The very first time I visited Vence was on my bike in 2007. I was staying in Nice and I had just begun my “73 Villages by Bike” challenge. Following the villages featured in a large, coffee-table book called Vu du Ciel: Villages – Des Alpes-Maritimes et du Va, my goal was to visit each of these 73 villages on my bike. Vence was not one of the featured villages (I suppose it’s too big) but Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Tourrettes-sur-Loup, Saint-Jeannet and Carros were. So one sunny summer day I left Nice and headed up towards Vence where it was easy to reach all four of these other villages.
As I cycled through the town I stopped at a large fountain, la Basse Fontaine, on the small ring road that circles the old town, to fill up my water bottles. I was impressed with the large basin and tall column of this lovely fountain and the cold, sparkling water that sprang forth from several spigots. Later, as I became more familiar with Vence I became fascinated with the numerous fountains sprinkled all over the town. From the well-known fountains like la Fontaine Peyra (featured on the home page of this website), la Fontaine Place du Grand Jardin, la Fontaine la Lubiane and la Fontaine Place Frédéric Mistral to the small fountains known mostly to the locals on the outskirts of town, the history and stories behind these sources of water (and life) intrigued me. I picked up several small brochures from the Office de Tourisme and started exploring, searching out every last one of the fountains in town and trying to learn as much about their history as I could.
The two oldest (and largest) fountains in Vence, la Fontaine Peyra and la Basse Fontaine, are celebrating their bicentennial this year. Both were designed by the same man in 1822 and both hold a special place in the hearts of the local residents, having served them continuously for 200 years. In fact, up until 1882 these two fountains, along with one other (la Fontaine Vieille), were the only sources of drinking water for the town of Vence. Let’s take a look at these two wonderful fountains and learn a little about their history.
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The Water in Vence
Vence is one of the oldest towns on the Côte d’Azur. Man has most likely been living in this area for as long as man has existed (see my article on the History of Vence). Neanderthal man was here for hundreds of thousands of years. Homo Sapiens were here over twenty-five thousand years ago. During the Neolithic period (the New Stone Age) the people living in this area began domesticating animals and growing crops. For thousands of years the Neolithic Ligurians lived here, hunting, grazing sheep and goats and farming wheat and corn. Sometime around 3000 BC, near the beginning of the Bronze Age, a warrior tribe known then as the Gauls (or Celts) migrated down from the North and the two tribes began to mingle and blend which gave us the Celto-Ligurians. One of the new tribes born from these unions was the Nerusii who were eventually conquered by the Romans around 14BC. For several hundred years Vence was an important Roman town known as Vintium.
One of the things that has always attracted man to this particular area is the abundant supply of fresh, clean water. Surrounded by three rivers (the Malvan, the Lubiane and the Cagne), Vence is also lucky enough to have two springs (the Foux and the Riou) very close by. These springs have been used for thousands of years to supply water to the residents of the town. A large limestone plateau just north of Vence filters the rain water that falls in the area and feeds the two springs. An aqueduct was built by the Romans in the 1st century to bring water from the Foux to the city and their thermal baths. Constructed by Javentius, during the reign of Nero (54-68), this aqueduct was later renovated and restored during the reign of Trajan (98-117).
The source of the Foux lies about three kilometers from Vence in the upper valley of the Lubiane river. In the early 1900s it developed a reputation for its exceptionally good water. A small pamphlet from 1925 touts the quality of the water and its “healing aspects,” claiming that it is good for the intestines, liver, kidneys and more. Fresh, slightly mineralized and low in sodium, it was said to have diuretic benefits. This particular pamphlet contains testimony from two doctors who declare that the water from the Foux will cure many ailments. People are said to have come from all over Europe to enjoy this extraordinary water. There was even some talk at one point of monetizing the Foux by bottling the water and selling it like Perrier, Badoit, Evian and others, though this never materialized.
Today Vence features over twenty fountains, spread out all over the town. Reaching from the center most sections of the old town to the very edges of the modern town, these fountains are all supplied with water by the Foux. It is still the two oldest fountains, la Fontaine du Peyra and la Basse Fontaine which receive the most attention.
Every year since 2007 during the month of May the fountains of Vence are celebrated with the Fête des Fontaines, a wonderful, lively little festival that demonstrates just how important these fountains are to the residents. Many of the fountains around town are decorated with fresh flowers and a musical parade passes from one end of the town to the other. Stopping at each fountain along the way a group of musicians, Lo Cepon, play traditional Provençal instruments to the delight of the crowd who follows along.
Fontaine du Peyra
What we know today as the Fontaine du Peyra (the Peyra Fountain) is found just next to the Place du Peyra as you enter into the vieille ville (the old town). Once known simply as la Fontaine Haute (the High Fountain) it has become one of the most recognizable and popular landmarks in Vence. It was classified as a historical monument in 1920. During the busy summer months families can be seen posing before the stone basin to have their picture taken. It’s quite possibly the most photographed landmark in Vence.
At night the city lights up the fountain with beautiful purple lights that reflect off the water to give the entire area a magical glow. A small metal plaque is affixed to the bottom of the basin with the name Fontaine du Peyra, the date of 1822 and the name of the architect, Etienne Goby de Grasse. Another similar plaque was added in 2022 to celebrate the 200 year anniversary of the fountain.
The current fountain was certainly not the first fountain to be built here, just inside of the Peyra Gate. The oldest of the five current gates (it dates from the 14th century) and the most impressive entrance into the old town, the Peyra Gate can be seen from the Grand Jardin and is where most tourists begin their tour of the old town. An earlier fountain, built in 1578, served the community for almost 250 years. It featured the coat of arms of the city as well as a fleur-de-lis above it and an inscription around the basin where the names of the council members were displayed. An even earlier fountain, possibly the first on this spot, dates from 1439 and was the work of Ribellini, a stone mason from Grasse. Sadly, no drawings or paintings are known to exist of either of these two earlier fountains.
Designed by Etienne Goby (who hailed from nearby Grasse) and built by the stonemason Joseph Faissolle (also from Grasse), this beautiful fountain consists of a large basin shaped like a four leaf clover and a grand urn which rests on two square blocks of stone in the center of the basin. Created in the style of Louis XVI the urn consists of six different portions featuring a variety of gadroons and grooves, a large interlacing belt and a pine cone gracing the top.
Eschewing the fancy, decorative, statuesque spouts that are often found in similar fountains throughout this region, here we have four simple, narrow metal spigots with small bulbs on the ends from which water flows from the urn into the basin. Metal rails run under each of the spigots connecting the outer walls of the basin with the base of the urn, providing a place to sit buckets or bottles as they are being filled with water. Carved into one side of the square base is the date of 1822 in Roman numerals (MDCCCXXII).
The fountain sits in a small little square, just next to the much larger Place du Peyra. On one side is La Tour, a large tower that dates back to the end of the 13th century and all that is left of the many defensive towers that once surrounded the village. The 17th century castle of the Villeneuve dynasty (now the Vence Museum) occupies another side.
Constructed with stone from the nearby Sine quarry, white and veined like marble, but harder, the fountain stands about 12 feet tall (almost 4 meters). The various sections of the basin are held together and reinforced with metal strips that can be seen on the top of the stones. Due to the slope of the ground one side of the fountain is slightly taller than the other. A large circle of flat stones circle the basin of the fountain distinctly marking its place in the square.
It seems however that this fountain wasn’t quite enough to satisfy the everyday needs of the community. Due to the height of the basin another small, lower fountain was built beside the wall of the tower next to it for animals. A small basin with two large spigots provides water near the ground where horses, mules and other animals once drank. Today dogs and children can be found most frequently enjoying the water which flows here.
Yet another small fountain can be found just around the corner, next to the Peyra Gate. This one seems designed especially for people to fill up bottles or from which to grab a quick drink. About chest high there are two more spigots here that empty into a vase like basin on the wall. It’s unclear to me if both of these additional fountains were built at the same time as the Peyra Fountain or if they were added later. Above the third fountain, attached to the wall, is a plaque with a complete breakdown of the mineral analysis of the water from the Foux.
Jacques Daurelle laments in his book Vence and its Monuments (1934) that the old fountains were not saved when the new ones were constructed. “What would it be if the city had known how to preserve its old fountains from the 16th century?” he says. “Undoubtedly, these monuments would arouse today more admiration than the reinforced cement basin placed to the left of the portal of the tower. How annoying that a simple and pretty stone basin from the Sine is not in the place of this cement basin the shape of a crow’s nest!”
It seems that before being built, this fountain (as well as la Basse Fontaine, for the two fountains were built together) was the subject of much debate and disagreement between the Municipal Council of Vence and the Sub-Prefect of Grasse. In fact, the Peyra Fountain was almost lost forever at this time. After almost 250 years of continuous use the older fountain which stood where the current one does now had fallen into disrepair and at a meeting in March 1820 the Municipal Council decided it should be removed and an entirely new fountain constructed in its place. Pipes would need to be repaired as well. It was also decided to do the same with the “lower fountain,” the one located just outside the walls of the old town in what is now known as Place Anthony Mars. An estimate was requested from Etienne Goby and the proposal was sent to the Sub-Prefect.
The Sub-Prefect in Grasse made several recommendations, one of which was to move the Fontaine Haute (as it was called then) to a new location as the “current location is not convient to take the animals there to drink.” The Vence Municipal Council firmly rejected this idea (thank goodness!) and in July of 1821 the designs by Etienne Goby were entrusted to Faissolle Joseph for the construction of both fountains.
In Vence and Its Monuments Jacques Daurelle recounts how on January 2, 1822 members of the Vence Municipal Council “met to sign a report, then closed and sealed in a small lead cassette with a few silver coins of the type of His Majesty Louis XVIII, King of France and Navarre, nicknamed the Désiré, to transmit to the most remote posterity the time of the construction of the aforesaid fountains and the names of all those who signed these minutes.” I would love to know exactly where this “cassette” is located! Is it buried near one of the fountains? Is it stored away in a hidden corner of the Vence archives somewhere? So far I haven’t been able to find any more information about it but I’ll keep searching.
In March of 1822 more money was allocated to repair the canals and pipes which lead from the spring to the fountains. In the end the city spent almost 8,000 francs (over 2,000 more than the original estimates) to build the two new fountains and repair the existing pipes.
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La Basse Fontaine
Both la Fontaine du Peyra and la Basse Fontaine were designed by the same architect (Etienne Goby), constructed with the same stone and built by the same stone mason (Faissolle Joseph). Both have almost identical basins in the shape of a four leaf clover. Both are approximately the same size (though la Basse Fontaine’s column is taller than la Fontaine du Peyra’s urn). Yet la Basse Fontaine has always been something of a “second cousin” to the more glamours and admired Fontaine du Peyra. It has never been declared a Historical Monument. The town doesn’t light it up at night in the same manner as the more popular fountain in the Place du Peyra. It doesn’t even rate its own article in the French Wikipedia.
Due to its placement on the very busy ring road which skirts around Vence old town la Basse Fontaine is seen by countless more people than the fountain in Place du Peyra and yet still, this charming fountain never seems to get as much attention as its more elegant partner. It’s true that the urn of la Fontaine du Peyra is more ornate and decorative than the simple column employed in la Basse Fontaine. To me though la Basse Fontaine has a clean, elegant simplicity that I find endearing. A tiered square base supports a tall narrow column of stone with a flat square capital. The stone column is interesting because it is made from just one piece of stone and very much resembles the two Roman columns that are displayed elsewhere in Vence. A small round ball crowns the structure.
Like la Fontaine Peyra an older fountain, dating back to 1539, once stood where the current Basse Fontaine is now. Being on the edge of town it served mostly as a water trough for the animals that worked in the fields and for travelers’ horses. Designed and constructed by Montanari, a stone mason from Biot, this fountain also featured the coat of arms of the city. Once again, we have no paintings or drawings of the earlier fountain.
Much like the Fontaine Peyra, la Basse Fontaine again features four simple metal spigots protruding from the square base that sits in the center of the basin. At the beginning of each spigot, where they emerge from the stone base of the column, they are surrounded by a circle of carved stone flower petals. Underneath one of the spigots the date 1822 is carved into the stone. Like the Fontaine Peyra a small metal plaque is affixed to the bottom of the basin with the name Fontaine Basse, the date 1822 and the name of the architect, Etienne Goby de Grasse. An additional plaque was added in 2022 celebrating the 200th anniversary of the fountain.
One difference between la Basse Fontaine and la Fontaine du Peyra is that the former features a fifth spigot. In addition to the four spigots that protrude from the base an additional one can be found on one side of the bassin. Supported by some decorative iron work it rises straight up from one of the corners of the bassin. A small grill sits in front of it making it easy to fill up bottles, jugs, buckets and other devices. Based on old photos and postcards I don’t think this extra spigot was part of the original design, it looks to have been added at some point in the last 100 years.
Of course both of these fountains have been the subject of countless photographs and paintings over the years. Raoul Dufy, a French painter with a colorful, decorative style, made a series of drawings, paintings and watercolors between 1919 and 1920 while in Vence. La Basse Fontaine was one of his favorite subjects, one he painted and drew numerous times. Next to the fountain you will find a small lectern with a reproduction of his work entitled “La Fontaine de Vence.” The original oil painting is now housed at the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Dufy produced many other drawings, sketches and paintings of this fountain, all of which display his slightly playful approach to the world around him.
Over the years la Basse Fountain has seen several changes. The fountain itself has remained exactly the same however its location has been altered slightly. In 1820 when the two fountains were being redesigned and rebuilt, the Sub-Prefect in Grasse suggested that the fountain be moved a little closer to the Place Vieille, “to give more freedom to public viewing.” The Vence Municipal Council agreed to this proposal (unlike the one to move la Fontaine du Peyra) and the fountain was moved a few meters down the road.
As you can see in the postcard above, another smaller fountain once existed just next to la Basse Fontaine. This one featured a much lower basin designed specifically for animals. In 1961 it was moved to la Place du Grand Jardin to facilitate better circulation along the road. When it was moved another section was added to the center of the fountain to raise it up higher and two additional spigots were added. You can see this current fountain in the photo gallery above.
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I’ve written an entire article about the fountains of Vence which features a walk covering twelve of the most interesting fountains in the town, including Le Lavoir, Place Frédéric Mistral, Passage des Pénitents Blancs, Place du Frêne, Place du Grand Jardin, Place Surian, Place Godeau, Rue de la Coste, Fontaine Vieille and more. The fountains of Vence are an integral part of the city. I, along with thousands of other residents, fill up bottles and jugs with the wonderful water from the Le Foux on a regular basis. I wouldn’t drink anything else.
What: la Fontaine du Peyra and la Basse Fontaine of Vence
Where: Vence (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: All Year
Phone: Vence Office de Tourisme: +33 04 93 58 06 38