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About 10km northeast of Payerne, AVENCHES was the capital of Roman Switzerland, at one time supporting a population of 20,000. These days, life in the town is more smugly suburban, but it’s well worth visiting, both for the medieval town centre and the extensive Roman remains.
After a defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar, the Helvetians founded their new capital of Aventicum in the early first century BC (Aventia was the name of the local Celtic goddess of water). Emperor Vespasian granted it the status of colony in 72 AD, whereupon Aventicum entered its golden age. During the second and third centuries, the huge city wall boasted 73 watchtowers, and many of the public buildings of that period – a baths, temples, the amphitheatre, and more – have been excavated. The Aleman tribes raided the town around 277 AD, and sacked large parts of it; by 450, Aventicum’s glory days were over.
Climbing the hill from the train station, the first thing you come to is the large oval amphitheatre crowning the eastern edge of the Old Town, well restored and now the scene of an annual summer opera festival (see box). The tower at the rear of the arena houses the excellent Musée Romain (Tues–Sun: April–Sept 10am–noon & 1–5pm; Oct–March 2–5pm; Fr.2; SMP). The ground floor is filled with statuary and mosaics, while up above are very impressive collections of Roman bits and bobs, sensibly organized and with English notes available. Fascinating details of ordinary life – such as the fact that a glass of wine cost a quarter of a sesterce, while commissioning a statue of the goddess Aventia with an inscription would set you back 5200 sesterces – are filled out with maps and figurines, including a copy of a spectacular gold bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (the original is in Lausanne). Dotted around the town are seven other Roman sites – the tourist office has a brochure – all of which are well signposted and free. One of the most impressive is the Tour de la Cigogne, a gnarled old column almost swamped by suburbia but still standing tall in a field: it once formed part of a giant temple sanctuary.
Avenches’ tourist office, 3 Place de l’Église (Mon–Fri 8am–noon & 1.30–5pm, Sat 9am–noon; 026/676 99 22, www.avenches.ch), has plenty of books and brochures on the Roman and medieval town. An HI hostel is five minutes’ walk south, at 5 Rue du Lavoir (026/675 26 66, fax 675 27 17; a; mid-April to mid-Oct), with dorms from Fr.23. The nicest hotel is the grand Couronne, 20 Rue Centrale (026/675 54 14, fax 675 54 22; c; closed Jan), which also has the poshest brasserie around (menus Fr.25). There are plenty more pavement cafés along Rue Centrale, or you could try inexpensive pizza/pasta in Tearoom du Musée, opposite the amphitheatre.
Avenches’ train station (with bike hire facilities) is on the Murten–Payerne line. There are also plenty of buses: the ride from Fribourg is especially picturesque, and as a bonus passes through the intriguingly named village of Misery (which actually looks rather self-satisfied).
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