Cathy Bartrop travels to Vienne in the French region of Isère.
Once a major centre of the Roman Empire under its Latin name Vienna, it now has another claim to fame… its celebrated annual Jazz Festival.
The spectacle of 8000 people seated on the sunbaked steps of Vienne’s Roman theatre, bathed in the golden glow of the late evening sun, as they have done for incalculable performances for over 2000 years, is literally breathtaking. What an incredible open air venue for live music. We stood and stared for a moment or two, scanning the crowd, cold drinks in hand and fans fluttering – they were more than ready to be entertained. We were a bit late to the party (thanks to BA’s summer of travel chaos) but keen to join them. There’s no seating plan, you simply wander in and park yourself at whatever altitude of step you prefer. No sooner had our buttocks hit the warmth of the stone, gladatorial level roars of excitement and anticipation filled the air as the legend that is Mr George Benson took to the stage. Gimme the night! Magic.
George performed at the very first Vienne Jazz Festival in 1981, he’s been back multiple times making this his 15th performance here at the grand age of 79. He clearly loves it as much as the audience love him. I’m not surprised. His view out from the stage must be just as magnificent as the view back down from the top tier. The higher you go, the more you see of the town behind and the Rhone River sparkling in the distance. Those Romans certainly knew how to construct with wow factor and… incredible acoustics.
Over the last 40 years, Jazz à Vienne has steadily grown in stature. Alongside George, the 2022 line up included Herbie Hancock, Gregory Porter, Jamie Callum, Michael Kiwanuka and many more international artists covering a broad interpretation of jazz from traditional to popular. The Festival runs for two weeks from late June to mid July with headline performances and supporting artists playing in the Roman theatre every night from 8.30pm til around midnight. In addition, there are smaller stages and impromptu performances all over town, many also with Roman backdrops. The Cybele Gardens, with the remains of the stone arcades that formed the entrance to the Forum, is the venue for the Festival ‘village’ centred around a small stage and with a cluster of pop up bars and food stalls. Another stage sits in the heart of town in front of the magnificent Temple of Augustus and Livia. Grab a table at the surrounding bars and restaurants to listen to live music playing whilst you enjoy a drink or dinner – what could be nicer on a balmy summer’s evening.
The festival may attract world class artists, but it has a relaxed and inclusive feel – there are a few VIP areas but otherwise everyone is free to move around and sit, or stand, where they wish. Its all very informal and good natured. On the final night of the Festival, for the real hardcore fans, the tradition is a literal all night Jazz session. The reward for those that stay the course (I’m told at least a few hundred people) is free coffee and croissants served from the stage and, I guess, the badge of euphoria.
Tickets are extraordinarily good value, starting from 34 Euros per night. You need to be quick off the mark though when the line up is announced and tickets released, usually in March.
Getting there: Vienne is in the region of Isère, around 20 miles south of Lyon. To get there direct, you can either fly to Lyon (BA from Heathrow, Easyjet from Gatwick) or travel by train taking Eurostar to Paris and connecting with the TGV to Lyon St Exupery (Airport station). Frequent local trains to Vienne run from Lyon Part Dieu station in the city centre and take 20 minutes. Vienne would also make a great stopover on a French driving holiday, particularly if timed to coincide with a night or two at the Festival.
Staying there: Accommodation options in Vienne are fairly limited so again, early advance booking is essential. In town, there are two Ibis hotels (one budget, one 3 star) and, at the other end of the scale, La Pyramide, a Relais & Château hotel complete with a renowned two Michelin Star gastronomic restaurant. We stayed at the Grand Hotel de la Poste – definitely a top pick for Festival goers due to its central location, within a short walk of the Theatre. Recently refurbished, it is rated 2 stars but punches well above its weight in both style and charm. Rooms are simple but spotless and come with very efficient and quiet air conditioning (essential during a July heatwave). There’s a lounge, outdoor bar and courtyard patio and a lovely breakfast room.
Given the quick and easy train service from Lyon to Vienne, alternatively, you could opt to stay in Lyon.