The Chartreuse mountain region of France during the winter is the definition of a wonderland. It’s one of those places where you take a picture and then you keep taking pictures because every angle is stunning, but you can never capture the beauty. It’s a great area for skiing and hiking, but if like me, you’re not so athletically inclined, it’s a great place relax, enjoy the holiday spirit, and of course, sip on some Chartreuse.
Start your journey in Lyon for some Christmas spirit
Lyon, the second largest city in France, is a great home base to explore the area from. For being such a large city it still feels quite small. It’s full of great Lyonnais restaurants and the University makes it a hub for art and culture. The best time to visit Lyon is during Christmas time, when the city is quite literally alit with holiday spirit.
Every year, Lyon holds the festival of lights within the first week or so of December. For four nights, artists create and illuminate massive light installations throughout Lyon’s center. Admire the lights as you head towards the train station for the smells and sounds of the cities Christmas market. Like other Christmas markets across Europe, you can find pastries, hot wine, and festive Christmas gifts and ornaments.
Head to Voiron for a taste of Chartreuse
For any fan of the unique, green alcohol, a trip to Voiron is a must. Although the Grande Chartreuse Monastery itself is closed to visitors during the winter because of it’s location high in the mountains, Voiron’s large cellar is open all year round. The cellar is the largest liquor cellar in the world and holds more chartreuse than I can fathom. The chartreuse ages in the cellar for 2-5 years depending on the temperature outside. The cellar isn’t that deep in the ground so the temperature in the cellar fluctuates depending on the weather outside. When it’s warmer, the alcohol ages faster and only takes about two years, when it’s colder, the alcohol takes closer to five years. There is also a V.E.P. green and yellow chartreuse that is aged at least 10 years. Like most alcohol, chartreuse gets better and better with age. While the green chartreuse gets milder and smoother, the yellow gets more boozy and less syrupy. We don’t get the V.E.P. in Kansas, I’m not sure if we even get it in the states, so make sure to try it while you can.
To see the cellars you take a guided tour. The tours are offered daily in both French and English, but the English tours are only at noon and must be booked in advance for 15 euro. If you understand French there are other tours you can do including a more detailed tasting and a cocktail class.
I was the only one on my English tour so my guide went above and beyond during the tasting. We made chartreuse mules and I tried the yellow V.E.P. and a walnut liquor the monks also make. Because walnut is so popular in this region, the monks create a walnut liquor and wine. The liquor is quite sweet, but the wine is rich and nutty, almost sherry like.
From the glasses to the bar tools, everything was branded with “chartreuse.” This is because about 30 years ago chartreuse was considered a drink for old people. The brand knew that if it wanted to continue, it had to rebrand and become a drink for everyone.
Get into the mountains in Grenoble
Take a train 30 minutes from Voiron to the small university city of Grenoble. This city is famous for its “bubble” cable cars. Take the bubbles up the mountain to Fort de la Bastille for an incredible view of the city and the surrounding mountains.
It’s a small city, and if you’re not there for hiking or skiing you can see it all within a day. Like Lyon during Christmas time it has a market selling all kinds of pastries and festive ornaments. Unlike Lyon, it skips the mulled wine for the regional specialty, green chocolate. This rich hot chocolate has a shot green chartreuse in it. It cuts through the thickness of the chocolate and gives it the herby, bitter flavor of the chartreuse. It also warms you up in the cold mountain air.
If the cold becomes too much, stop into Café de la Table Ronde, one of the oldest restaurants in Paris. It has an excellent selection of chartreuse and other regional products for a very reasonable price. Take the afternoon to enjoy good chartreuse and good company.