The small city of Vienne in the Isère department of the Auvergne Rhône Alpes sits on the banks of the River Rhône. It has a delightful mix of rich heritage and history, and fabulous wines as well as sublime culinary delights.
It’s a city of Gauls, Romans and Christians along with a sprinkling of fine dining and wines
A history that dates back over 2000 years
Vienne has been an important centre for thousands of years and was thought to be inhabited first by the Gallic tribe of the Allobroges. When the Romans conquered it in about 121 BC, it became known as Little Rome and one the largest and most important Roman centres in France, right up there with Nîmes.
After the Romans were eventually exiled, Vienne remained an important city for Christians who arrived there as early as 177.
A wonderful cultural blend
The city sits in a small basin surrounded by lush green hills, orchards and meadows all presided over by medieval remains high above. Just 20 miles south of Lyon and on the route of the Via Rhôna (a green route for cyclists and walkers which goes from Geneva to the Mediterranean), the modest façade of Vienne that greets you from the opposite bank of the Rhône as you arrive, gives way to a wonderful mixture of architectural and cultural styles.
One of the first surprises the city has to offer is the narrow streets with a distinctly Lyonnaise feel that lead you gently to a small and very untypical Place Charles de Gaulle. Whilst shops and cafés line the square, vast Corinthian columns front the Roman Temple d’Auguste – built around 10 BC to honour Emperor Augustus and his wife, Livia. It’s the only surviving Roman temple in France and it shares this modest square with a 16th century tower and with extraordinary panache.
Further into the city and half-timbered medieval houses sit next to the gardens and archaeological ruins of Cybèle, thought to be Roman homes and a place of council sittings. And dive a little deeper still and there’s one of the largest ever Roman amphitheatres which seats in excess of 11,500 and dates back to 40AD. Climb Mont Pipet for an aerial view.
If the amphitheatre was the setting for plays and concerts, it’s believed the Pyramide (a Roman Obelisk) may have been the turning point for racing chariots. And across the river in Saint Roman en Gal, excavations have revealed stone avenues, fine mosaics and the remains of public baths and an entire city of houses.
Whilst the streets may echo with the footsteps of Romans and Gauls, at almost every turn you’re also reminded of its medieval past too. The vast and stunning 11th-century Cathédrale Saint-Maurice stares benignly at the Rhône whilst the de-consecrated 5th-century church (now Musée Archéologique Saint-Pierre) has an eclectic mix of artefacts which includes the tombstones of medieval saints.
Don’t miss the magnificent Church of Saint Andre, a 12th century masterpiece with its graceful, beautiful peaceful cloisters.
Rich produce, fine wines and exceptional cuisine
Vines were first planted in Vienne by the Allobroges and even then, they were celebrated as being particularly fine.
Like much of this part of France, many of the region’s vines were wiped out in the late 19th century by phylloxera. But now, over 100 years on, they’re still being rediscovered, replanted and brought back to life and the region is bursting with grapes.
Vienne’s two main appellations, the Côte-Rôtie and the Condrieu are both planted on steep rocky terraces on the west side of the Rhône, with the reds of the Côte-Rôtie reported to be some of the best in the Côtes du Rhônes region.
Exploring the vineyards
It’s possible to explore the many vineyards as part of a number of guided tours, or independently. Tours include by tram or even by Segway or boat. The tourist office in Vienne has a wall which maps the region’s wines and the staff there can help you to plan your tour! Vineyards that are worth visiting include Vitis Vienna and the Domaine Corps de Loup, both brought back to life in the 1990s.
Domaine Corps de Loup is extraordinarily romantic with vast wrought iron gates, a grand old house and neglected but ornate gardens clinging to the hills where they lay hidden in the undergrowth for over 50 years. It’s family owned and run, slightly but delightfully ramshackle and you can stay the night at the small B and B.
Celebrating the vintage
Bringing together its Roman past and wine making heritage, every autumn Vienne celebrates with a Roman style harvest festival. And as you’d expect, apart from jousting displays and re-enactments, it’s a chance to enjoy some of the region’s rich produce which of course include jams, honey, local fruit and cheese.
The 2nd largest street market in France
The city’s culinary heritage remains influenced by the 5 regions that surround it and what better place to sample what’s on offer than at the Saturday market.
With some 400 stalls, this is the place to sample the famous Rigotte de Condrieu cheese, local pears and the local pear liqueur, or shop for ingredients with your own private chef before preparing a meal with them in the private kitchens of the Tourist Office.
Michelin star dining
If you still haven’t had sampled enough, right next to the Roman pyramid is the La Pyramide restaurant, which was once home to chef Fernand Point – often described as one of France’s greatest chef of his time. Fernand Point earned one of Michelin’s first-ever three-star ratings in 1933 and today chef Patrick Henriroux is in charge, and proud owner of two Michelin stars.
For a long or a short weekend break, Vienne has a wealth of history to reveal and some of the region’s best wines. It’s a delightful sensory indulgence and each mouthful is there to be savoured.
Muse Restaurant in the Rue du Musée, Vienne – 3 course evening meal is €27.
Bar & Gourmet in the Place du Marché aux Fruits, Condrieu – 2 course lunch is 18€.
Jam and pancakes at Philippe Bruneton’s – one of France’s premier jam producers: www.confiture-bruneton.com/en
Vienne Honey Festival: October (see Tourist office website below for dates and details
Domaine Corps de Loup: For individuals, tasting is free. It’s open every day, even on Sunday.
For more help planning your trip contact the tourist office at www.vienne-condrieu.com
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer, Editor of Fine Magazine and deputy editor of The Good Life France