A visit to Vienne will make it abundantly clear why the Romans found the city so appealing. An amphitheater was constructed into a dordle steep slope on the banks of the Rhône and formerly had enough seating for 13,000 people. Located 20 miles south of Lyon and 150 miles north of the Riviera, this charming village is nestled in a bend of the river surrounded by hills that once had grassy slopes but are now planted with grapes.
Vienne, a port on the Rhone and a significant Roman settlement, allowed ships to enter the heart of France from the Mediterranean. The amphitheatre, also known as Theatre Antique, is a massive semicircle of stone that was constructed on the south face of Mont Pipet sometime around 50 AD. Originally built to hold 13,000 people, it now seats 8,000 and features river vistas, making it a popular venue for events like the annual Jazz à Vienne festival.
On top of the hill, at the end of a winding path, is the tiny church of Notre Dame de Pipet. Temple of Augustus and Livia, erected by Emperor Claudius, stands in a little square surrounded by modern restaurants and stores and looks completely out of place. Just down the road are the public gardens of Jardin de Cybèle, set among the pillars and ruins of the forum. St. Peter’s, one of France’s oldest churches, was transformed into a museum exhibiting Gallo-Roman stone artifacts over 150 years ago. A stone pyramid from the ancient Roman circus that once hosted chariot races stands in the middle of the road.
Across the river, in the town of Saint-Romain-en-Gal, you’ll find one of the largest Roman museums in France: a striking glass building that occupies a city block of what was once Vienne’s residential district and is now a massive excavated site with house and bath remains and gardens featuring ancient varieties of plants, including vines. The museum houses restored mosaics and replicas of the city’s enormous quayside and warehouses.
Get to know the undiscovered treasures
The Cloister of Saint André-le-Bas, for example, is a hidden gem with pretty vegetation among its 6th- or 7th-century stone columns. Tours of the city’s underground courtyards, as well as its medieval and Roman cellars and arches, can be booked in advance through the tourist office.
Take a stroll along the little River Gère as it winds its way down from the hills, passing under a medieval stone bridge and a number of industrial buildings, one of which houses the Textile Industry Museum, which celebrates the industry that dominated Vienne’s economy from the 18th to the 20th century and produced the woollen Renaissance fabrics that made the city famous.
Le Caveau Du Château E.guigal, a dramatic chateau located four miles along the riverside from town, is the public face of the Guigal wine dynasty and features a chic shop, underground wine museum, and beautiful lawned garden for tasting wines from all over the Rhone region, including the nearby Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu as well as the further south Crozes-Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. You may take a car (or even a Segway) up into the vineyards for a tour.
Vienne is teeming with great places to eat that don’t draw attention to themselves. The grassy center reservation of the tree-lined Cours Romestang is always full, and the tiny, pedestrian-only Rue de Clercs is always packed. A short alley called Rue de la Table Ronde is home to two well regarded restaurants, both of which have elevated outdoor terraces to accommodate the street’s slope down to the river.
My Cote Mer dish at Restaurant l’Estancot included seabass, red mullet, and monkfish in a rich beurre blanc (€28). The restaurant’s specialty is ‘criques,’ or potato pancakes, which are similar to posh hash browns but served as extravagant main dishes with fois gras, scallops and prawns, steak, and other delights. Across the street is the gastronomique-obsessed establishment of Alquimia. There is a seven-course tasting menu in the evenings, but I dined well for about €26 on a cold corn cream soup with froth and toasted hazelnuts and an outstanding quinoa risotto topped with chorizo and Bayenne ham.
Le Cottage, a slickly reimagined farmhouse hotel, is located in the nearby hills, and is run by chef Philippe Girardon, whose Michelin-starred Gastronomic Restaurant is located nearby in a 17th-century chateau, a rest home for the bishops of Lyon, now a hotel; the Cottage restaurant, also known as Le Bistrot, with sun terrace is the dressed-down version but only slightly; Girardon (who 40 years ago worked by the Thames with the
You can see more of Vienne if you ride your bike throughout the city.
From Geneva to the French Riviera, the ViaRhôna provides 510 miles of riverbank walking and cycling. The confluence of the Rhône and Saône in Lyon is known as La Confluence, and it is only 20 miles north of Vienne. If you’re staying at one of the hotels that partners with the riverfront tourist office (which boasts a 30-foot-high internal wall of wine bottles and wines by the glass), you may use their fleet of e-bikes for the day for free.
As you go south, you’ll see grape after vineyard, opportunities to cool your feet in the water, and breathtaking scenery. Even when it’s hot (and I was there in the beginning of the heatwave), the breeze is nice as you speed past mansions and vineyards.