Entering Place Charles-de-Gaulle (formerly Place du Palais) on a beautiful sunny day at lunchtime is like stepping back in time. Certainly not like descending from a DeLorean, or finding yourself in a setting worthy of a novel by HG Wells: no trace here of smoking tires or visions of the future. No, we are on our way to ancient Rome, in all its splendor and architectural majesty.
It is not France’s most famous president who stands at the center of the square that bears his name. This role falls to a much older but no less legendary head of state: Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and his wife Livia, to whom the temple, which occupies most of the square, is dedicated. We are facing a masterpiece of ancient art with its sixteen Corinthian columns and perfect symmetry, a marvel of Ieh century, which in its form and state of preservation can only be matched on French soil by the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, the design almost identical.
Streams and vineyards
The building seems to have been spared the ravages of time. To have the honor of appearing in a sentence that evokes Nîmes is already quite an achievement for him. In fact, the stunning city of Gard is generally considered to be home to the finest remains of the Roman Empire in France – not only with its Maison Carrée, but also with its perfect circular amphitheatre, which always hosts major summer events. But we are not in the Gard, nor in the south of France stricto sensu.
No, the Temple of Augustus and Livia is actually almost 225 kilometers further north, in the department of Isère, and in a town less known to travelers, much less! One might even say that Vienne is the most beautiful French city that no one has ever heard of. Not only because of this temple, but also because of its geographical location, with one of the most important rivers in France tirelessly rolling its waves at the foot of the hill where everything is gathered. And who says Rhône says vineyards. The slopes around Vienne are full of them: the clusters of its Grenache, Viognier, Camarèse and other Mourvèdre grow generously under the Gallic sun.
At this point a clarification is necessary: in reality, Vienne is only a provincial town of 30,000 inhabitants, overshadowed by its close neighbor Lyon, which lies 35 kilometers upstream. But visit in the warmer months, when diners flock inside or on the terrace of the small restaurants on rue du Musée and rue de la Table-Ronde – like Muse, which serves spiced lamb shoulders, or at the restaurant L’Estancot, which specializes tuck into “criques” (fried cracked potato pancakes, typical of the Rhone region), garnished with prawns, mushrooms and many other spices.