Located in the east of the country and part of the Rhône-Alpes region, Isère is an obvious tourist destination due to its fortuitous positioning by the Alps mountain range.
Despite the mountainous terrain in certain parts, Isère is one of the largest and most populous departments in France, with well over a million inhabitants across a land area of 7,431 km². Comfortably the largest city is the prefecture of Grenoble, other important communes including the following:
- Le Bourg d'Oisans
- La Tour-du-Pin
Forged from segments of the former Dauphiné province, Isère was one of the 83 original departments established in March 1790 during the French Revolution (although it has contracted in size over the centuries). However, despite its formation by the French government, Isère has mirrored and inherited the historical values of Dauphiné.
First inhabited by the Gaullish Allobroges tribe in the 3rd century BC, the Isère of today was heavily influenced by the Roman takeover. Indeed, it was under the Romans when the first signs of autonomy were expressed, as the brief Gallo-Roman Empire (260-273 AD), a breakaway group of Roman colonies, counted Vienne as one of its centres. Such attitudes were further evidenced following Rome's collapse, as Dauphiné only fell into French hands in the 14th century, with Vienne following a full century later. The fractious relationship between the two flared up once again in June 1788, when the Day of the Tiles in Grenoble inaugurated major revolts and, according to some, ultimately triggered the French Revolution.
The independent spirit is today reflected in the survival of the Dauphinois dialect, and Isère continues to celebrate its distant past. This distinctive culture, coupled with the outstanding winter sports opportunities, makes Isère extremely fruitful land for visitors.
Isère defies solid categorisation, with relatively warm summers typical of southern France, but naturally cold and harsh winters marked by heavy snowfall. Grenoble gives you a sense of average quarterly temperatures:
Average temperature in Grenoble
With a large student population brought about by the many university facilities, Grenoble is a lively city with plenty going on. Ironically though, the major point of interest is La Bastille, a series of fortifications begun in the Middle Ages and supplemented between 1823 and 1845, sitting on the mountainside overlooking the city. As well as a tour around La Bastille itself, you can enjoy the fantastic views of Grenoble and, for an even better one, take a cable car (known as 'Les Bulles') over the River Isère.
Down in Grenoble proper, there are plenty of fine edifices to enjoy. Chief among these is the Palais de Justice, the former Dauphiné parliament, built in Gothic style during the late 15th century.
Also well worth a glance are the Église Notre-Dame, a mixture of the 13th century Cathedral and the 11th century Saint Hughes Church, and the Grande Chartreuse, a 1,000 year old monastery, situated in the Chartreuse Mountains a short distance from Grenoble itself.
For sightseers, the other premier destination is Vienne. Arguably the most beautiful building in the city is the Temple d'Auguste et de Livie, an enduring reminder of Vienne's Roman past. Constructed by Claudius in the 1st century AD, the temple only survived because of its conversion into the Christian Church of Notre Dame de Vie. Restored extensively during the 19th century, it is now one of France's best preserved Roman ruins. Also recalling the Roman era are the Plan de l'Aiguille, formerly part of the Roman Circus (and, according to legend, the tomb of Pontius Pilate), and the Roman Theatre, built between 40 and 50 AD and one of the largest surviving theatres in Europe.
Religious architecture is also a major attraction. Built between 1052 and 1533, but damaged by the Huguenots during the Religious Wars, the Saint-Maurice Cathedral still stands today as a magnificent example of Gothic architecture. Impressive in a different way is the Church of St. Pierre, dating from the 5th and 6th centuries and one of the oldest in France. Such structures reflect the depth of history and tradition in Isère, making the department more than just a ski resort.
Not exactly renowned for its sporting credentials, rugby union fans may be interested in FC Grenoble, who play their games in Pro Division 2 at the Stade Lesdiguières. However, for a family day out you'd be well advised to try a themepark like Walibi Rhône-Alpes in Les Avenières.
The mountain lakes of Robert and Achard offer plentiful opportunities for fishing and swimming, while you can even ride horses at clubs like Les Ecuries du Couzon in Vienne.
Museums, galleries and culture
Grenoble is packed with good museums and galleries, ranging from the Musée des Beaux-Arts (specialising mainly in modern exhibits) to the outstanding Musée Dauphinois (covering the history and culture of Dauphiné) and the Musée de L'Ancien Eveche (focusing on the department itself from prehistory onwards).
Vienne also enjoys a few decent cultural centres, such as the Jardin Archéologique de Cybèle, a reconstruction of an old Gallo-Roman town, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie, displaying finds from the Roman period and regional art.
A number of festivals and events are held throughout the year, the most famous of which is the Coupe Icare free flight festival in St. Hilaire du Touvet-Lumbin, typically held between September and October with all types of gliding and hot air ballooning.
There are many good places to shop in Grenoble, with excellent outlets around the Grand Place, the Avenue Lorraine and the Place Grenette.
Markets are held through most communes during the week, such as Vienne's daily market in the Place François-Mitterrand.
Simply put, Isère is one of the best places to ski in Europe. This is largely due to a few resorts and, in particular, Alpe d'Huez. Specialising in freeskiing, with 235 kilometres of pisted runs and a whole host of off-piste areas, the resort really has everything a skier could want and, if you're not from France, you'll be gratified to know English is widely spoken.
Another extremely popular area is Les Deux Alpes. The second-oldest resort in France behind Chamonix, it is made up of some 220 kilometres of pisted runs and highlighted by the largest skiable glacier in Europe. However, although these two represent the most tourist-friendly areas, Isère is littered with quality ski resorts elsewhere, such as Villard-de-Lans. It is the range of facilities available, as well as the geography of the department (being dominated by the Vercors Plateau to the west), that makes Isère such fruitful territory.
Grenoble has a number of parks and gardens for relaxing walks, such as the Parc de Paul Mistral and the 100-hectare Le Bois Francais Lake and Park. With the French Alps an integral part of Isère, hikers will have no problem finding challenging routes. Indeed, a hiking map is attainable at Grenoble's Tourist Office in the rue de la République.
Alternatively, the Écrins National Park can be found to the southeast of Le Bourg d'Oisans, which incorporates many mountain resorts.
Isère is a great place for golfers, with some 8 courses available to the public. These include Golf International de Grenoble in Bresson, Golf de l'Isle d'Abeau in L'isle d'Abeau and Golf du Château de Faverges in Faverges de la Tour.
As part of the wider Rhône Valley wine-producing region, you can expect to find some interesting brands, including outstanding Beaujolais wines from the vineyards along the Saône River and excellent reds from Isère itself. Vienne and Grenoble are particularly good, the latter being home to distributors such as Le Cellier in rue Joseph Brenier and Vins et Terroirs in the rue de l'Archevêché.
Food and drink
The cuisine of the Dauphiné province was celebrated as one of France's very best. Today, you can expect the same regional specialities to feature on Isère's best restaurants in Grenoble and Vienne, such as Croquette de Valence (a type of crêpe). This is coupled with excellent local produce, including fish from the mountain torrents and all types of game.
Being France, cheese is also something of an obsession, with local brands such as the creamy Saint-Marcellin and Bleu du Vercours-Sassenage.
Ease of access
If you're travelling from outside France, the best option is either Grenoble's Saint-Etienne-de-Saint-Geoirs Airport or Lyon's Saint-Exupéry International Airport (which is just an hour from Grenoble). Both airports have links to budget airlines in the UK like Ryanair and easyJet.
Should you want to get around France, the high-speed TGV rail service runs from Paris to Grenoble, with a journey time of roughly three hours, and includes most other major French cities.
Once inside Isère, the department is well connected by road, despite patches of tough terrain, and trains run to most of the main communes.
Value for money
Holiday budgets really depend on the type of vacation (or home) you desire. There are a whole range of quality hotels, gites, bed and breakfasts and campsites in Vienne. Average prices are very reasonable for a single room in a 3-star hotel, being around 65 Euros per night.
Naturally, if you're looking to stay up in the Alps, the prices will vary quite dramatically depending on the resort you select.
With Grenoble being the host of the 1968 Winter Olympics, Isère is inevitably synonymous with skiing in the modern era. However, the department is much more than just winter sports, being home to some excellent cuisine, good sights and top quality regional wines. If you're looking to get on the mountains, there are few places better in Europe, but don't limit yourself!