If a town could ooze charm, this is it. Today we are in Viviers, France right on the Rhone. This well-preserved medieval town thrived in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Some writers call it an “architectural open-air museum”. It boasts France’s smallest active Cathedral, two surrounding city walls, and vaulted passageways, including one that separates the lower from the upper town.
This is Jeannette’s adopted home town and she will once again be our guide today (our choice). I flat out asked her if it was her husband she fell in love with or this town. The city is a photographer’s dream and it was no surprise that my camera battery ran out near the end of the tour. We are going to visit the town, have an undisclosed experience depending on the guide, and then see the boulodrome where local men will teach the ship guests how to play petanque, a game like horseshoes but played with steel balls.
There is a bit of an uphill trek associated with our tour of Viviers and I can already see Boris starting to consider opting out. He is having to use a cane on this trip and between the heat and the incline (which we are not used to coming from flat Houston, Texas) it has been a struggle for him. Viviers is also mostly cobblestones. At some point, Boris decided to rest in a square with a charmingly painted home beside him.
Jeanette showed us window archways that marked the age of the buildings. Some had been lovingly preserved or simply incorporated into a new structure. She also stopped at a building which had once been an oven house. Rather than all the residents have there own ovens, they took the dough to a specific location where the baking was done and then picked it up later. That was probably a much safer option in these crowded quarters.
In the lower city, Jeanette also pointed out the Maison des Chevaliers. The property was first owned by salt merchant and art lover, Noel Albert. He used his wealth to renovate the property in the 16th century with ancient Roman decorations. “The different floors are decorated by mullioned windows framed by pilasters, Ionic, Doric columns and composites and busts in medaillion.” Du Rhone aux Gorges de Ardeche.
We made our way to the upper city and France’s smallest active Cathedral, Saint Vincent’s. From the Belvedere of Chateauvieux we had wonderful (almost) 360 degree views of the area, including the beautiful tiled rooftops. Jeanette pointed out one eyesore that just had a red roof. She said the owner, like everyone else who lived in the medieval city, would be required to cover the red surface and replace the tiles to match the other buildings.
From the top you can also see the former Bishop’s palace built in the Italian style with a reception room covered in mural paintings. When the large, opulent building, built in the style of 18th century private mansions, proved too large for church purposes it was swapped with the nearby city building and in 1986 became the town hall.
We passed through the opening that was made to haul materials up to the Cathedral and the ecclesiastical buildings. Along the narrow curved roadway were large hooks fixed into the wall and ground that were used to pull materials up. The road is essentially one way and Jeanette told us she had witnessed an incident of road rage on the spot. The car coming down from top can really not back up, so the other vehicle heading up the hill has to back down. The driver of the second car refused and simply got out of her car and walked away blocking the roadway. The incident occurred between two “little old ladies” of the village. Makes me wonder if there was more to it.
Making our way back down into the lower city, we picked up Boris and headed to our personalized activities. Two of the groups are going into the homes of their guides who live in medieval Vivers. Since Jeanette lives outside the city, our group is going to see a local potter in action. He made both a salad bowl and vase while we observed him at his wheel. He starts with a red clay.
Afterwards, we enjoyed wine and appetizers on the patio of the potter’s shop. Natasha loves her pottery, so of course I did a little shopping keeping in mind that I had to be able to get the pretties home.
After the pottery shop, we headed back down the linden-tree lined lane toward the ship. We had passed the boulodrome where petanque is played on our way into town. It is so popular that the town has a dedicated space with at least a dozen terrains where the game could be played. One of the benefits of petanque is that it doesn’t require a dedicated space like basketball would. We watched for a while, but it was hot and we were tired, so Boris and I headed back to our nearby ship to cool off and for lunch.
This afternoon we are taking a special excursion to another French city, Grignan. The castle sits perched on a rocky promontory that has been occupied since the iron age. In the 5th and 6th centuries, Romans occupied this land. We had a wonderful view of the city as we approached. Departing the bus, we found a wonderful domed washing station. This communal washhouse was a city hub. Today, we saw several dogs enjoy the cool water, including a West Highland White Terrier (like our Peabody) named Igloo.
Much of what we know of Grignan and life in this remote castle come from the writings of one of the first French female intellectuals, Madame de Sévigné She chose the older twice-married Count de Grignan, not particularly attractive, but utterly charming, as her daughter’s husband. The daughter, having given her husband two children, was relived of further duty in the eyes of her mother and could return to Paris and the court life her mother loved. However, the Countess de Grignan made the mistake of falling in love with her husband and (unlike her mother) enjoyed her marital sex life. As a result she wanted to stay in Grignan and it fell to her mother to visit her in the country. Madame de Sévigné corresponded with her daughter over many years and from her writings we have a clear picture of court life and the aristocratic attitudes that prevailed during the 17th century. She visited Grignan three times and died her on her third visit.
Boris chose to stay in the lower town and enjoy the scenery from a local cafe; this is actually one of the best way to spend a day in France. I walked up the hill to the castle, the beautiful church, and the amazing views.
Saint-Sauveur College church is built into the cliff wall at the top of the hill. One of the things that make the church unique is that a terrace was built on top of the church instead of a bell tower with a cross. The church was built in 1535 by the Baron Adhémar and was consecrated by Pope Paul III in 1539. Madame de Sévigné is buried in Saint-Sauveur.
The city is also known for the many varieties of roses that are grown there. I didn’t know this aspect of the city’s notoriety until later. I just snapped some pictures because I thought the flowers were exceptionally beautiful.
Walking back down, there was time for a little shopping; Boris had found the ATM. I bought some lavender oil. We just missed the seeing lavender in the fields; it is cut in July.
Our last stop of the day is at a Truffle Farm that has been in the same family for generations. The methods and training are passed down from generation to generation and are well guarded secrets. He asked if anyone in our group was from California (where they grow truffles). I think he was trying to sniff out the spies. Jeanette translated for our host while he showed us the tools of the trade and petted his sweet truffle dog. They used pigs prior to 2000. However the pigs tended to eat the truffles when they found them and after a few years had to been retired. The pigs found the truffles instinctively, but the dogs have to be trained. This sweet dog had just had puppies but was anxious to get out to the trees.
We were in white truffle season. The black, more valuable, truffles have a different season. She quickly found several truffles. (Boris is convinced it was fixed; it was surprising that she found truffles in the oldest part of the farm which the owner told us doesn’t produce much.) Afterwards, we sampled some of the local wine and of course, truffles. They were wonderful. I bought wine, truffle slices, truffle butter, and truffle spread. Then, when asked, the owner brought out the adorable puppy that he has chosen to keep from the liter. She was a cutie. He quickly announced that she would not be going to America.
Another fabulous day on the Rhone. While we were touring in the afternoon, the boat moved to Avignon where it will stay for the balance of our trip. We will tour the city in the morning.