If your birthrite is a majestic hill within sight of the landing of Saint Paul on the shores of the Mediterranean, If you are blessed with a magical landscape and nature at its most generous giving rise to orchards, grapes and olives, truffles and honey, If your neighbours are Cannes and Monte-Carlo and celebrities adore you, If fortune smiles upon you with the best light in the Mediterranean so Matisse and Picasso and great artists flock to you, and if your fountains and wash-houses have been blessed through history with water from an aqueduct from Vence,
Then you are a prized jewel in the crown of the French Riviera and your name is Saint Paul de Vence – and more than two million people come to visit you each year. 2000 years of evolution created this jewel from the early Ligurian tribes who erected a fortress on the hill then called Plateau de Saint Puy, to the Saint Paul de Vence that invites you to visit today.
One of the finest medieval towns on the French Riviera, it is celebrated for its contemporary art museums and galleries such as Fondation Maeght which is located nearby. The town is located just 15 minutes’ drive from the Mediterranean on top of a large hilly mound on which a Roman oppidum was built, followed by a medieval castle dominated in the Middle Ages by the Counts of Provence. In the 16th century, King Francis I ordered to built the impressive city walls and fortifications that still stand today.
In the 19th century, the artists started to arrive, attracted by the light and the beautiful architecture of the village. Paul Roux, owner of the future Colombe d’Or Hotel (the very famous hotel and restaurant at the entrance to the village), decided to house some artists for free in exchange for some of their paintings.
Through the 20th century, actors, artists and novelists made Saint-Paul into the lively cultural centre that you will find when you visit. The streets of Saint-Paul de Vence were actually earth until the beginning of the 1950s, when Mayor Marius Issert had them overlaid with cobbles positioned in floral patterns in the Provencal tradition – and wow did that make a difference. It is beautifully done – worth a visit in itself.
The 1950s and ’60s were when the village came into its Golden Age. Saint-Paul became an amazing film set with Jacques Prévert, Henri-Georges Clouzot and André Cayatte. James Baldwin and Marc Chagall lived in the village for almost 20 years.
What to do in this jewel? Immerse yourself in art or history or both just by walking through the town – it happens naturally. Let Hello Monaco guide you on a walk through Saint Paul de Vence. Soak up the history and art as you walk. Medieval walls encircle narrow streets and capture the heritage of more than a thousand years. Seven landmarks to cover will be an enjoyable hour well spent.
Place du Jeu de Boules beneath the ramparts at the entrance to the village
A celebrated square lined with century-old plane trees. Yves Montand and Lino Ventura played hotly disputed games of pétanque here.
The Café de la Place stands on one side: its terrace is the perfect spot for taking in the ambience. Try its inexpensive Table d’Hote lunch after your walk. You will have plenty of money left over. The famous Colombe d’Or is on the other side of the Place. Lunch here is a little pricey but what is the price of an unforgettable experience – following on the heels of its regulars who included the greatest artists of the 20th century: Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Folon, etc.
Continuing your walk follow the ramparts, climbing towards the fortified inner part of the village, and enter by the Porte de Vence.
La Porte de Vence and the Ramparts
This awe-inspiring, majestic gateway and the ramparts are still intact from their historic origins. The entrance is also protected by a tower with sneaky hidden openings to pour boiling oil on invaders. Turn right and take in the panorama of Saint-Paul’s countryside, source of grapes and olives and truffles and honey, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. Enter the cemetery.
Several centuries old Cypresses shade the grave of artist Marc Chagall, who spent the final years of his life in Saint-Paul.
Leave the cemetery through the Porte de Nice and take Rue Grande. Take the time to browse along Rue Grande, the beating artistic heart of this cultural mecca. Wander into artist studios, art galleries, boutiques and craft shops. Gallery windows display works by Chagall, César, Koons, Niki de Saint-Phalle and a host of other brilliant artists. You are in nothing other than an open-air gallery – a kaleidoscope of art.
Hover for a while on this little square, rejuvenated by the tinkling sound of water in the fountain and then on to:
Place de la Grande Fontaine
This was once the market square. Enjoy the coolness of the air in the vaulted washhouse where washerwomen would gather to scrub and beat their washing.
Place de l’Eglise
Turn right, up Montée de la Castre – a love story awaits – Number 2 is the house that Simone Signoret lovingly shared with Yves Montand. Continue to Place de l’Eglise, the highest point in the village
This square is edged with monuments that are jewels from Saint-Paul’s illustrious past: the keep of the château now the “Mairie” (town hall) of Saint-Paul, the Church of the Conversion of Saint-Paul from the 14th and 16th centuries, and last but not least the Folon chapel.
Perhaps you are looking for a more active visit and a more casual ambiance. Then HelloMonaco suggests you do the medieval town walk before lunch.
Eat lunch at Cafe de la Place, inexpensive good hearty food and cheerful ambiance. And then walk or cycle it off after lunch on a path that starts between the ramparts and the restaurant “La Petite Chapelle”. There is an outstanding view over 2 hectares of terraced vineyards. Continue walking among fragrant citrus trees and bitter orange trees, with scented flowers. And you will pass century-old olive trees and fig trees. From courtine Saint Mître, admire the 80 recently planted truffle oaks. Follow the pines along courtine Sainte-Claire to courtine Sainte-Trinité. From here you can gaze at the rocky cliffs and the mountains of the Mercantour National Park. In the summer season cicadas will come out to sing to you their unique song of passion. A healthy walk, no guilt after a hearty lunch, take courtine Saint-Sébastien to return to the village.
If you have children then a game of Pétanque and a visit to the History Museum will keep them happy. The staff in the “Musee” are child-friendly. The kids will be welcomed and kept happily busy discovering all of the personalities who contributed to the history of Saint-Paul: François I, Vauban, Jean de Saint-Rémy. And, of course there is always an ice-cream treat close at hand.
Eat, drink, walk and be merry, perhaps buy at the many upscale boutiques and soak up the art and history in this jewel on the French Riviera – Saint Paul de Vence beckons.