The Ramparts and the Arts: Touring St-Paul de Vence
Kingdoms of old rely on walls for protection and defense. For hundreds, and even thousands of years they stood as witness to different sieges and attacks done for the sake of might and power. The strong survive and the weak crumble. Now, many of those walls stand but as proofs for those moments in history. But some are not just forsaken monumental structures and ruins. They harbor within and around them beauty and wonders for modern curious souls to behold. Just like the walls of St-Paul de Vence. For a millennium, its walls surround the now cobbled street and give unfailing protection to the heritage that stood the test of time.
It is still under siege, not by those who seek to conquer, but by those who want to fill their aesthetic longing. There was only one account of the town having been captured. But today, it is the one who captivates travelers and tourists by the mesmerizing beauty of its surroundings and the art that it harbors within and even outside its walls. Take a closer look at this exceptional village preché in French Riviera through this post.
A historic past
During the Middle Ages, St-Paul de Vence occupied a strategic location. Initially, it was built as a protection from Saracen raids. It became an important strategic location as Nice shifted its allegiance from Provence to Savoy on the 14th century. It remained on the side of France. The River Var borders it on the east, and St-Paul de Vence became a key spot in the political stage. The ramparts were erected then to fortify the stronghold, and two of the original towers is still standing; Porte de Vence and Tour de l’Esperon.
By the 16th century, consecutive attacks prompted François I to reinforce the defenses. In 1524 the King of Spain Charles V occupied St-Paul and besieged it again in 1536 because of its importance on the play of powers in Europe. François I made a treaty with Nice and had the Commander of Artillery Jean de Renaud de Saint-Remy work with the fortifications between 1543 and 1547. They put French spurs on the bastions called orillons to protect the two gates, along with curtain walls to guard the flanks.
The town is one of the oldest in French Riviera. The Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is the region where it belongs, in the southeastern part of France. It is within the Alpes-Maritimes départment. It has a population of around 3, 500 (2016 figure). As a village perché, it rests against the mountain backdrop. Woodlands of cypresses, dotted with occasional azure pools from the villas, surround the area. The ramparts give a stunning view of Côte d’Azur, baing in the inland, also of the Mediterranean Sea, and in the northwest the peaks of the Alps. The climate is of typical Mediterranean, temperate and warm during the summer season, assuring 300 days of sunshine, with cold winters.
The walls in a spade-like shape surround the town, topping the ellipse hill, and which houses the 300 locals that reside inside. The remaining population lives in the valleys and heights, on luxurious houses and grand villas. Being the tourists’ attraction itself, the town invites more visitors than any village in France. Its tourist attractions are just auxiliary to its natural beauty. The heritage and culture of the town are made more pronounced by numerous artworks created by the 20th-century masters that lived in the area. Gardens, orchards, and villas adorn the picture-perfect view around. The combination of architecture, nature, and the arts is ever noticeable.
Within the walls
Place du Géneral da Gaulle greets the visitors before the gateway. Big plane trees cover the are where one can witness a game of pétanque or boules, a traditional French ball game. The way to approach the town is on foot. A tower and an arch receive the tourists, with a cannon pointing at the tourists. Not to worry, no fire will be shot on the eager tourists. The main road, rue Grande lines the town and connects the other narrow streets. The cobbles cover the street and lanes, in the shape of flowers in the Provençal fashion according to the instruction of its Mayor on the 1950s, Marius. Old stone cottages line the streets, with art studios, galleries, ateliers, restaurants, and shops.
- Grande Fontaine: The Place (square) where it is was once a market. The fountain was built in 1615 by Melchior Martin, a local stonecutter. This is an important landmark during the middle ages and listed as historic monument since 1850. It sustained a steady supply of drinking water for the village since it was built.
- Marie (the Town Hall): With its location near Place du Chateau and along with the other monuments in Place de l’Eglise, it is where the remains of the old keep are. The oldest of the monuments in St-Paul, it has a bell at the top of its tower with a Latin inscription, “hora est jam de sommo suggere.” It means “the hours invites us to dream.”
- Musée de St-Paul: It is on no. 2 rue Grande, inside the Tourism Information Office. This museum houses collections from artists in the village, particularly Marc Chagall, who was a resident from 1966. It hosts temporary exhibits of the artworks.
- Museé de l’Histoire Locale: Wax figures of historical persons like King François I and Queen Jeanne gather in this ancient village house to commemorate the history of St-Paul de Vence. Kids will surely enjoy the dioramas in costumes. Its location is across Place de l’Eglise.
- Eglise Collégiale: The village church is of prime importance to the ecclesiastical identity of the locals. Thus, this church serves as the center of the faithful since its construction from the 14th up to the 18th century. It preserves its choir and four pillars that date back to the Romanesque church. The Bishop of Vence raised it on collegiate status in 1666. The main attraction is the relics from catacombs in Rome on a chapel dedicated to St-Clement. It also houses some frescoes, baroque, and stucco art. One is a work by Tintoretto, The Conversion of St-Paul). They are precedents of Counter-Reformation art.
- Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs: Also called the Folon Chapel, after the Belgian artist who decorated, Jean-Michel Folon. It has a stained glass decor with mosaic arts and design. It is done with the artist’s collaboration with local craftsmen. Locate it around Place de l’Eglise.
- Cemetery: Surely not a very touristy place to visit, but still important because it is the place where Marc Chagall is laid to rest. He died in 1985, having lived in St-Paul for 19 years. It is also the place for the oldest church in the town, St-Michel Chapel, dated 12th-century.
- Auberge de la Colombe d’Or: There is a story where artists like Picasso, Léger, and Calder donated their art as payment for meals when they got broke after World War I. It is a hotel-restaurant across the Place du Géneral da Gaulles. It served as a meeting place for artists. Now it houses priceless pieces and collection of modern artworks that served as payments to settle long-running accounts. The owner then, Paul Roux was also friends with those artists. There is Calder’s mobile and Braque’s mosaics. Léger has a tiled mural that graces its terrace. The menu remains the same for 50 years, a restaurant gastronomique that serves traditional French cuisine. One must book ahead to get a reservation. A stay in the night is recommended to have a feel of the serenity of St-Paul without the tourists’ buzz and fuzz.
- La Sierra: A dining place just below rue Grande that serves assrortimént Provençal, pizzas, Niçoise specials. It has a pretty terrace garden along the western ramparts of the village.
- Café de la Place: a vintage brasserie for some cup of coffee and croissant. The Place du Jeu de Boules is the place to learn and play the game of boules or pétanque. It has a pre-lunch and pre-dinner drinks and homemade dishes.
- Le Tilleul: A place for proper dining with inviting tables on a broad terrace or in a cozy interior. It serves meals à la carte on three courses. They also have homemade pastries good for afternoon tea, coffee, or chocolate.
Fondation Maeght (fon-da-shon magh)
Signature artworks from modern masters belong to the collection of this art museum. The art dealer couple, Aimé Maeght and his wife Marguerite, were the owners of this villa that is also a mecca for modern art enthusiasts. Its inauguration was in 1964 and designed by Spanish American architect José Luis Sert. It has brick and white concrete and is ideal for displaying art pieces.
The museum is outside the walls of St-Paul de Vence. A 10 to 20 minutes walk from the town, on the wooded hills, among the dark pines, is what it takes to reach it. From the bus stop, see the signs that point to the way. Coming from the lower lot, a shortcut on a steep dirt path through the trees leads directly to the green gate in front of the ticket booth, The museum attracts over 200, 000 visitors each year.
SOME FEATURES AND ARTWORKS
Temporary exhibits are on during the summers. Indoor galleries show the collection in rotation. The only fixed installations are the sculptures standing on the ground.
- The cowled roof: It allows the sunlight to illuminate the artworks inside.
- Chapelle St-Bernard: Dedicated to the Maeghts’ young son who died of leukemia in the age of 11. George Braque designed it, and above the 12th-century Christ altarpiece, is a stained glass window of his creation. It is on the right coming from the entrance.
- Les Poissons (1963): A mosaic pool by Braque.
- La Vie (1964): A painting by Marc Chagall depicting human life on a tableau with swirling figures of dancers, musicians, acrobats, and clowns, made somewhat serious in tone by the theme of love, parenthood, religion, society, nature, etc.
- L’ete (1909): An artwork with inspiration from the Mediterranean. Oil on canvas painting by Pierre Bonnard. He was a close friend to Aimé.
- Olseau dans le Feuillage (1961): An artwork made of newsprint depicting a bird nestling in foliage by Georges Braque’s. He is influential to the building of the Fondation but did not live up to see its opening to the public.
- Les Renforts (1963): a “stabile” by Alexander Calder. It is a counterpart to his more common “mobile”.
- Cour Galcometti (1960): Slender human-like figures in the shady courtyard by Alberto Giacometti.
- Labyrinthe da Miró with the prominent Loiseau Lunaire (1968): a multi-leveled maze of trees, water fixtures, and gargoyles by Joan Miró.
Going to St-Paul de Vence
Nice with its airport is only 12 kilometers east. Bus #400 runs between St-Paul and Nice once or twice per hour. Car parking is only available in the Fondation and other car parks around the town, but not allowed in the town itself. Near towns are Antibes (16 kilometers) and Cannes (26 kilometers).
With the quintessential combination of art, heritage, and nature that not to be seen in the rest of French Riviera, St-Paul de Vence is a true bastion for rooted culture and astonishing sceneries.
Click this link to see the Tourism Offices information.
Please visit the official tourism website of St Paul de Vence.