The Mole Diaries: Chambéry
I have just come to the end of a fantastic 9 months studying at the Université de Savoie in Chambéry. It’s been an incredible year – you may be bored of hearing this by now, but I would love to do it all again!
If you’ve already chosen Chambéry – great choice, you won’t regret it. If not, I’m going to do my best to convince you that this is the best place to spend your year abroad.
First thing’s first; the city is very small. Some would see this as a big disadvantage, but certainly for my language skills, this could not have been better. Everyone is incredibly friendly, and I hugely enjoyed seeing many familiar faces wherever I went out for drinks in the evenings. If you can’t live without huge nightclubs, packed with people, buzzing with incredible music, then this probably isn’t the place for you. Be prepared for the fact that the Savoyard way of like is quite relaxed and you’ll have to make your own fun a lot of the time by taking advantage of the beautiful mountains, lakes and forests everywhere you look!
What To Pack
It is incredibly difficult to pack for Chambéry, as it could well snow in town during the winter, and is swelteringly hot in the summer. I had to rely on sendmybag for all my wintery clothes after spending the end of summer in shorts and t-shirt. Be sure to be ready for swimming, skiing, hiking and university - easier said than done!
Here's a short list of things I found the most useful:
1. A Backpack
Useful in all situations: the walk to campus (quite steep!), ski trips, day trips around the area, hiking. My backpack was absolutely essential and I'd really recommend bringing a good one along with you.
2. Folder To Hold Important Documents
French bureaucracy is a bit of a nightmare, but it is possible to keep it under control. Last minute advice from my sister made me make this purchase, and it was a great one. It meant I had everything in one place at all times, remedying the fact that I'm usually horendously disorganised.
A good way to break the ice, and playing games such as 'anneau de feu' (ring of fire) in French was a lot of fun. You'll have to explain the rules.
4. Sleeping Bag
Whether it's for accommodating friends on your floor, or camping in the beautiful Savoyard mountains, I found a sleeping bag really useful!
Getting There & When You Arrive
Although it's a small city, the Eurostar can take you all the way from St. Pancras to Chambéry, at a fairly considerable cost.If you're looking for something a little cheaper, you can fly to either Geneva or Lyon, which are both around an hour from Chambery by train/bus (same price). During the winter months, Chambéry Airport is open and Flybe can take you to destinations in the UK including Edinburgh, Exeter, Birmingham and Southampton, but it is obviously a little more expensive.
When you arrive in Chambéry, I'd wholeheartedly recommend going to one of the pubs in town for a pint - maybe with people in your student residence, your housemates, or just to meet locals. I found the locals incredibly forthcoming and friendly - a lengthly chat early on can really boost your confidence and allow you to let your hair down!
The university also offers a 'preparatory week' which I would really recommend - there are language lessons during the week, which are a great way of getting you speaking French again after a summer during which you might have become a little rusty. They take you on trips to Lyon and Annecy, a local vineyard, a local fromagerie, and on a hike up to the Croix du Nivolet (a cross on a mountain overlooking the city!) It's a great way to meet people, and eases you nicely into life in Chambéry.
Clubs, Pubs and Restaurants
While Chambéry's clubbing scene hardly sets the world alight, there are still a few places which can be a lot of fun if the mood's right and you go with fun people. Opinions of the biggest club, Opera, were very mixed, but I thought it was good fun from time to time, especially their student night of Thursday (cheap tickets sold on campus beforehand). At any rate, the fact that they give out free croissants at around 4.30am has got to be a big temptation!
The pubs in Chambéry are a great place to meet people - Irish pubs O'Cardinals and O'Pogues are particularly busy most evenings and are a great place to go and watch sports fixtures. I studied history modules at the Université de Savoie and the historians had nights out at O'Pogues most Thursdays - they're a friendly bunch, go and get involved. Arbre à bières is a small bar which has plenty of local beers on tap (try Chartreuse in one of these bars - a local liqueur made my monks in the mountains between Chambéry and Grenoble). I'd also thoroughly recommend going to BA b'art on a Monday for their 'jamming' night - local musicians (including my housemate!) gather together and improvise wonderful jazz, in a bar with reasonable prices and a friendly atmosphere.
If you're after a sample of the local delicacies, look no further than Le Sporting for very generous portions of tartiflette, raclette, fondue and much more. Le Gulliver is also reputable for it's traditional galettes de Bretagne (not a local delicacy but well worth a try!)
Student Residence vs Colocation
I was very nervous before my year abroad began – I was excited, but dreading the awkward pauses if I didn’t know a word, and the renowned nightmare of French bureaucracy. I thought therefore that it would be a far easier start, going into a student residence – I chose ARPEJ. I don’t regret the decision for one minute as it was great accommodation and I met some lovely people there. It was however a little difficult to speak much French in the evenings (it’s quite international) and there aren’t any common rooms.
I decided to move for the second semester - I think it was the best decision of my year abroad.Moving into a house share with 5 French people, I began to speak far more French in the evenings, and communal meals and house parties (great French speaking opportunities) became far more frequent. It is difficult to find a good house share (one of my friends was initially not too happy in hers) but if you find a good one (which we both did in the end), it’s a really great thing to do. I lived at Place Caffe, which I think is an excellent area as it's near the town centre and university!
Look on apartager.fr, leboncoin.fr, and local noticeboards. Maybe even come out to Chambéry a few weeks early for some house hunting?
Studying at the University
The great thing about being an 'Erasmus' student, is that you get a remarkably free choice to study exactly what you want. I chose to study 'Histoire Contemporaine' throughout the year - it was very difficult and I sometimes found the going very tough, but I learnt a lot and it complemented my degree at Exeter really well. In the second term, I had to do a 40 minute presentation in front of the class, alongside a class mate, and the exams were very difficult - it's a challenge, but I'm very glad I did it.
There are some really interesting 'Erasmus' modules on offer too. The one I found the most interesting was 'la civilisation française' with Mme Thyss. She speaks very quickly, but the content is interesting - you learn about France in Europe, French Presidents, Vietnam, student revolts and lots more. What you learn is all quite current affairs related, and so you can talk about what you learn with your French friends (the French love a good debate!).
I found that a great way to integrate was participating in university sports. Joining SUAPS (university sports department) will set you back just €17 for yearly membership, and a further €12 for each society you join each term.
I played football throughout the year, and it was where I met some of my best friends in Chambéry. I was the only non-French student to play and, although I'm not a very good player, I had a lot of fun and was really accepted as part of the group. I also experimented a little bit by playing handball (very popular in France) and trying out ski du fond (cross country skiing) for the first time, in the winter months. I found the variety and value to be fantastic, and thoroughly recommend getting involved in this part of university life.
A student run society, which organises ski trips most Saturdays during term time. It costs €10 to become a member, then each ski trip (return transport and ski pass) is €25 for members and €30 for non-members. They go to different resorts each week, which was a big plus for me, as I wanted to try out all sorts of different resorts.
This is the university sports department and they organise trips to Meribel every Saturday of term at the mind-boggling rate of just €15 (return transport and ski pass). It is excellent value, but to the same place each week.
I managed to get a great deal, buying skis, boots and poles for a combined total of €65. I’d definitely recommend making the investment if you intend on taking advantage of the unbelievably good value student ski trips – ski rental is incredibly expensive! Troc Sport (in La Ravoire, the outskirts of Chambéry) is a second hand ski shop, and I found it to be fantastic value. Alternatively there are ‘bourses de skis’ at various points towards the start of the year where you might find a great bargain.
Fun Things To Do In The Area
1. Walk to the Croix du Nivolet
A cross on a picturesque mountain overlooking Chambéry. The university organises a randonnée there in your introductory week, alternatively take a bus to la Feclaz and walk around 2/3hrs from there. Stunning views on Chambéry and lac du Bourget – you could even camp up there. We did and it was a lot of fun!
2. Lac du Bourget
The largest natural lake in France, it’s a lot of fun to go there when it’s sunny and swim/sunbathe/play volleyball with your friends. Although difficult to find, go looking for the Falaises de Bordeau for some excellent cliff jumping into the lake.
3. Les Charmettes
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s lived in this beautiful house in the foothills above Chambéry. A lovely walk there, and great views – the field above the house is a brilliant spot for a summer barbecue.
4. Check out Lyon
France’s second biggest city is only an hour away, and is well worth visiting. Beautiful city, with plenty of things to see – the Fête des Lumières in January is highly recommended, and I really enjoyed the views from the Basilique de Fourvière.
5. Sports matches
Handball is a hugely popular sport in France (they’re the world champions!) and Chambéry has a very good team. The atmosphere at the matches is amazing. There’s also Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon’s football team who usually fare well in Ligue 1, or if you fancy a smaller, more local club, there’s Evian Thonon Gaillard who play their matches in Annecy, and are usually fighting relegation from Ligue 1. All are great days out!
Getting Around France
One of the big advantages of Chambéry is that it is very close to a number of other European countries. A year abroad is a great opportunity to do a lot of travelling – a lot of your friends will probably be scattered around Europe in all sorts of exciting places, so think of all the floors available to you (if you ask nicely!) Italy and Switzerland are just a few hours away, and you can get to Spain in under 5hrs.
I hadn’t hitchhiked before this year, but while out in France I found this a brilliant form of transport. You obviously have to be careful, and I’d advise doing this with some friends, but you can meet really interesting people, and travel for FREE!
Also worth considering is ‘Ouigo’ which is an incredibly good value train service. You can get from Lyon to Marseille for just €15!
And Finally . . .
You can check out a video I made of my year abroad here:
It's difficult to sum it all up in a clip of this length, but what I would stress is that your year abroad really is a blank page with so much possibility. Make the most of it and have fun!!