Avenches, Just The Other Side of Misery

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When yet another week of stellar, sunny weather gave way to rain, clouds, and lightning in the Alps, Travis and I again postponed our plans to go hiking and camping in the mountains. Instead, we opted to drive the 15 minutes or so to the little town of Avenches, known locally for its Roman ruins, ancient amphitheater, and stork sanctuary.

Road sign at the entrance of Misery, Switzerland
The village of Misery, Switzerland is a one-horse town.

But first, we’d have to be in Misery for awhile.

Not even awhile, really, considering that the little tiny farming community of Misery, Switzerland is just a one-horse town.

Consisting of a smattering of buildings, a single roundabout, and surrounded by a whole lot of farmland, we stopped only to take a photo and marvel at the town’s name before continuing on to Avenches.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we parked in the city center and set off with our dog, Touille, to check out town.

Within minutes, we’d passed the beautiful old Reformed Church of St. Mary Magdalene along a fairly main street.  Turning and walking a single block over led to quiet old streets with neat rows of houses, all painted colorfully and displaying flower pots, hanging gardens, and the occasional impish garden gnome ready to moon the unsuspecting passersby.

Clearly, much of Switzerland is old, but Avenches is still special.

Referred to originally as Adventicum, the site was once inhabited by Helvetians – people of Gallic descent – before they were conquered by the Romans at the beginning of the 1st century BC.  In a sense, one could argue that Avenches is the birthplace of Switzerland.  With over 20,000 residents, it was an important commercial site as both the capital of the Helvetii people and for the Romans after they conquered the Helvetians.

Though the country is now commonly referred to as Switzerland, its official name is still the Latin Confoederatio Helvetica, and the abbreviation “CH” appears on license plates, postage stamps, and Swiss coins.

Foreboding 13th-century Benneville Tower in Avenches, Switzerland
Benneville Tower in Avenches, Switzerland dates from the 13th century.
Exterior of Avenches Castle in Switzerland
Avenches Castle was previously used as a prison but now is home to an art gallery and music company.

We rounded the castle, aimlessly wandering and enjoying the fresh summer breezes.  The wind delivered the faint notes of an opera to our ears.  We followed the sound, arriving at a large amphitheater – Roman ruins – that was built to seat 16000 visitors.

The music we were hearing was a live rehearsal performed by members of Gioacchino Rossini’s famous Il Barbiere di Siviglia – The Barber of Seville.  This year, 2015, marks the 2000th anniversary of Avenches with multiple events lined up through the summer in celebration.

We sat for quite some time, enjoying the music, waving at the singers (who waved back), and laughing at the director dancing theatrically below the stage.

It’s incredible that this Roman amphitheater is still in use in Avenches, Switzerland.

From our vantage at the top of the amphitheater, we had a nice view of our surroundings.  We could see what looked like a church some distance away on a hill.  Striking out in that direction, we almost immediately reached the edge of town as our trail opened into a large field.  Multiple skinny columns dotted the grass.

We’d stumbled upon the Cigognier, or stork sanctuary, where storks once nested part of the year. References to the storks have been recorded dating from as early as 1642.  Prior to that, the columns originally belonged to the much older Roman settlement from the second century.

Columns of the stork sanctuary in Avenches, Switzerland
These columns belong to an individual sanctuary dated to 98 AD.

A nice simple map staked to a post just past the sanctuary clearly showed the remaining sites we were interested in seeing: ruins of a Roman theater and dwellings, the East Wall, and Tornallaz Tower.

Though the complex for the Roman ruins and theater is rather small, it’s completely open and free to explore and offers nice views across the fields.

Roman ruins in Avenches, Switzerland
Roman ruins in Avenches, Switzerland

We realized after looking at the map that it wasn’t a church we had seen up on the hill from the amphitheater; it was Tornallaz Tower and the remains of the East Gate.

We struck off uphill with Touille romping ahead of us on the trail, intent on chasing a nice stick Trav found.

The path to the East Gate leads through pretty Swiss farmland.

We hadn’t gone far when we met another gal on the trail with her regal poodle.  Stopping briefly to let the dogs meet, we ended up chatting with her for well over an hour.  She invited us to her place in the Valais, offering to take us hiking and show us some deserted places in the Alps to go camping, and we exchanged contact information.

People in Switzerland really are nice!

Back on the trail, we passed through beautiful blueish green wheat fields dotted with brilliant red poppies already shuttered for the night. We arrived at the East Gate as the sun was sliding into the Jura Mountains.

Country road through the East Gate of fortress walls around Avenches
The East Gate is the last remaining entrance that was once in use to pass through the wall encircling the ancient town of Avenches.

In the past, the gate was one of four entrances leading to Avenches along the 5 km-long wall surrounding its community of 20,000 inhabitants.  The town is currently home to fewer than 4,000 people.

The wall once topped out at seven meters and had 73 towers along the perimeter.  Of these, only one remains standing just west of the East Gate: Tornallaz Tower.

We were surprised to find the tower door unlocked and open, allowing us to climb the multiple sets of spiral stairs to the wall and then on to the top of the tower.

We didn’t stay long since I realized after leaning against the cool rock wall that the structure was virtually covered in bees: large, aggressive bees.  Instead of swarming near a hive or congregating together, they were instead spread out over every surface of the tower that we could see.  One particularly aggressive individual pursued us all the way back to the East Gate, hastening our departure.

Tornallaz Tower is west of the East Gate of the fortress walls surrounding Avenches, Switzerland.

We stayed a spell at the East Gate, watching the stars come out and the lights of Avenches start to twinkle in the distance.  A giant hare hippity hopped down the road, unaware of our presence, and we froze, hoping he’d hop closer.  Ever the cautious little beast, he was suddenly gone in a puff of dust.

Hiking back through the fields in the dark, I appreciatively took deep breathes of the earthy night air on the way back to our car.

For most visitors to Switzerland, Avenches will never make their radar of interesting places worth visiting.  They’ll opt for the opulence of cities like Zurich or head to the slopes of ski resorts like Zermatt and Verbier.  But for those with more time, an interest in the country’s ancient Roman history, and a desire to connect with a place known mostly to locals, Avenches is an under-visited little treasure 20 minutes by car from Fribourg, just the other side of Misery.

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