When in Gaul, do as the Gauls do. Something like that. Last weekend we found an opportunity to prance around like it was 47BC, in the little town of Vienne.
After some confusion over where we were meeting, how to get from the ENS to the station, then how to get from the metro to th e platform – never travel in groups of more than three people – we successfully boarded the train with just a few minutes to spare. Friendly talking was at a minimum, as a consequence of the energy exerted in our pre-journey journey, so I spent most of the twenty minutes staring out of the window, imagining what the countryside would like look like were it not full of concrete.
We walked from the station to the town centre as airy morning sunshine drew light, slowly, onto the stalls of the Saturday market. Farmers from all over the region were selling row after row of cheese, wine, and bread, all proud and perfect in the little square. Such was the power of the produce that the (only loosely banded) group accidentally disbanded somewhere between the tapinades and pâtisserie, and so our stroll descended into a lightly sweaty, unplanned game of hide-and-seek. (Don’t try to do anything in a group of more than three people).
Eventually, we reconvened by the Jardin de Cybèle, a small park containing the ruins of two archways, a public forum, and a small stadium, marked by the broken tiers of seating. Looking at the faded structures, it was hard to imagine how 800 citizens could once have gathered here – how it could have been a great hub of life and for the living – it was now so calm, just metres away from the busy market.
The group (re)meeting largely consisted of us all saying ‘Yeah, sure, that sounds cool’ and ‘Yeah, whatever you want’ – statements that, it has been scientifically proven, have never led to any practical decision being made, ever, in a group of more than three people. However, the discussion did provide an opportunity for the only guy present to speak loudly over every attempt at a suggestion; so it was one to the patriarchy, nil to the success of group outings.
Eventually, Robin and I just started walking off, which turned out to be the best solution. As pale golden sun grew into the heat of midday, we explored the town a little. Firstly, the very impressive Temple of Augustus and Livia – a huge 1st century Roman temple, bearing down with ancient imperiality on the cheerful checked tablecloth cafés below. After this, Robin and I found a small place for lunch, just to the side of the Cathédrale St-Maurice, and by the river. This restaurant was just the kind of easy place that should exist on every street: just a few dishes, one waiter, some wine, and a cheap plat du jour. We shared white wine, poulet rôti with frites, and îles flottantes for about €8 each in the shade of the cathedral.
Vienne was an important episcopal seat over in the early Middle Ages, with several Kings, including the rulers of Burgundy, offering the church their patronage. Several important Archbishops, such as Guy of Burgundy, took it as their seat. The cathedral took over 400 years to be built, with the large Gothic structure built over a Romanesque foundation, itself the site of a sanctuary dating from the 5th century.
Having covered most of the town, we walked up to the hill to the Gallo-Roman theatre. Although undergoing building work at the moment, the theatre was very impressive, stretching to fit over 13,000 spectators in its still largely intact rows.
From Belvedere de Pipet church the whole town – Roman, Medieval, Modern – opens below: an mosaic of terracotta roofs through which the rivers Isère and the Rhône gently unfold. Half-standing hillside ruins bake in peace in the heat.
Back in the town centre, we split up again; as I was taking an earlier train than the others, to meet my mum in Lyon that evening, I went to the Musée des Beaux Arts et de l’Archéologie. This was a peaceful set of rooms in the centre of town, holding a range of artefacts from the different layers of Vienne’s history.
Back on the train, and back to the twenty-first century in Lyon.