As you head south from Lyon on the A7, a twenty-kilometre stretch of oil refineries and factories, steel and chemical works may well tempt you to make a beeline for the lavender fields of Provence further south. However, a short detour off the autoroute leads to Vienne, which, along with St-Romain-en-Gal, just across the river, once prospered as Rome’s major wine port and entrepôt on the Rhône.
Many Roman monuments survive to attest to this past glory, while several important churches recall Vienne’s medieval heyday: it was a bishop’s seat from the fifth century and the home town of twelfth-century Pope Calixtus II. The town has undoubtedly maintained its character and sense of purpose, and the compact old quarter makes for enjoyable wandering. Moreover, the Saturday market is one of the largest in the country, and you’ll find all the main squares and streets choc-a-bloc with merchants selling everything from cheese, fruit and veg to textiles and pottery.
Vienne takes great pride in hosting Jazz à Vienne, arguably the country’s finest international jazz festival. Taking place from the end of June for two weeks, not only does it attract some very big names (Sting, Gilberto Gil, George Benson), but most concerts are held in the fabulous surrounds of the Théâtre Antique. That said, you’ll find events also occurring in restaurants and bars all over town – it’s a great time to be here.