One of the oldest towns in France, Vienne traces its roots back to Roman invaders, who in 37 B.C. wrested control from the Allobroges, a tribe of Gauls. Does the name Pontius Pilate ring a bell? Local legend claims he was buried in Vienne after his banishment from Rome and subsequent suicide. Swiss legend, however, has him buried in a lake on Mt. Pilatus in Lucerne, Switzerland. I’m traveling to Switzerland in October 2017 so you can expect more on this later.
At any rate, a treasure trove of Roman monuments and ruins still exists in the town of Vienne (pop. 30,000), 20 miles south of Lyon, and we were keen to see it. Offered a choice between two included afternoon tours on day 5 of our Viking River Cruise, we selected the Vienne Roman Architecture Tour. Our coach delivered us to the door of the Gallo-Roman Museum where we began our tour with typical alacrity.
The museum, built in 1996 on an archaeological site discovered in 1967 during construction of a school, is a structure dominated by glass which allows visitors to see the excavation site outside while viewing the recovered artifacts inside the museum. This struck me as conceptually similar to the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece, where the use of glass allows visitors to see the Acropolis on the hill above the museum while viewing the artifacts inside the building and excavation occurring under and around the museum. It’s kind of history heaven for nerds like us.
The museum houses an exceptional collection of mosaics unearthed here. Not all of them are complete but the quantity and quality of these exquisite artifacts are unlike anything I’ve seen before.
In addition to the mosaics, many other artifacts, some discovered here and some on loan from other facilities, tell the story of daily life in ancient Roman times.
A few reproductions such as this ship loaded with barrels and amphorae tell the story of Vienne’s position as a trading center and the transport of goods such as olive oil, wine, and fish on the river.
Our tour guide led us outside to the archaeological site named Saint-Romain-en-Gaul to see the excavations, including the paved street below, the remains of homes, and even a public bath.
Across the river in the city center stands the city’s best-preserved Roman monument, the Temple of Augustus and Livia, built around 20 B.C. During his visit in 1787, Thomas Jefferson remarked that it looked like a Praetorian palace. Thankfully, the Gothic windows installed in the Middle Ages when the building was used as a church have been removed and the temple has been restored to a semblance of its former glory.
The nearby Garden of Cybèle isn’t as well-preserved but it’s historically significant, nonetheless.
The medieval Chateau de la Batie on the hilltop north of the city overlooks Vienne like a vigilant parent keeping silent watch. While it’s not Roman and not open to the public, the juxtaposition of this and other medieval buildings with Roman ruins increases the historical interest and value of Vienne.
Around the corner from the Garden of Cybèle, this medieval building still stands from the 1200’s.
The 11th-century Cathedral of St. Maurice is a combination of Romanesque and Gothic styles and was under restoration when we visited. Nevertheless, the building was most impressive late in the day with the lighting highlighting the intricate detail.
Our guide pointed out a creative modern project that the city adopted to deal with the abundance of chewing gum discarded on sidewalks and streets. They simply painted it and called it art.
Speaking of creativity, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the door knocker on this lawyer’s office. It’s one of the most imaginative I’ve seen.
Although we signed up for the Roman Architecture Tour, several important Roman monuments in Vienne were notably absent from our tour. I would enjoy a return trip to Vienne to see the 13,000-seat Roman Theater on the slopes of Mt. Pipet, unearthed in 1922 and used for theatrical performances today, and the Pyramid that is the sole remnant of the Roman Circus where legend has it that Pontius Pilate is entombed.
Based on events from November 2016.