The beautiful French city no one has heard of

Carefully restored between 1908 and 1938, the theater is as glorious in 2022 as it must have been in the century of Nero and Trajan – albeit a bit smaller (a capacity of 8,000 seats), and no longer a chamber echo for the cries of the dying. Every seat tends to be packed when the city’s main cultural event kicks off a music fortnight every June and July.

Jazz in Vienna has been held every summer (apart from Covid 2020) since 1981, genre icons like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Ella Fitzgerald lighting up its stage. Listen to artists like Hancock (who played here a month ago) and you’ll forget this was a place where gladiators fought – although the dizzying perspective of the back rows is the same for sax solos as it is for the sword game.

The time-travel sensation continues right on the water, in what is technically a separate town (Saint-Romain-en-Gal) and a different department (Rhône). The story, however, is identical to the Gallo-Roman Museum – a cornucopia of ancient heritage on the west bank of the river. Much of the site was discovered in 1965 during excavation work for a school – a happy accident that revealed the foundations of houses and farmhouses where they were not thought to be. The most notable of these, perhaps, was the House of the Ocean Gods (House of the Ocean Gods); which was to be a substantial residence, with a private bath.

The museum building contains a fragment of a mosaic that once adorned its hallway, with Neptune resplendent in one corner. Adjacent is a magnificent mosaic of the Four Seasons – spring wearing a garland of olive leaves; fall in a wreath of softly browning branches – shows that it was a settlement of wealth and taste.

Wine and bike

Back outside, part of the estate is devoted to vines and the production of wines such as the Romans drank (bitter and salty). The Rhône passes without a glance, flanked by the successor grape varieties of a rooted sector. Cycling around it (bicycles are available free of charge from the tourist office – see below) is a delight; wide cycle paths following the currents, the sparkling river. If you’re feeling energetic, you can drive 10km south-west along the eastern shore to the pair of hotel-restaurants – Le Cottage and Domaine de Clairefontaine – run by Michelin-starred chef Philippe Girardon in the village of Chonas l’Amballane.

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