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The young Napoleon is said to have appreciated his stay in Valence as a young army officer, arriving by boat in November 1785. The little Corsican genius enjoyed picking cherries, flirting with the daughters of the local bourgeoisie, reading voraciously, and even penning a passionate military novel. The story goes, however, that he almost lost his life on the dangerous climb up the opposite bank of the Rhône to the top of Crussol castle with his brother – how different European history might have been if that tourist outing had ended otherwise! As it was, Napoleon left in August 1786 to help put down a silk workers’ riot in Lyon, briefly returning to the same elite regiment in 1791. Valence had a very long military past, originally founded as a Roman garrison. Its merchants long prospered from controlling the salt trade. Pope Pius VI didn’t have as good a time in Valence as Bonaparte, ignominiously dragged from Rome as far as here once the imperious petit caporal was setting about brief European domination. The sickly pontiff died here in 1799. His body was eventually returned to Italy, the Rhône-side city receiving a bust by way of thanks.
Although in a central location, the Cathédrale St-Apollinaire turns its back on the main central square. Much reconstructed in the 17th century, the edifice retains the form and certain fragments of the Romanesque original. Inside, the bust of the resigned-looking Pope Pius VI, stands out in the colonnaded ambulatory. Occupying the plain 18th-century bishop’s palace, the town’s Musée des Beaux-Arts starts with a collection of remarkable Roman mosaics, the most startling starring a beefy, naked Hercules performing his twelve labours with club-swinging gusto. Classical ruins feature in the best-known collection of pictures in the museum, dramatic red crayon drawings by the Ancien Régime artist Hubert Robert. The odd portraits of important figures in Valentinois history, draw one’s attention, including that of Jean-Etienne Championnet, one of Napoleon’s brilliant boy-generals, from Valence.
The cathedral sticks out unapologetically into Place des Clercs, now the lively centre of the old town, along with Place de l’Université – hub of the spectacular main Saturday morning market. The main old shopping streets lead off these squares, including the stylish Grande Rue, which boasts the liveliest façade in town, the well-named Maison des Têtes, containing a small, free permanent exhibition on Valence’s history. But the main interest is on the outside, reflecting a golden period when fairs and a reputed university brought prosperity to Valence – in fact this façade was commissioned by a professor of law and leading town councillor. Classical allusions feature all the way down from the heads on high, representing the winds, via Fortune and Time, gadding about naked on the first floor, to nine philosophers presiding over the ground floor. On the guided tour of the town, you see the elaborate courtyard and that of the Maison Dupré-Latour on the parallel Rue Perrolerie. At the bottom of that street, the restful 16th-century classical funerary monument of Le Pendentif stands in a quiet corner, while at the other end, appealing restaurant terraces spread out on little Place de la Pierre.
Just up Rue St-James, the Temple, or Protestant church, occupies the former Catholic St Rufus priory where pilgrims used to stop on their way down the Rhône. An aside in English Church history, in the 12th century, one Nicholas Breakspear made quite an impression when he joined the order here; he went on to become the only English pope, Adrian IV. In the 18th century, the church interior was decorated with fine stucco, while Napoleon later ordered the obelisk honouring Championnet. On grandiose Place de la Liberté, the 19th-century Hôtel de Ville and theatre vie for attention with their massive egos. Continue to Place St-Jean, embellished with a light covered market, looked down upon by the Eglise St-Jean-Baptiste.
Wide boulevards encircle the historic centre following the course of former ramparts. To the south lies the enormous Champ de Mars, the biggest terrace in Valence. The statue once again stars Championnet. Behind, a further array of bright shopping streets line up, but the view west tempts you down into the shaded Parc Jouvet, with a magical ring of towering planes under which the boules players gather. The gates at the end stop anyone running out onto the thundering roads cutting the Valentinois off from their river. But for a day-trip out on the Rhône, contact Bateaux Taxi Valentinois.
For more information on towns and sights along the Rhône between Lyon and Provence, read the Cadogan guide to the Rhône-Alpes.
Copyright text : Philippe Barbour 2011
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