In preparation for my May Rome adventure, and because it is only a 50 minute train ride, I went to Vienne this Wednesday with Australian assistant Jacinta. Like my current French hometown Valence, Vienne is on banks of the Rhône River in the Rhône-Alpes region. Vienne gets most of its tourism for its Roman monuments, which were built after Vienne became a Roman colony in 47 BC. There weren’t many other tourists on the rather rainy day we picked to visit, leaving some of the sites eerily empty.
The city has a very handy self-guided walking tour that goes through town, starting at the tourism office. There were yellow arrows painted all over the ground with bronze tree markers leading the way. There were even designated stopping areas to gaze on a particular building from the appropriate angle. We did veer off the path a few times, but overall it was a great way to see the city without getting lost. We first walked past some ruins from the Roman town that had been incorporated into an ugly shopping center and then went by the Eglise Saint-Pierre. It’s more of a museum than a church now, but is significant as being one of the oldest medieval churches standing in the country. Our path then took us to the Cathédrale Saint-Maurice, a stunning Flamboyant Gothic church.
The Cathédrale Saint-Maurice was completely empty and a little bit creepy. Most of the statues and even some of the carvings on the walls had been decapitated or had their faces dug out. I assume this happened during the French Revolution, but I couldn’t find any information. There were also odd things sitting around, like this dusty glove on a broken piano. Bizarre as some of it was, I enjoyed the unsettling vibe the church gave off. I know it’s awful to say, but after seeing so many Gothic cathedrals in France they all start to run together. But I don’t think I’ll forget the faceless Saints and angels of the Cathédrale Saint-Maurice.
A short distance from the cathedral was the Temple d’Auguste et de Livie, a Roman temple originally dedicated to the cult of Augustus. It managed to survive over two thousand years of history by being transformed in a Christian church and then a temple of reason during the French Revolution. It was later a museum and a library and today seems to be used as a centerpiece for the square that was built up around it. I was disappointed there was no way to walk through it, but it was still spectacular to come around a corner and suddenly see such a well-preserved Roman temple.
We circled L’abbaye Saint-André-le-Bas and walked across the river to an archaeological site where there are excavated remains of the Roman civilization. You had to pay to actually get in, but we were able to see a lot from the fence. After that we had fougasses for lunch. They’re a specialty of the south of France and are basically soft bread with a filling inside. Kind of like a sophisticated hot pocket, except bigger and with better ingredients.
We next went by the Roman theater and then up the hill behind it to the the Chapelle Notre Dame de Pipet. It was a bit of a steep climb, but the view of the valley and the city was worth it. Unfortunately, at this point it started to rain, but I’d brought an umbrella from my broken umbrella collection so we stayed relatively dry. It’s so windy in Valence that I’ve given up on buying new umbrellas because I know they’ll just get turned inside out.
The last part of our walk took us past more Roman ruins and we continued south to the Pyramide du Cirque Romain, which is the only thing remaining from the Roman circus. There is a legend that it is the tomb of Pontius Pilate, but that’s never been confirmed. Today it’s at the center of a traffic circle, around the corner from a kebab shop with a miniature Pyramide outside.