Viviers is a revelation, writes Lorna Subritzky.
'Now that', says Michelle, "is commitment to your job". She points to the shore, where a group dressed in medieval finery is making its way towards the gangplank. Although it's only 9.30 in the morning, the temperature is already 25C and just looking at the heavy velvet and brocade costumes makes me break out in a sweat.
It's the third day of our cruise up the Rhone River from Avignon to Lyon, and after casting off the evening before, our longship has arrived in Viviers while we were asleep. Over breakfast on the sunny terrace, we've already met one local — a swan who sailed out to give us the once over. But it's the new arrivals that we're really happy to see. With only one morning in port, we've opted for a walking tour of the town (a shore excursion that is included in our cruise fare), and our team of local guides are certainly dressed to impress.
After being greeted by our chaperone Christophe, Michelle and I are off along Vivier streets lined with leafy plane trees, which are both ornamental and practical in this mid-summer heatwave. We're told Napoleon planted these trees (a relative of the sycamore) all over southern France, so his army would have shady spots to rest, and I'm certainly glad of his foresight as the morning sun beats down. As we walk, we pass plenty of cars and cafes — so far, so 21st century. But before long we reach the Old Town, and suddenly we're transported back hundreds of years.
I'll be honest, I'd never even heard of Viviers before this trip, so I had no idea that it's considered the best-preserved medieval town in southern France. Established about the fifth century, it's perched on a hill on the right bank of the Rhone, and the walls surrounding it were built to provide protection during the Hundred Years' War between France and England. Enter those walls, and you step back into the Middle Ages.
You won't find cars here in the Old Town — they just won't fit in the narrow, cobbled streets, themselves a fascination with their haphazard order. There's some delightful faded pastel houses, reminiscent of those further south in Provence, but by far the majority are simple and stone with shuttered windows that are thrown open as the locals go about their day. In its medieval heyday, Viviers boasted a population of about 30,000, but these days it's a far more modest 4000. Even so, it's hard to imagine how they all fit in these solid but tiny dwellings.
Our tour proper begins in the lower town, where the less important people would have lived: the tradespeople, shopkeepers, the artisans. Christophe points out the tiny doorways — tiny because people were a little smaller then, but also because timber used to create the framing and door had been prohibitively expensive. What to make then of the much larger doors in some dwellings? These, explains our guide, were to usher in your livestock so you could warm your house in cooler months. I imagine my living room full of cattle and goats, and thank my lucky stars I live in the age of electricity.
We pass several shops on our trails, and they're more niche than we're used to back home: one has nothing but strings of home-made sausages hung outside, another appears to only sell ginger. As with many of the places we've visited on our trip, it seems to be a coin toss as to whether or not a retailer will be open at any given time. We also see a former jail with walled up windows; a miniscule gap at the top letting in the only air and light for unfortunate inmates of the time.
As we wind upward through the maze-like streets, we can't help but notice that the houses are getting larger and more ornate. In the higher town lived the clergy, and not for the first time France's love-hate relationship with the church is remarked upon by our guide.
Which brings us, both figuratively and literally, to one of the main attractions of the town: La Cathedrale Saint-Vincent de Viviers. Viviers Cathedral, as it's more colloquially known, is the smallest cathedral in France still in use, with a tower built in the 11th century and most of the rest completed in the 12th. It's been added to and refurbished over the years (in part from necessity, as sections were destroyed in the 16th-century Wars of Religion), and it's now a blend of Romanesque, flamboyant Gothic and 18th-century architectural styles which strangely seem to work together. It's decorated with 400-year-old Gobelin tapestries depicting biblical scenes; they were stolen from the cathedral at some stage but all bar one recovered.
Emerging from the gloom of the cathedral into bright sunlight, we're suddenly stopped in our tracks: in the centre of this medieval city is an ornate and well-preserved four-storey Renaissance dwelling, Le Maison des Chevaliers (or House of the Knights). Christophe tells with relish the story of Noel Albert, a "Huguenot captain, merchant, philanthropist and warlord" which is quite the resume. Made rich by a burgeoning salt trade, but also fairly unscrupulous with tax collecting, Monsieur Albert was quick to convert his religion in order to escape persecution during the religious wars, before returning to his hometown and indulging in a spot of ransacking, including the cathedral. Eventually his tax skimming appeared to have angered the wrong people and he was beheaded (at which point in the story I resolve to never fall foul of the IRD), but he left behind this grand house with its ornate Romanesque facade.
We don't have time to venture inside, but we are assured that each of the four floors has unique characteristics making it a worthwhile destination for many tourists.
A little more of a climb, and we're at the pinnacle of our Viviers walk — atop the hillside with panoramic outlook over the surrounding countryside and with a birdseye view of the town we've just explored — the juxtaposition of new and old well illustrated with hundreds of satellite dishes atop rustic tiled roofs. We're not the first ones up here however: while we've been exploring the past, some of our ship's crew have managed to get a vehicle up here and have set up a white-clothed table laden with sweet treats (nougat is a local speciality) and cups of a creme de menthe concoction. While you could argue 11am is a little early to partake in alcohol, Michelle and I agree it'd be rude not to and sip gratefully as we are officially welcomed by the delightful mayor of Viviers — Christophe translates Monsieur Lavis' address, and it's clear both men are rightly proud of their town.
From here it's all downhill to our ship, and Michelle and I sail away towards the 21st century with fond memories of the little city with the big history. Oh, and how did our guides fare in those thick velvet costumes in the stifling heat? Upon inquiry, one of the ladies lifts her hoop skirt to reveal jeans underneath. Looks like the hardiness of the town extends to its inhabitants.
flies from Auckland to Lyon, via Dubai, with return Economy Class fares from $2229.
An eight-day Lyon and Provence river cruise with Viking visits Avignon, Arles, Viviers and Tournon. Fares are from $3625pp, twin share.
● Lorna Subritzky hosts Coast's Days Show, 10am-3pm weekdays.