Vienne is most famous for its Roman ruins – the Temple of Auguste and Livie, amphitheatre and obelisk – though there is far more to this ancient place than that. A bit eerie and yet hauntingly beautiful, Vienne’s Pipet Cemetery is a fascinating place to visit. Vast alleyways and avenues are lined with massive tombs and headstones making a sort of French city of the dead. Climb to the top of the hill for a view of the fantastic ruins of the medieval castle, Chateau de la Batie, which still cling to the rugged hilltop, crowning Vienne’s dramatic skyline. The view of Chateau de la Batie seems straight out of Victorian-era painting, of a folly perhaps—dramatic cliffs, dark forests, a ruined castle, a grey cemetery, a hanging sky—and yet, the view is entirely authentic. Perched at the top of Mont Salomon, the castle Chateau de la Batie was built on the foundations of Roman ruins in 1225 by the archbishop of Vienne in order to protect the city from would-be medieval attackers. While the castle is not open to the public, it turns a rather ordinary landscape into something dramatic, romantic and even extraordinary to behold, and both the cemetery and Vienne’s hilltop are well worth the visit.
Pro tips: In the summer months of June and July, the city comes alive with the annual festival, Jazz a Vienne. Just across the Rhone Riveris Saint-Romain-en-Gal (only a separate town because it crosses county lines), find the ruins of a Roman city and an excellent museum of Roman archeology. Sometimes the site even hosts living history festivals. Vienne is an easy day trip from Lyon.
Not to be confused with “Vienna, Austria” (despite both having the same name in French), is this little town in central France, lost somewhere along the route from Lyon to Marseille. Vienne would be a typical, mildly-attractive French town if not for a few distinct features…namely, the gigantic Roman temple located in the main town square, not to mention the Roman amphitheater and a “pyramid” (though not at all what you are currently picturing). It’s a strange sensation, wandering through a maze of streets, streets one finds in most French towns and cities, and then rounding a corner and–suddenly–coming upon this ancient, free-standing temple that seems as if it tumbled off a page in book on the Roman Empire. The Temple d’Auguste et de Livie was designed in the Corinthian style and was erected by the emperor Claudius around 20 BC. The main reason why it survived when so many of its sisters were destroyed was its conversion to a church and renaming to match the rise in Christianity, “Notre Dame de Vie.” Additionally, it was briefly converted during the Reign of Terror to celebrate the new god, the “Supreme Being,” and the new “order of Reason” created by the infamous Robespierre during the dechristianisation of France. Today, it resides in this sleepy French town, unconcerned about change or modernity or the passage of time, content merely to exist.
Layers. Layers upon layers. I read somewhere that even though very old countryside churches often look like they have sunk, it’s really that the ground has risen up around them from all of the parishioners who’ve been buried there, as everyone wanted to be as close to the church as possible. While not exactly the case here, this cemetery clearly works upon the foundation of using layers. French cemeteries are not like their US cousins, or at least, not like that ones I’m used to. Headstones are tall, upraised, aligned in rows, and organised into layers with narrow paths snaking in between. Walking down the wide alley at the beginning of the cemetery, it reminds one of walking through a small town. A town of the dead. A ghost town, if you will. Both creepy and fascinating, it is worth it to visit a cemetery such as this–especially when lit by the sunlight’s far-reaching beams.
Nope, not Greece, not Italy, not even Cyprus. It’s actually France! Yes, it’s a little surprising to find such stereotypically Roman architecture so far from home, but there’s actually a decent amount of Roman remnants here in France. The temple was erected by emperor Claudius and survived the fall of the Romans as well as everything since then mostly because the citizens had the foresight to convert it to a church (“Notre Dame de Vie”). It dates back to 10-20 BC – needless to say, it’s very old. And very unexpected. While Vienne is an attractive town, it’s not terribly distinctive at first. One walks through small streets ducking old women with shopping carts and old men with berets and baguettes (I might be playing up the stereotypes a little). One turns the corner, and suddenly, wham. An open square lined with cafes and little shops, all facing this magnificent Roman temple dedicated to a long-dead-but-never-forgotten emperor. C’est magnifique, ne c’est pas?