. The Cours de Jen Jaures was a feature, Europe’s longest straight avenue at 8kms long. From the Bastion, we could just make out Mt Blanc to the east, the visibility being a bit down, but the Chartreuse and other massives could be seen clearly in all their glory. The ride down somehow seemed quicker, not possible really, but in no time we were back at street level.

Our GPSMyCity App gave us some features to look for and we spent a pleasant time wandering the streets, although we could feel the heat rising as the day wore on. The Jardin de Ville was a pleasant park to sit in and watch the world pass by. The park was being set up for some kind of performance, with marquees and a large stage area. Working our way through the posters, all in French, revealed a pop music festival each night for five days starting tonight. Best of all, it was free.

Views from the Bastion, with the Chartreuse Massive bottom left

With the heat getting a bit much, we grabbed a beer in the square near our apartment before retiring for the day in front of the water cooler and Netflix. When the evening came, the temperature drops a few degrees and we set off back to the Jardin de Ville for the music. There was a fair crowd and a line of food trucks, along with a large bar area. It is terrific to see a well organised event being put on for free, and to see the crowd being well behaved. However, the music was not really to our liking, and exceedingly loud, so we spent a bit of time there, a bit more wandering, then back to the apartment and Netflix. The square outside was packed with people seeking to escape the heat. Air-conditioners seem rare, especially in the old parts of the city, where installation is difficult. When I got up to go to the loo around 1am, the crowd had hardly diminished. Fortunately, double glazing and wooden shutters keep the noise out.

Our second full day was even hotter, the temperature soaring to 39 degrees. We seemed to have exhausted the possibilities for the town, having seen most things, and even a check at the Tourist Bureau failed to find more. The old town area is so pretty that just walking is enough in itself, except in the heat that we were experiencing. Amazingly, as we headed down Rue Lafayette with our bags towards the train station the next morning, a little tourist train like the one in Avignon and Toulon came around the corner. We had not found any mention of it anywhere.

Grenoble is serviced with an excellent tram.
The concert at the Jardin de Ville

Grenoble is a very pretty and laid back city. Its tram system is easy to use and very regular, making moving around easy. There are plazas and cafes everywhere. If the weather had been kinder to us, we would have had a much better time.

12-14 July – Dijon – We took a Flixbus to Dijon, requiring a change of buses in Lyon. After our dreadful experience with Flixbus in Avignon, we were wary, but things went well. The change in Lyon was only 50 minutes, which was good because there was little to recommend the bus station in Lyon. There is a large inside area with shops and eateries, most of which were closed. It looked like the cleaning staff had been laid off some months ago and the overwhelming stench of urine in the bus loading area told of its use by the homeless when the bus stands are closed after midnight. It would be a good place for the local fire brigade to practice hosing things down. Once we got on the second bus at Lyon, the smell changed to vomit and there was a sign on the toilet door saying it was closed, suggesting someone had an unfortunate ride before the bus got to Lyon.

Apart from all that, the trip was smooth, the bus sticking to large motorways. It mostly followed the Rhone Valley, with vineyards and fruit orchards mixing it with cereal crops. In the one vista, it is possible to see wheat, barley, oats and sunflowers, alongside fields of grazing cattle. The variety of agriculture is amazing after the wheatbelt of WA. In some cases, the farms can manage two crops in a season, so I saw an instance of a seeder working a paddock alongside another field of golden barley, ready for harvest.

We had booked an apartment right outside the Gare de Dijon Ville, a bit of a risk, as the areas surrounding central train stations can be rather poor and dirty. The reviews suggested the only issue was noise at night from the trains, something that never bothers us. The reviews were right, the area is clean, interesting and so convenient. The Flixbus dropped us in front of the station, we  walked through a tunnel under the train line, across the road and we were home, a neat two bedroom apartment with good facilities, except for a crazy bathroom. The bathroom and toilet were separate, but the doors opened against each other, so to move from one to another, you had to squeeze out of the toilet, close one door, open the bathroom door and squeeze around into the bathroom.

After unpacking, we walked 400m down the road to a small supermarket which supplied the basics, then back to a restaurant/bar across the corner that had a very friendly owner and a lovely cold beer. The temperature was a very nice 28 degrees. All was good with the world again.

A walk into the centre of town the next morning was a delight. One of the symbols of Dijon is an owl, after a small statue on one corner of Notre Dame Cathedral that carries the usual promises of good health etc is you hold it with your left hand while placing your right hand over your heart. They have an “owl” walking trail made with lovely little brass plaques imbedded in the sidewalk so we purchased a booklet for 4€ at the Tourist Bureau and followed the trail for most of it, reading about the various features. We stopped in one area that was surrounded by glorious 15th Century buildings. The fact that we can still describe 15th Century buildings as ‘glorious’ after three months is testimony to them. We sat at a café and ordered orange juice, but nothing on the food menu appealed, that is, until I saw the woman next to us get served a toasted sandwich that looked like heaven on a plate. I called the waiter back and asked for the menu again, then basically said, “I’ll have what she had”. We shared a fried ham and cheese sandwich, with bread sliced about 2cm thick, filled with crème fraiche and served on a bed of lettuce with a scoop of chilled crème fraiche. It was amazing. A simple dish made into something special. We later found that this kind of sandwich is called a “croque” and is like “pub grub” in this part of France.

Les Halles (Market) is at bottom

On our way home, we went back to Le Halles, a large covered market that we had walked through earlier. Although mostly closed, the stand we wanted was still open, the lady cleaning the benches. We bought a large pastie looking thing that had caught our eye, with thick pastry encasing pork, legumes, cheese and vegetables.  By the time we had done the circuit and arrived back home, we had walked nearly 6kms, a good effort and a hedge against the lunch and the thing we had purchased for dinner that night.

On our second day, we walked down to Lack Kir, a small reservoir about 1.5kms away. The rivers around Dijon have long since been totally tamed and made into canals with small weirs to control the flow and locks on the canals. There is a canal port of sorts a little way out of the town centre with barges and canal boats. Lake Kir is a popular recreation park and has a nice sand beach for swimming, along with attendant life-guards in a tower and beach changing huts, all very European. We expected a big crowd, with the day being the French National Day, 14th July, or Bastille Day as the rest of the world calls it. The crowd was not there, although there were a lot of crowd control fences ready to deploy and a lot of workers getting the place ready for the evening onslaught. The lake had been chosen as the site for the fireworks so a big crowd was certain.

Dijon Beach, not exactly Bondi

We sat for a while enjoying the tranquillity and the cool breeze, a rare thing lately, and watched the joggers, prams and elderly all pass by. I am sure that people-watching burns calories. When it was time to head home, we ignored Google and followed the river, there being a formed trail along the banks. It was a beautiful walk, passing several weirs. We stopped a number of times to watch the fish, later identified as roach and tench, glide around amongst the lily pads. We saw one angler, working the river unsuccessfully with a small lure.  It was a surprise when our lovely walk brought us within a hundred metres of the local supermarket, a wonderful way of getting back to the apartment.

Dijon has been a very relaxing city, and one of the easiest to move around in. We probably took the architecture for granted, having seen so much over three months, but there is much to admire, more on a small scale than the large grandiose centres we have admired in other cities. We push on now to our last stop, Strasbourg.

15-17 July, Strasbourg, France – The train trip to Strasbourg from Dijon took three and a half hours, was very crowded, and horribly expensive at close to $A100 each. We assume the expense is down to the National Holiday Weekend, with many people travelling. All seats were taken and finding room for baggage was a challenge, with more people than usual having large suitcases. Other than those issues, the time passed easily and relatively peacefully.

Strasbourg in a white winter

Emerging from the station at Strasbourg is like entering a fairyland. There are gorgeous stone buildings and medieval half-timbered houses galore, lovely canals and wide pedestrian-only streets take up most of the CBD. It is one of Europe’s most favoured Christmas destinations, and it is easy to see why, with every streetscape resembling a Christmas Card. Pictures of the old city after a snow-fall are enough to tempt us back in the winter.

It was about a kilometre walk to our apartment, and we kept stopping every few hundred metres to say “Oh, look at that!” as each scene unfolded. After three months, we have declared our last city on our trip the most photogenic yet, surpassing even York and Lincoln. Our apartment was situated between to main thoroughfares, with a little courtyard and bar/restaurant outside.  The night noise was not too bad, certainly once the windows were closed and the ear plugs in, and the interesting daily life of the alfresco bar was good people-watching stuff. The apartment had a toaster, excellent coffee machine and a fan. Perfect.

After unpacking, we headed downstairs for a croque, the type of toasted sandwich we discovered in Dijon, made with very thick bread, cheese and ham, topped with more cheese and bechamel sauce then oven baked so everything melts and slightly chars. I am sure they are very good for you. Of course, a beer lubricated it. Then we had a bit of a kip, before heading out later in the evening for some sightseeing. Nearby is the star attraction of Strasbourg, an area called La Petit France (Little France). The area dates from the 15th Century and was once very much a trades area, with tanning, metal works and milling all being important, the steady and reliable flow of the River Ill providing lots of water power for the mills. It also formed the front line of city defences, with the river and canal creating effective moats, protected by walls and fortresses. Despite changing allegiances many times throughout history as the fortunes of the Papacy, Holy Roman Empire, French Empire and German expansions ebbed and flowed, the city was seldom over-run.

La Petite France is breath-taking in its beauty. It is like being in a fairytale land, with crooked lopsided buildings and gorgeous stone arched bridges. The crowds were heavy, and the sidewalk cafes were really cashing in. People were stopping all the time for selfies or group photos. It was a lot of fun.

La Petite France

The next morning we walked the other direction to Notre dame Square to take a Little Train Tour. After seeing so many great cathedrals in our time in Europe and UK, it was a little surprising to be so taken aback by the sight of the cathedral as we rounded the corner. Perhaps it is the glorious pink sandstone that does it, of the sheer extravagance of the embellishments that adorn every surface. It is one of the best. For a long time, it was Europe’s tallest building, the spire being a landmark all over the city.

Views of Notre Dame

The square was packed with tourists, a huge line waiting for entrance to the cathedral, the main attraction being the 330 step climb up the spire to get good views of the city. The line put us off, even though I am sure the climb would have been easy. We boarded the train, only 8€ f6r 45 minutes, and waited, chatting to a NZ couple who are currently living in Switzerland. Suddenly, there was a large influx of people, all from a Viking River Cruise, and they packed the train, turning a very comfortable jaunt into a cramped affair. The route followed much the same path we had walked the previous night, but the English commentary gave us insight into what we encountered. The narrow streets were even more crowded than before, and the train had to do a lot of ‘tooting’. Many of the people seemed to be off the cruise boat, waving to others they knew on our tour. Strasbourg is pretty much the beginning (or end) of Rhine Cruising, the Rhine being on the outer suburb of the city, and forming the border with Germany. It is wonderful to think that when we take the bus ride to Frankfurt in a few days, we will have pretty much covered the length of the navigable part of the Rhine on this trip.

La Petite France

From the Little Train, we made our way down to the pier landing to catch another tour, this time with Batorama on a canal boat. We chose the open type boat and the longer tour, taking in a circuit of the old city, and another tour through the Neustadt, or new city, built by the Germans when they took control of the city in the later 19th Century. The tour of La Petite France, our third, was so different, because of the change in perspective. The structure of the canals and the shape of the river became more apparent, and we negotiated locks both upstream and downstream along the way. It was very peaceful (I nearly nodded off a couple of times) and we gained more knowledge. The Neustadt area is filled with grand stone buildings with a distinctly German character, then further down river, the ultra modern European Government sections, with huge glass-steel buildings, dominate the river and skyline. Strasbourg is the home of the European Court of Justice, the highest authority in the EU.

The EU buildings in Neustad

All toured out for a while, we headed home for lunch, and a little nap, before going out again in the evening. We found we had misjudged the Sunday, the supermarkets all closing up at 1pm, so dinner had to be eaten out, a rare thing for us. Hankering after a pizza, we searched many places without luck. It seems the French don’t run to pizza, offering Tarte Flambe, a pizza like dish from Alsace, but much thinner than the Italian dish. We finally located an Italian Pizzaria and shared a delicious Calzone, a pizza-like dish that is turned over on itself like a pastie and baked. We were in heaven.

Our final day in Strasbourg is really our last day of our amazing European trip, barring the last leg of a Flixbus trip north back to Frankfurt for the flight home. We did a crawl through the many tourist shops surrounding Notre Dame Square to make sure the grandchildren all had their little gifts from Gran and Pop and took a tram ride out to where the Intercity Bus Station to ensure that it was a nice place to wait for a bus (which it was). We walked a bit, ate a bit, drank a bit, and generally did what we have been doing for three wonderful months. We are both ready for home (maybe not the icy cold weather we keep hearing about) but we have enjoyed every minute of this amazing trip.