Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Viviers - where time almost stops


Viviers is a rare exception to the seemingly universal rule that equates all change with progress. Here on the right bank of the Rhone the past threw up its defences against the encroachment of modernity and held the line, just as the resolute residents of the cathedral district once held the line against unruly soldiery quartered in the lower town.

Both parts of the medieval town remain mostly intact; if you want to buy a house here you can do so cheaply, but along with the medieval dwelling you take on the responsibility of history and a duty to preserve external appearances. Among the narrow streets houses press close upon each other as if for mutual support. Possibly the residents need the same, since many houses now stand empty. It seems it is more romantic to contemplate the simplicity of medieval life than actually to experience it. Nowadays not many folk have the option to stable their cattle on the ground floor in order to provide winter central heating; they'd prefer something a trifle more up to date.

The grandest house in the old town, known as La Maison des Chevaliers  (right), has a Renaissance frontage added in 1546 by an enigmatic local character called Noël Albert. This well to do salt merchant converted to Protestantism in order to escape condemnation for fraudulent tax-farming. During the wars of religion he sacked the cathedral but was later captured and executed after the Huguenot defeat.

It is suggested that the distinctly different quality exhibited by the two stone friezes of jousting on the house's frontage are accounted for by the fact that one was carved by a master-mason and one by his apprentice.

Our party was most fortunate to hear an organ recital in St Vincent's Cathedral by the celebrated Valéry Imbernon. We were joined by a ginger cat who strode down the aisle as though he was at home, which he may well have been.


Inside the cathedral the fine acoustics enhanced the experience, which was closed by a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise. The organist and our guide were the only French people there. Nevertheless it was a moving moment when the whole audience stood and some even managed to sing the words.

"For liberty," is a rallying cry as vital today as it has ever been.