From Lyon, a modern city built over and around its historic past, the Catherine would take us to Viviers, a smallish place with perhaps 3,900 inhabitants and few elements of modernization. Vivers is in the Ardeche or Rhone-Alpes region and lies at the confluence of the Rhone and the Escoutay Rivers.
Viviers was founded before the fall of the Roman Empire. Then it was called Vivarium and supplied the nearby Gallo- Roman city with vegetables and wine. Viviers was also a Christian center and in the 5th century, the Bishop of Alba decided establish his episcopal see there.
If you have a bishop, you have to have a cathedral, and so it was. Not too much later the first church was built on a high rocky hill, called the Chateauvieux Rock which overlooks the town and the rivers. The foundation of the current Cathedral of St Vincent date to the 12th century
. At first, part of the Holy Roman Empire, Viviers’ citizens later were incorporated into the Kingdom of France and thus were endangered by the Hundred Years War fought between the French and the English. They also suffered from the bubonic plague or the Black Death in the 14th century. Unfortunately Viviers has endured more than its share of war and suffering but has survived. It is no surprise that its citizens tried to protect themselves from conflict and disease. In the oldest part of town one sees homes with few windows and no doors facing the street as if to keep trouble out.
Today we would first go to the Cathedral of St. Vincent at the top of Chateauvieux. Despite the bus ride to our destination, the senior Rambler decided there would be too much walking for him and he opted for a leisurely day on the Catherine. As it was a fairly steep climb, the gentle walkers happily rode the bus to the top of the rocky hill. There we had a chance to stroll around and admire the view before the scheduled organ concert in the cathedral. The organist was talented and played a spirited program of sacred and classical music
. Before the concert, I wanted to light a candle as I usually do when I visit a church but there were no lighters. A German tourist from another group tried to help but succeeded only in snuffing out 5 or 6 candles. Fortunately yet another tourist sprang into action with his lighter and lit my candles as well as those that had been put out prematurely.
The cathedral is a popular stop for travelers and river cruisers so we were joined inside by several other groups. St Vincent’s is the smallest cathedral in France and the oldest still in use, a historic and beautiful place. However most guidebooks and the guide in the Cathedral didn’t mention that It was also the scene of a daring art theft in 1974. Instead of the more common wall frescoes, carvings or statues, the altar of St. Vincent’s is surrounded by beautiful Gobelin tapestries woven in France at the end of the 18th century. Unfortunately 43 years ago, daring thieves cut down three of the six tapestries from the wall at night. This was not an easy task as they weighed more than 100 pounds a piece and had become somewhat fragile.
Each tapestry is considered priceless today and although stolen art recovery specialists searched diligently for the missing Gobelin’s only two have been recovered to date. It is said the parishioners of St. Vincent’s pray for the return of the missing tapestry every Sunday.
After the concert, we wandered around the top of the rock for a while enjoying the views on a beautiful day. Then our guides gathered us in to walk down the hill into the town.
We had divided into smaller groups, each of which would visit a shop or a home in the historic part of Viviers. Our group went to visit the Poterie, where we got a chance to see the owner at work making his wares.
We also learned about the business The owners lived upstairs; the shop was on the ground floor in an ancient building. It was a pleasant place to work as pedestrians wandered in or walked by, through the sun-dappled, cobble stone streets, It is the custom to offer visitors some kind of snack in this part of France. The people are very hospitable and friendly and so we sipped some local wine and munched on local cheese and home-made appetizers in their showroom/ home. It was a pleasant time.
All too soon it was time to straggle back to the ship and I took my time, enjoying the walled gardens, narrow byways and ancient buildings.
I wondered as I walked along what it might be like to live in Viviers where everyone had their place. My thoughts were interrupted by Yann our hotel manager and Martin our concierge who called me over to a dusty field where they were playing some sort of ball game. Yann and Martin coaxed me into trying my hand at game of what I learned was petanque. My partner would be another crew member who didn’t know much about the game. I am the sports loving Rambler and am always eager to try some new game but I had never seen petanque played so I didn’t know what I was getting into. I also didn’t know then that it was practically the national game of Provence and the Ardeche.
Yann kindly instructed us two newbies in the rules of the game and allowed us a few practice throws. The rules and equipment are simple. Each player has 3 steel balls which they are supposed to try to land in a circle drawn in the dust, about 15 ft away.
Inside the circle was a little wooden ball. The idea was to land the steel balls as close to the little wooden ball as possible. Seems simple, right? Not… What they didn’t tell us was that another part of the game was to knock the opponent’s ball out of the circle. When they graciously let us go first, they were actually setting us up. Through sheer luck, my partner and I managed to score one point. Fortunately more of our group were strolling back to the ship and some took up Yann’s friendly offer to enter the shark tank as we escaped.
After tramping around in that sandy field, my sandals were truly full of sand, and I was glad to get back to the Catherine where I could shake them out. Then it was time to relax and enjoy the scenery on the river. Our next stop would be Avignon.