St PAUL de VENCE
There is something special about the hilltop villages in the south of France above Nice and the French Riviera. From the popular St Paul de Vence favorited by tourists to the more frequented by French town of Vence, you also have the storied medieval villages of Tourrettes, Gourdon, and St Jeannette, to name a few of our favorites. Seemingly propped an easel between the Mediterranean Sea and the French Alps, there is more here than even meets the eye.
Vegetation in this region is lush and variant, a breath of fresh air from the congestion of Nice below. Greeks introduced olive trees, grape vines, fig trees and many other plants to the area. It has a special microclimate, and it seems like everything thrives here. Fragrances of rosemary and Lavender will follow you around like a loyal golden retriever.
“I painted everything that met my eyes. I painted at my window; I never walked down the street without my box of paint”
Top Two Hilltop Villages in South of France
TALE OF TWO VILLAGES
While Vence and St Paul de Vence may share similar names (with St. Paul being added in 1970 to the lower village to differentiate) this is where the buck stops. While St Paul de Vence is beautifully perched with magnificent views of the Mediterranean below – a well-preserved medieval village with a rich heritage of residing artists (and heavenly ones) – this village caters more to tourism. It caters to tour buses as well, evidenced by Tour Bus Row, where their passengers pile out, take their selfies, eat their ice cream and nougat, buy their souvenirs, and pile back in the bus on a tight schedule back to Nice.
But don’t get us wrong. We still enjoy our jaunts to St. Paul, if only for the beautiful views and to remember what English (and Chinese) sounds like. There is not much here to disappoint, and if one wants a dose of French culture, it can be found at the boul courts before entering the “gates.”
There is also Chagall’s grave, and places you can wander off the beaten path. As well, much of the art is world class, as this is not only the place a living artist can make it or break it, but where numbered prints of Chagall, Monet, Picasso, et al can be purchased. More on the later maybe. May we suggest coming as a traveler. Stay awhile. Enjoy an evening meal and the sunset views. Don’t forget the wine and to leave it all behind.
The village of Vence caters to the French. While also a historical village encircled by remnants of ramparts, it is checkered in its surroundings with a bit of modernity – there is no softer way to say it – the place is a bit gritty. A mix of cultures and a class of society lower on the totem (unless up on a hillside villa). If a traveler, you are heading here for the true French experience. You put your phone in your pocket, wind back your watch, fill your glass and your stomach, put up with the smokers, and damn all that won’t wait for whatever it is that was never worth waiting for.
Though the town and its medieval center do attract many visitors, its shops and restaurants cater to the local crowd. The real locals you might see huddled around Henri’s for coffee in the morning, beers in the afternoon. It’s more affordable here than most places in the region, and the scenery can’t be beat. but a great place to center one’s travels, then return for the day to drench in French culture.
There is a bit of the have and have-nots happening here, with the haves occupying the hillside villas, and have-nots dwelling in the apartment blocks surrounding Vence. Vence does have its bums, and a few foo crazies as well. That’s all part of the grit. That’s France. You have to develop an ability to either embrace it or look past it; and while you may never become part and parcel French fabric, you at least don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb. Or maybe you do.
You’ll have to take the time to come and observe yourself, as everyone perceives cultures and people differently (Toby’s Master and his Assistant to the Master have entirely different opinions on the subject). One thing is for certain; of your opine or ours, the people of Vence could care less.
People of St Paul de Vence
The people of St Paul de Vence are of two varieties, as you might imagine. Yet, you might be surprised that aside from the shopowners, not all are tourists. At the entrance to the town, you will find a great many French (there are French tourists as well, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference). Many gather at the entrance to the village, passing the time with a beer or three and a game of Petanque. It’s pretty much like bocci ball, only with a French set of metal boules.
Of all the places we’ve ventured, it seems our Toby made this area his home. During our three month-long stays, he settled down, made it home, gave it two paws up. And why not, he seems to say? Many other dogs call this place home. No problem to find friends. Or enemies! In Toby’s mind both are very exciting possibilities. He has his trail well marked, habitually following a circular path through the heart of the historical section. He’s sniffed around medieval corners and said, yeah, “this is the spot. It’s been layered with scents for centuries.
Toby knows our drill well, as we go from place to place to stock up on food in the mornings. A lemon tart here, a baguette there, yogurt in this shop with the cheese, a bit of meat from the boucherie… yumm! Here, he is allowed to go inside. Nobody minds, just like in the restaurants and cafes. A cup of coffee or tea, and then off we go following Toby through narrow streets and passageways to another side of town. Time to explore! Time to poop! Okay, now where’s that backpack?
You can further Toby’s travels and enjoy more stories, travel information, and photographs through purchasing a print, bag, mug, and much more through our galleries within Fine Art America. May we suggest using the filters to target your interests via “Collections” (top left menu). Enjoy!
During a walk through Vence you will pass numerous fountains, plazas, and even a 16th-century Ash tree. Fontaine de la Foux for example produces pure mineral water since 1431. Don’t forget to fill your bottle up! 11th century Cathedral of Nativite-de-Notre-Dame can’t be missed, it’s in place Clemenceau and you are going to find Chagall’s mosaic in there, called ‘Moses saved from the waters’. Next to Place de Peyra is 16-17th century building Chateau des Villeneuve, now a contemporary art museum with rotating art exhibits. Chapelle des Penitents Blancs with its beautiful glazed tiles is a unique Vence landmark. All of this is both within and outside the Vence’s walls, a circle of history.
Vence started as a Roman city named Vintium. Veni, vidi, vici, vintium! Two Roman columns dated the third century still remain here. One of these columns is in Place Grand Jardin, where Toby’s favorite ice cream place is located. It’s the main square with the great row of Sycamores standing. The other column is in Place Godeau, an area converted to Christianity in 363. Sounds amazing, are we missing a digit?!
Later, the village became the bishopric and seigneury of the Villeneuve family. If you’ve been to Avignon. you would be familiar with them. In the Middle Ages, a defensive wall was built around the town. Remains of this rampart, which still stand today date back to over a thousand years. That’s old! People began building their houses backing up to the ramparts, probably to feel more protected, as opposed to facing the most tourist traffic for business. While there is a modern road circling the village with boutiques and truffles and chocolates and whatnot, if you pay attention, you will be able to actually see the Gates : Signadour and Levis Portals -13th century, Peyra – 15th century , Breche Gate – 18th century. We actually stayed in Place du Peyra and passed through those gates hundreds of times without even knowing their history. Shame on us. We were just too much enjoying the French pace.
St Paul de Vence Architecture
The walls for this medieval fortress were built in 1544 and 1547 by Francis I Valois, King of France, the first to be designed by a French architect. Much of it stands today as it was back then, but a castle at the highest point no longer exists. In its place is now church that dates back to the 14th century. And you thought your home town has history. Ha!
The main street, rue Grande, runs from the gates at the north to the gates at the south end – this road dates back to the time when Rome ruled the region. One of the oldest buildings in the village is the Marie, the town hall, which is housed in a former dungeon dating back to the 7th century. And you thought your town had a dungeon.
The road, if you can call it that, is now a gallery-lined pedestrian walkway, laid with ornate cobbles from the beaches below, positioned on their sides in the Provencal tradition. This was the pet project of Mayor Marius Issert in the 1950’s, though most imagine they have been laid there for centuries.
St Paul de Vence History
While one might imagine that St Paul de Vence was created for artists, there is much more to the story. It once stood between two arch enemies, King Francois I and Emperor Charles V. It was way back in 1438 that Francois came by carriage to St Paul de Vence and sought to build an impregnable fortress. Commissioning Jean de Renaud de Saint Remy to reinforce the town with bastions and cannon, there was no approaching it by tour bus back then, nor by caravan from Italy.
In 1666, the bishop of Vence enlarged, embellished, and elevated the Eglise de la Conversion de Saint Paul de Vence to the rank of Collegiate Church.
The Chapelle Saint Clément, built in 1680, are a prime example of Baroque style. Nobility soon arrived, building great mansions in the heart of the old citadel.
Tale of Two Shoppings
Shopping in Vence is quite different from shopping in St Paul de Vence. For one thing, there is no grocery store in St Paul de Vence. You have to go up the hill to Vence and eLeclerc for this. There are markets in Vence as well you won’t find anywhere short of Nice. The boutiques of St Paul are much higher-end, though you can still find shops to spend a month’s wages on in Vence. But the big difference you will find is in the:
Art Galleries Galore
Aside from the Matisse Museum at the Chapel du Rosaire and Musèe de Vence at Chateau de Villeneuve and the Monet Museum, the art galleries in Vence are few and far between, and comprised of local Vence artists. There is the one Chagall mosaic at La Cathedrale Notre-Dame de la Nativite de Vence, which pretty much makes up for it. But if you’re all about supporting local artists and not just those at the top of their game down in St Paul, head to Vence for art.
Yet, great art contributes as much to the history, or at least revival, of St Paul de Vence as the Dukes of Savoy. Okay, that’s stretching it a bit. And who’s to say which town artists like Chagall hung out at most (though with St Paul’s mayor giving up his burial plot, that might answer the question). There are many other artists and writers who roamed the area, including Jaques Prevert, Picasso, but we’re not dropping names here, just pointing to the fact that art became part and parcel of why people come here in droves.
As for museums in St Paul, only one of us visited the Fondation Maeght, and not to rave reviews (meh… the other was watching the dog), but art is indeed in the eyes of the beholder, and the beholder is not into modern art. The same meh was given to the Nice Contemporary Museum of Modern Art, but the views from the top floor are nice. So chin up, Maeght.
Duly noted, the best museum in the French Riviera is the Chagall Museum above Nice in Cimiez; not just due to the impressive collection of Chagall’s paintings, but because they let Toby in as well! But you can also find signed prints by Chagall et al in galleries in St Paul de Vence. Break out the checkbook to buy, but free to gaze upon, as are all of the galleries gracing this stretch of artful cobbles.
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Where We Stayed
On our first trip, we stayed in L’hotel Les Messugues, I believe because we had a pet, they put us in a rudimentary room. Who says the French aren’t rude? Well, the room was nothing special, but the pool (though not heated), was to swim for. The sculptures are a bit XXX, so beware if you’re bringing children. You might have some explaining to do. But the real charm of the place is its natural surroundings and voila, the breakfast! It makes up for the sheize room. Set in a garden atmosphere, there was nothing here amiss. You could not say, “Oh, if they only had bacon.” They will have bacon in many splendored ways, but more importantly, freshly cooked breads and home-made pastries. Ok, hotel made pastries. From the soft boiled to crepes with freshly picked berries, they had to bring in ten Clydesdales to pull us away from the buffet. We were to eat forever.
On our next trip, we stayed in the heart of Vence, in an AirBnb right above Place du Peyra and its plethora of restaurants. The one advantage of staying in the center of the village was that you could hear no road traffic. The disadvantage… late night dining, early morning setup, and cigarette smoke. Add to this, the bum with the bad guitar serenading patrons for tips, renovations just above our rental, and you have a full complaint box from the Curmudgeon. Otherwise, being able to walk right out the door and grab anything you desire, join in on a festival you never knew was coming, and hey, they are all speaking French. When you can’t understand what they’re saying, it all becomes a constant murmur, like tinnitus. As well, our host paid for parking, which was tight and underground, but served our purpose of being able to get in and out of Vence to the beach and surrounding hilltops.
Last travels we did not stay in Vence at all, but frequented both villages. We stayed in Beaulieu Sur Mer, in a quiet apartment with no view. We’re rarely there during the day anyway.
Being in an idyllic location, we had our hearts set on finding a home we could split our time between here and the US. Unfortunately, our budget was also set, and for what we could get for the dollar fell below our expectations. Obviously, one of us expected too much, and it wasn’t Toby. All he wanted was some duck patè and a nap.
We did find some small… very small places that were almost within reach, in Vence. But there was always something that didn’t check all boxes, and here, it was primarily the parking. Or lack of it, and windows. With an old medieval haunt, you don’t get much light. Plus, we wanted to leave our second car in a garage, and that wasn’t happening for a budget under 300k.
And, we did put a deposit on a small flat in the beautiful village of Tourrettes. It’s up a winding road and gets hot during summer. At least we wouldn’t need a toaster. The parking is free, but you have to walk a half mile to get to it and leaving a car there for 3 months? One of us thought the better of it, and the other left quite disappointed as the view was to live for and the village an artist’s dream. But committing would mean we would have to stop hunting. It’s the journey, not the destination! So one of us tells the other.