St Paul de Vence

Taking the High Ground

By Keith Hall

There is definitely something mesmerising about the Mediterranean. During a holiday in Nice, I was tempted to spend the whole time in seaside towns. There are so many of them, and they all have their own personality and attractions. But I had heard that the inland towns were also worth a visit. So one morning I hopped a local bus to St-Paul de Vence, or St-Paul as it is often called by locals, which is 20km from Nice and just 7km from the Mediterranean.

On arrival in St-Paul, it seemed that the bus had travelled further than you would expect from the modest time and distance of the journey. It would be easy to believe that that you had jumped through time and space to a different century and a different part of France. Nice is a large, 19th and 20th century city, while St-Paul is a small medieval walledtown. You enter the town through an arched gateway in the wall, staring straight into the muzzle of an antique cannon.

The town is huddled on a hilltop, with narrow, winding cobblestoned streets that are barely one car’s width. It must be a nightmare for drivers. However, the nostalgically picturesque streetscapes are much admired by writers, artists, actors and tourists. Notable people who have lived in St-Paul include the artists Marc Chagall and Bernard-Henri Lévy, writer James Baldwin, actor/singer Yves Montand, and former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman.

St-Paul has a decidedly arty feel, with boutique gift shops selling local arts and crafts, and many cafes. There are sculptures scattered around the town, reflecting various aspects of the local scene. In the main street, a stone carving of an oversized vintage camera bears the caption “On ne bouge plus, souriez!” (Don’t move, smile). In the boules ground there is a sculpture representing a pile of boules.

The town also has sweeping views of the surrounding countryside from the town walls, plus some medieval buildings.However, it pays to make your visit fairly early in the day, since St-Paul is popular with tourists. When I was there, the narrow medieval streets were starting to choke up with visitors as lunch time approached. Fortunately, there is an easy to way to escape the crowds, enjoy a pleasant walk through the French countryside, and explore a second hill town.

The rather confusingly named town of Vence is just 6km from St-Paul de Vence and can be reached along a fairly well signposted walking trail. Maps of the trail are available at the St-Paul tourist office. The walk starts beside the old Saint Claire Chapel outside the town wall and initially follows the old aqueduct (Aqueduc des Moulins). Most of the trail is through open forest, with occasional views of the surrounding mountains. The walk is not too demanding and takes about an hour.

When you first arrive in Vence, it feels very different from St-Paul. You enter the town along wide streets lined with trees and relatively modern buildings. However, as you wander around the town, you will find plenty of reminders that this is another medieval hill town. Between the tall 12th century tower and the nearby bars and cafes, there is an archknown as the Porte du Peyra. This gateway leads into the old town, with its narrow winding streets, cheerful squares and window boxes filled with colourful flowers. The striking town hall was built in 1911, but looks much older.

In the centre of the old town is the cathedral, Our Lady of the Nativity, which was originally built on the site of an old Roman temple in the 4th century. Today the cathedral has some old fragments, among sections built in later centuries. In the baptistery there is a striking mosaic by Marc Chagall, depicting the moment when Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby Moses in the bulrushes.

Vence, like its neighbour St-Paul de Vence, has attracted many creative artists and writers over the past century. The artists Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall and Raoul Dufy all lived there, and the writer DH Lawrence died there.Scattered around the town there are reproductions of paintings which show local scenes. In front of an ancient ash tree, which was supposedly planted by King François I of France in 1538, there is a painting of the tree by Chaim Soutine. From the nearby lookout, there is a view of the surrounding mountains and a painting of thescene by Jean Dubuffet.

But maybe the most striking artistic legacy in Vence is the Chapel of the Rosary, which was designed and decorated by Henri Matisse.He undertook the project out of appreciation for the work of a nun in thelocal Dominican nunnery. She had been a nurse before she entered the nunnery, and had tended Matisse after he underwent cancer surgery. When Matisse bought a home in Vence, they renewed their friendship and she asked if he would help with designing the chapel.

The chapel was completed in 1951and is simple in design, but contains colourful murals, stained glass windows and other artworks by Matisse. The dominant colours are white, blue and yellow and the style is largely modern, with simple outline figures and many stylised leaf and floral motifs. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but Matisse considered the chapel to be his greatest achievement.

Somehow the simplicity of the overall design seems to complement the simple faith of the nuns who show you through the chapel. For me, this artistic chapel was the high point of an enjoyable day spent exploring Vence and St-Paul de Vence.

For more information about these two historic hill towns visit:-
www.saintpauldevence.com and www.vence.fr

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