Walking through the “old town” of any small French village is like taking a trip back in time. Most of these villages were founded hundreds and hundreds of years ago and Vence is no different. The town has been settled since prehistoric times when it was the main center for a Ligurian tribe. Everywhere you look you will see traces, remnants and reminders of all the years that have passed since then. The Roman occupation (when the town was known as Vintium), the middle ages, the Renaissance, the French Revolution. Vence has seen it all and you can revisit some of that history with a short walk. Load this page onto your phone or tablet and take a stoll with me through the French village that Carole and I call home. If you’ve never been to Vence hopefully these photos will give you a glimpse into what makes this town so special.
We’ll visit over two dozen of the most historical and cultural spots in old Vence. Depending on your pace, how many photos you take and how often you stop, it should take you about an hour to an hour and a half to complete the walk. Much of this information is taken from signs that are posted on the walls near the various sites we’ll visit. I’d suggest that you also stop by the Office de Tourisme and pick up a map of the village which has most of these same points listed. The map will make it easier for you to find the next stop along the way.
Place du Grand Jardin
We’ll begin our tour just outside of the old town, in the “Place du Grand Jardin” (Big Garden Square). Located at the heart of the city it’s an important landmark that many residents feel has been neglected in recent years. Many of us “newcomers” have wondered about the name. When Carole first saw it, she said, “Well, it’s certainly not a garden, that’s for sure.” And it wasn’t. For many years this central square was nothing more than just a large piece of dirt used for markets, concerts, games and more. However, centuries ago it was the location of a famous garden owned by the Barons of Villeneuve. Over the years it has been transformed numerous times. It’s been a park, a parking lot, a market and much more. In 2019 the city decided to give it a facelift, adding trees, landscaping and other improvements. You can see the work being done in the photo above. It’s scheduled to be completed in February 2020 and we’re all eager to see how it turns out.
On the north side of the square you’ll find a Roman column which dates from the 3rd century. The column is made out of grey granite quarried from the Esterel, an area west of Vence near Cannes and Saint-Raphaël. It was a gift from the people of Marseille and is actually one of a pair of “twinned” columns. The other column can be found in the Place Godeau. For many years the columns were located in the Cathedral, but in 1767 they were moved to their current locations. There is a dedication at the base of the column and interestingly enough each line begins on the “left” column and continues on the right. So, if you want to read it, assuming you can read Latin, you’ll need to run back and forth between the Grand Jardin and Place Godeau. Or take a couple of photos and place them side by side.
You’ll also find one of the most utilized fountains in the city, the Fountaine Place du Grand Jardin. Situated very close to the Roman column it features two basins, one for humans and a lower one for animals. Locals can be seen at almost any hour of the day filling up bottles, buckets and other containers with the clean, fresh spring water.
Next: On the opposite side of the north east corner of the Grand Jardin you’ll see Henry’s Bar. From there, if you look straight north, you’ll see the giant Ash tree that is our next stop.
Le Frêne (The Ash Tree)
Located just outside Le Porte du Peyra, in the Place du Frêne, this huge Ash tree is said to be almost 500 years old! Legend says that it was planted to commemorate a visit to Nice by King François 1st in 1538 following the Truce of Nice. Apparently, some of his entourage at the time were accomodated in Vence and to show his appreciation he made some improvements to the town, most notably the planting of this ash tree. Several years ago it was thought the tree was in danger and it was dramatically trimmed in hopes of saving it. It seems to have worked as it now seems to be flourishing again.
Next: It’s just a very short walk north of the Ash tree to The Belvédère Fernand Moutet.
Belvédère Fernand Moutet
Just north of the ash tree you’ll find a wonderful scenic overlook that provides one of the most magnificent views from Vence, a panoramic scene of the Baous and the valley of the Lubiane River. If you look carefully, almost straight across the valley, you can pick out the famous Rosary Chapel (look for the white and blue roof), designed by Henri Matisse. There is another fountain here, one which was originally a baptismal font from the 11th century.
Next: Looking back towards the Ash tree from the belvédère you’ll see the castle on the left, just before the big tower.
Le Chateau (The Castle)
The castle was built in the 17th century under the Villeneuve dynasty, who at the time were the Counts of Provence and the Lords of Vence. The Villeneuves established themselves in Provence during the middle ages and then became co-Lords of Vence in 1231. They remained an important part of the history of the Vence region up until the French revolution. It is situated on the western rampart of the city and is today the home of the Musée de Vence (once known as the Fondation Emile Hughes). Originally built next to the 13th century guard tower (which the castle later annexed) it exists on three levels, typical architecture for a large Provençal building of the time. Emile Hughes, a former Minister of Justice and Secretary of State for Finance and Economic Affairs in France, also served for a time as the mayor of Vence. He purchased the castle and donated it to the city in his will, after his death in 1966. It has been used as a museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art since 1992.
Next: You’ll see the Tower at the south end of the Castle.
La Tour (The Tower)
One of the highest structures in Vence, “La Tour” dates back to the end of the 13th century. Today it is all that is left of the many defensive towers that once surrounded Vence. The western side still retains its original appearance with arches that indicate an inner stairway. It’s no longer known where the original entrance was situated and the foundations for the tower are thought to be several meters below what we see as ground level today. In the 17th century the Villeneuve family annexed it to their castle, despite protests from the townspeople.
Next: Just south of the Tower, on the left, you’ll find the impressive Peyra Gate.
La Porte du Peyra
Today you’ll find five major “gates” into and out of the old town. The Peyra Gate is perhaps the most famous and certainly, to me at least, the most majestic. Just around the corner from the Grand Jardin it represents the passage from the modern town into the old medieval village. In its present form it dates from 1582 though a different entrance certainly existed well before that. For many years I rented an apartment in the Peyra Place and I so looked forward to seeing this passageway when I arrived back in Vence, knowing that I was “home” again.
Next: Just inside the Peyra Gate is the Peyra Fountain.
La Fontaine du Peyra
The current fountain was erected in 1822 on the site of a previous fountain that dated back to 1578. Up until 1882 this fountain was one of only three sources of drinking water in Vence. The other two being the Fontaine Vieille (Old Fountain) and the Basse Fountain (Low Fountain). The water you will find in the Peyra Fountain comes from the Foux, a famous spring on the outskirts of Vence that has been celebrated for centuries. Next to the fountain, high up on the wall, you’ll find a large stone sign that details all the minerals found in the water. At night it is beautifully lit so if you have the chance swing by after dark and take a look.
Next: Just past the fountain you’ll find yourself in the Place du Peyra.
La Place du Peyra
Long ago the Place du Peyra served as a Roman forum. In later years it was used as the market square and place of assembly for the village. City affairs were debated and discussed here and executions were performed as well. For many years a large tree graced the center of the square but it was removed in 2005 when the square was restored and embellished because it was said to be diseased. Some residents felt the tree was removed to give more room for outdoor dining. During the summer months you will find the square filled to the brim with tables from the many restaurants that call it home.
Next: On the North-East side of the square you’ll see a small, narrow little street, now home to a variety of shops and vendors.
La Rue du Marché
It’s hard to believe that at the beginning of the 19th century this little street had almost no shops. It was used mainly for stables and kitchens for the homes that populated it. Today it is a small but very vibrant market street. You’ll find a produce vendor, a cheese store, a fish market, a wine shop and many other small stores.
Next: At the other end of the little market street you’ll find another “gate” into and out of the old town.
The arched passageway that you will find at the end of the market street was not one of the original “gates” to the city. It was opened in 1863 to give villagers another way into the old town. Originally called “Le Pontis” it was renamed “Alsace Lorraine” in memory of the Eastern provinces of France that were lost in the war of 1870.
Next: Pass through the passageway and out onto the street.
Today it is known as Avenue Marcellin Maurel, the main street that wraps around the south side of the old town, but years ago it was called “Faubourg.” The street is built directly over the old ditch defenses that surrounded the city walls. It wasn’t until 1333 that houses built along the outside wall were allowed to have windows facing outwards. And then, only if they were protected with fencing. The street was originally lined with large plane trees but these were cut down in 1910 when a tram was introduced in Vence. For quite some time traffic on the street ran in both directions, but in 2012 the city decided to widen the sidewalks and make the street one way. A year later they reversed the direction of traffic on the street.
Next: Go back in via the passageway and walk just a few feet to the north. You’ll see the Place Surian on your right.
This small square is now the home to several popular restaurants. At one end is a small fish and spice market. It takes its name from Jean-Baptiste Surian who was the Bishop of Vence from 1728 to 1754. The square was created in 1787 after the demolition of some old houses and for many years it housed the old City Hall. If you look closely you can see a door-lintel with a coat of arms of the town: “Azur with a silver tower with five battlements of sandstone.” You can also read the town’s motto: “Turris Civitatis Vincii.” The horns are a sign of prosperity.
Next: Back to where you entered the square you’ll find yourself looking into an even larger square, Place Clemenceau
Previously known as Place Mirabeau, this square in the center of the old town, was renamed Place Clemenceau in 1791. It houses the current town hall which was inaugerated in 1911 and was built on part of the site of the former Episcopal Palace. A statue entitled “Vençoise” by the Canadian sculptor Jim Ritchie graces the center of the square. The south side of the square is lined with restaurants and boutiques. Town flea markets (vide greniers) are often held here in this square.
Next: On the west side of Place Clemenceau is another “chateau,” much smaller than the one we saw earlier.
Le Chateau “Intra-Muros”
The Intra-Mural castle was the home of the Barons of Villeneuve within the walled town. In the 13th century it was the site of the “Episcopal Palace” which was destroyed in 1910. In the inner courtyard you’ll find three Renaissance mullioned windows. The emblem on the façade represents the arms of the Barons of Villeneuve: “Gold with six spears.” The spears are there to remind everyone of the victories over the Moors during the Spanish wars. Under Charles VIIth these weapons evolved into the “fleurs-de-lys” and then into a golden shield.
Next: If you are facing the Chateau Intra-Muras, on your left is the Cathedral.
This Cathedral is dedicated to “Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité,” The Mother of Nativity. It dates back to the Roman era, the 11th and 12th century. It was built on the ruins of an ancient Merovingian church which was destroyed by the Sarrazins. The site originally housed a Pagan temple in ancient times and was dedicated to Mars or Cybèle. Inside the church you will find tombs and relics of Saint-Véran (from the 5th century) and Saint Lambert (from the 12th century). There are fragments of a Gallo-Romain sarcophagus and some Carolingian sculptures. Marc Chagall created a large mosaic for the Cathedral in 1979. Connected to the side of the Cathedral you’ll find the Saint Lambert tower which dates from the 12th century. You might think it’s part of the Cathedral, but in truth it’s not.
Next: Stop at the entrance to the Cathedral and notice the two old stones with inscriptions, one at the base of each side of the Cathedral doors.
At the entrance to the Cathedral there are two stones, one on the left and one on the right. The stone on the left reproduces the dedication from the city of Vintium in honor of the Emperor Gordien the IIIrd. It dates back to the year 239. The stone on the right shows the dedication in honor of the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix, also known as Elagabal. It was engraved in December 220.
Next: Between the Cathedral and the Town Hall is a passageway that leads to two beautiful arches.
Le Passage Cahours
Before the new Town Hall was built in 1910, the old Bishop’s Palace was joined to the side of the Cathedral by a bridged corridor supported by arches, similar to the one still standing at the north end. One could pass over the central yard of the Bishop’s Palace by two corridors, one in the south, the other in the North which is now the only remaing bridge dating from the 14th century. The Cathedral still bears the “scars” from the former bridge corridor on its walls. This photo was taken at dusk just as the lights were coming on in the street behind the arches.
Next: Along the East wall of the Passage Cahours you will see numerous engraved stones.
Along the Passage Cahours, embedded in the western wall of the Cathedral are several stones from the Roman times. They represent funeral dedications to people known to the inhabitants of the village. The fifth stone shows a dedication made by a Roman soldier of Vence, Lucius Veludius, to his wife Vibia Paterna, the daughter of Mucius.
Next: Proceed through the arches onto the small street known as Rue de l’Évêché.
La Pierre du Taurobole
This particular stone is marked, “Valeria Marciana, Valeria Carmosyne and the priest Cassius Paternus celebrated a “tauroble” (sacrifice) in honour of other Idaea.” This stone evokes on one hand the cult of Cybèle and on the other hand Mother “Idaea,” the Great Mother of the Gods of Mount Ida. A name which comes from Asian legends connected to this goddess. It is the meeting between the Cretan tradition and the Eastern civilizations.
Next: Proceed through the arches onto the small street known as Rue de l’Évêché and turn right. Very shortly you’ll come to an iron gate on the right through which you can pass into a very small courtyard.
La Cour de la Prévôtê
This structure was the former residence of the Prevôte, an assistant to the Bishops. The yard was directly linked to the Cathedral in the 13th and 14th centuries. You can see the cradled arches and the door of the former provost’s house which can also be seen from inside the Cathedral. It offers a combination of flamboyant Gothic and 15th century Renaissance motifs. There is also a wonderful Lombardy frieze over the stairway to the bell tower.
Next: Go back out of the courtyard and turn right on Rue de l’Échêvé.
La Place Godeau
This square, situated at the back of the church, was formerly home to the old Vence cemetery. The cemetery was cleared out in 1780 and moved farther outside of town. It contains the second Roman column donated to the city by the people of Marseille (the first one is located in Place du Grand Jardin). On the north side of the square there is a house with an authentic 13th century “twinned arched” window. From this square you have an excellent view of the back of the Cathedral with its apse and crenelated bell tower. The bell tower dates to the 12th century, although it was rebuilt in 1887 after an earthquake struck the area.
Next: Look on the West side of the square for the small street Rue des Portiques.
Rue des Portiques
This narrow little street takes it name from the arches built in the middle-ages by the residents in order to gain space to benefit their homes. As you walk down the street you’ll pass under two such “passageways” with houses up above. In Roman times this street was part of the the route from Cimiez (north of Nice) to Castellane and Digne. There remains today, on the left of the entrance to the street, a “Renaissance” style gate, dating from 1524.
Next: At the end of the rue de Portiques turn left and walk to Rue Saint-Véran. Turn right and pass through the Porte d’Orient out onto the street.
La Porte d’Orient
This gate is also not an original entrance into the city. It was opened in 1760 by Monseigneur Moreau so that he could easily reach the Great Seminary. In 1787 the town was compelled to modify the gate so that Monseigneur Pisani of La Gaude (the Bishop of Vence) could reach the gate without getting out of his carriage. If you look above the gate, to the left, you will see a stone underneath a window sill that dates back to 1592. It marks the place a cannon ball hit the wall during the siege by the Protestant Lesdiguieres.
Next: If you are outside the old town and facing the Porte d’Orient, turn to your left and proceed down Avenue Marcellin Maurel towards the tall fountain you will see on the left.
La Place Antony Mars
This small square sits on the Eastern edge of the old town, where Avenue Colonel Meyere connects with Avenue Marcellin Maurel. At this point it really isn’t much of a “square” anymore, more of a large intersection. It’s most prominent feature is the Basse Fountaine.
Next: You can’t miss the Basse Fontaine.
Situated in the Antony Mars square you’ll find of the most majestic fountains in Vence. Originally built in 1539 it was redesigned in 1822 by the renowned architect Etienne Goby de Grasse, the same architect who designed the Fontaine Place du Peyra. The two fountains share a few similarities including the large base (designed to allow farm animals easy access to the water) which is exactly the same on both. However, the tall, center column of the Basse Fontaine, a round Roman column supported by a rectangular base with a small ball at the top, is completely different than that of the Fontaine Place du Peyra. The fountain is graced with four main spigots protruding from the center column and a fifth placed at the edge of the base, along one of the quatrefoils, which allows for easy access to water. If you look closely you’ll find the date 1822 is carved into the rectangular base.
Next: Directly across from the fountain you’ll see another gate into the old town.
La Porte du Signadour
This gate dates from the 14th century. It was known as the “watchtower gate” and it was used as a lookout post over the horizon during troubled times. The tower no longer stands, but the gate remains.
Next: Pass through the Porte du Signadour and walk one block up. On your right you’ll come to Rue Saint Lambert where you’ll turn right.
“L’Enfer” and la Rue Saint Lambert
This part of the old town was once known as the “hell district.” I can’t find any information about why that was. Today it’s a lovely little section of town that certainly feels like a medieval street. At the corner of Impasse Saint-Lambert is a “cippus,” an inscription carved into a block of stone, on the wall. It was erected by the city in honor of Publius Cornelius Licinus and is a reminder that the son of the Emperor Gallien and his mother Salonine stayed in Vence in the 3rd century. Across the street, at Number 5, is a beautiful restored house featuring a window with diagonal ribs and shields.
Next: Continue down Rue Saint Lambert until you find yourself once again in Place Godeau. Turn left down Rue de l’Évêché and then right on Rue du Séminaire. The first street on your left is Rue de la Coste.
Rue de la Coste
This is my favorite street in all of Vence. To me it’s just perfect. A narrow little street in old town with wonderfully preserved houses. The inhabitants have placed a lot of plants and flowers along the sides of the street and it just looks so charming. Beginning in 1333 the inhabitants of Vence were permitted to build their houses against the inside of the town walls. This helped to preserve many of the walls that surrounded the city, especially those on the north side of town. Of special interest on this street is the house at N°38 with its corbelled balcony built over the street.
Next: Continue down Rue de la Coste until you come to the last gate of the old town.
Le Portail Levis
The “Drawbridge Gate” is the oldest gate of the town, dating back to the 14th century. Along the Roman road there were three gates. Originally this gate had a square tower and side-hinged drawbridge on the ground floor, but the tower was demolished in 1819. The street that runs in front of the gate and along the north side of the town, Boulevard Paul André dates from 1832. If you look along Boulevard Paul Andre you can still see the battlements, filled with many arrow-slits, some of which have been partially filled in over the years.
That’s it! You should now be able to see La Frêne and from there it is easy to find your way back to the Grand Jardin. I hope you’ve enjoyed this visit to Vence old town, whether you’ve completed it on foot or virtually. If you’ve visited Vence I’d love hear from you about your experiences here.