By Cheryl Anderson
Saint-Paul de Vence is a commune in the Alpes-Maritimes department in southeastern France. A stunningly beautiful medieval perché, one of the oldest medieval towns, has long been considered a jewel of the French Riviera. Although widely known for the restaurant Colombe d’Or, that’s been there for almost 100 years, and the art museum Fondation Maeght, a short stroll from the village, you’ll find there is so much more to offer. A day in Saint-Paul de Vence is a day well spent!
A long ascending cobblestone ramp and steps take you up into the walled ancient village. Straightaway, you’ll notice myriad gift shops and galleries selling works of art. Historically, it’s a village that attracted artists, so it makes sense that art still plays an important part in today’s Saint-Paul de Vence. Artists such as Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse came under the spell of the village, reflected in the treasured works of art on display throughout Colombe d’Or.
Today, there’s quite an eclectic mix of art to choose from in the many shops. Quirky sculptures are a particular favorite among the local artisans. More than once I wondered, as I peered into the shop window, “Where in the world did they get the idea?” But, as I well know, art appreciation is subjective.
If chapels interest you, and they do have their historical charm, Saint-Paul de Vence is certainly a place to explore. As if spilling into the intersection, the first chapel you see as you drive into the town is the sixteenth century Chapelle Sainte-Claire. Sainte-Claire is the patron saint of Saint-Paul de Vence.
Other local chapels are Notre-Dame de la Gardette, Saint-Charles/Saint-Claude chapel (the newest since 1695), and Saint Roch chapel, on the road to La Colle in the city’s Fontmurade. The Saint-Etienne chapel is on the territory of La Colle-sur-Loup. Chapelle Saint-John, in the neighborhood of Malvan, has since disappeared, St. Peter’s chapel on the old road to Vence is in ruins, and Consolation chapel is destroyed.
Chapelle St. Michel, built before the 12th century, is the oldest of the chapels. It sits in the small cemetery located south of the city, lying within the city walls, but outside the city walls built by François I. The artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is buried there. In the Middle Ages, people from the community assembled in this chapel. The chapel and cemetery are definitely a must see!
Now called the Folon Chapel, opposite the History Museum in the city’s center, is the 17th-century Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs. nside the chapel, are stained-glassed windows, paintings, sculptures, a baptismal font, and mosaic murals covering the walls designed by the Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon. Although he lived in Monaco, Folon had a thirty-year association and collaboration with the craftsmen of Saint-Paul de Vence.
The light in the chapel adds to the atmosphere creating a sanctuary of light and serenity—it’s well known that Folon was fascinated with light. Music plays in the background, adding to the peaceful ambience, while graceful arching overhead, arched alcoves along the walls, and curved lines throughout add to its serene atmosphere.
Sadly, Folon was never to see the chapel finished. After his death in 2005, the work in the chapel was completed posthumously by an Italian mosaics studio and master glassmakers from Chartres. It took approximately 8 craftsmen two years to complete, reopening in 2008. It was his last design project and the last chapel in the Midi to be decorated by an artist.
The pale golden color of the other buildings in the village appear to glow when seen from afar. Great care and upkeep have kept them beautiful. Small rocks are imbedded in cement (or some other compound) with flower designs in the cobblestone pathways winding throughout the village. I hadn’t remembered the rock designs from my previous visits. Imagine the work to do such a thing—ages!
I was in Saint-Paul de Vence last September under sunny blue skies. Where to have lunch is always an important decision, and there’s no shortage of restaurants to choose from. Colombe d’Or? I’ve loved each visit, but last year I went down memory lane, being it had been 25 years since I started to travel to the Côte d’Azur every year. I chose to have lunch at La Petite Chapelle. The first time was in 1994. It’s located just beyond the pétanque field and down a gently sloping hill. Nestled off the beaten path, overlooking the valley and beyond, it sits away from the congestion of people and cars. A relaxed atmosphere remains, just as I remembered, and the food was still excellent.
Pétanque, the traditional French sport, continues to be played on the same tree-lined hard-packed field where film stars of yesteryear and other notable celebrities tried their hand. Today, you may catch a game in progress. There are boules artfully mounded in an open cement container under a plane tree for anyone to use. It’s tempting to pick up a boule and toss!
There’s a lot to see and do in Saint-Paul de Vence, from its wide range of shops and restaurants offering delicious French cuisine to the pleasure you’ll find walking around a stunningly beautiful ancient village and ramparts with panoramic views. For the historians among you—you won’t be disappointed!
Chemin de Nice, Saint-Paul de Vence
Open daily, 8 am – 7:30 pm
La Petite Chapelle
6 Chemin de la Fontette, Saint-Paul de Vence
+33 (0)4 93 32 77 32
+33 (0)4 93 32 86 95
Guided tours available upon request
Place de l’eglise, Saint-Paul de Vence
Open daily 10 am – 12:30 pm and 2 pm – 6 pm (1 May to 30 September); 10:30 am – 12:30 pm and 2 pm – 4 pm (1 October to 30 April)
Tours of all sorts can be arranged here