Distance: 5 kilometers one way
Approximate Time: About 1 to 1 1/2 hours depending on your pace
This is a great hike for anyone, but especially for people who don’t hike a lot. It’s fairly short, fairly easy and there’s a lot to see in a very short period of time. It gives you the chance to do some hiking through the woods between Vence and Saint-Paul de Vence and then spend time exploring Saint-Paul.
The hike begins in Vence and heads down into a small valley where you cross the Malvan River. After crossing the river you climb up the other side of the valley (really, it’s not hard) and then it’s a leisurely stroll along the back roads into Saint-Paul de Vence. Carole had been wanting to make this hike for quite awhile, but with all the COVID-19 restrictions we just weren’t able to find time.
Finally, this past Sunday the current restrictions were lifted to allow us to exercise for up to three hours and to go up to twenty kilometers from our home. The weather was perfect, lots and lots of sunshine and blue skies and temperatures in the low 60s. So we set off from Vence in the early afternoon. Because this hike is so short you may choose to return the same way you came, or you can do what we did and take the bus from Saint-Paul back to Vence. Even though we only had three hours we had a truly wonderful afternoon and would highly recommend this little hike to everyone.
[more info after the photo gallery]
Starting from Vence
You can begin this hike from anywhere in Vence, but the Grand Jardin in the middle of town is a great place to start, especially if you’re not that familiar with the town. It’s easy to find and there is plenty of parking in the area. From the Grand Jardin walk down the main street that runs into town, Avenue de la Résistance, heading west (the only way you can go on this street). You’ll come to a big roundabout with numerous connecting streets, the main intersection of Vence. You want to head pretty much straight across the roundabout (with a tiny veer to the left) and follow Boulevard Emmanuel Maurel for about two blocks. You’ll come to the Chapelle Sainte-Anne on your right and you’ll turn right here on Chemin du Baric. Chapelle Sainte-Anne (also known as Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs) dates back to the 17th century and now houses the remains of an old lapidary museum, most noticeably some large Roman stones. Unfortunately, it is closed to the public except on special occasions so you won’t be able to see the inside. If you have any interest in chapels be sure to check out my article on The Chapels of Vence.
Across the street from the chapel is a large statue of Christ on the cross. Just next to that you’ll find a wooden “balise” indicating that this is part of an official hiking trail in France. Balise is French for “marker” or “beacon” and all French hiking trails are marked with numbered balises to help guide you. This one is number 140 and is part of the GR653A, a national trail which runs from Menton to Arles. We’ll only be on it a short time, but if you were so inclined you could hike all the way from Vence to Arles on this trail! The sign points to the right and says you can go to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, La Colle-sur-Loup or Tourettes-sur-Loup.
Once you turn onto Chemin du Baric the road will become fairly steep as you head down towards the river. It remains paved for about 1/2 a kilometer and then you’ll find several metal barriers across the road preventing cars from continuing any further. Past the barriers the asphalt ends and is replaced by very rough concrete which helps with the steep incline (especially if it is wet).
Crossing the Malvan River
It’s just another 1/2 kilometer to the river, but again, the path can be quite steep here so be careful. At the river you’ll see a small bridge and another balise, this one being number 141.
Depending on the time of year you are making this hike and what the weather has been like recently, the river might be anywhere between a little trickle or a huge roaring torrent of water. Cross the bridge and continue on the trail, which now turns up. Remember, what goes down must go up. As I said earlier, it’s really not that much of a climb, less than 1/2 a kilometer and not very steep.
Through the Woods
The woods are quite beautiful here with lots of thick, lush greenery, but the trail is very clear and it’s next to impossible to get lost. Keep an eye out for the typical French yellow paint trail markings on trees and rocks which will confirm that you are indeed on the correct path. Fairly quickly you’ll come to another balise, at about 1.75kms into the hike, this one being marked number 142. Here you have the option to turn right towards La Colle-sur-Loup or left towards Saint-Paul, which is, of course, what we want. Another bit of climbing and you’ll come to a road, the Chemin de Caude, at about the 2km point. The road is in very bad condition and the asphalt is very worn and full of holes and breaks, but it is still clearly a road. At this point the climbing is over and the trail levels off.
In about 200 meters you’ll come to another balise, but this one is not a part of an official hiking trail so it is not numbered. It simply shows the way back to Vence or the way ahead to Saint-Paul. Shortly the Chemin de Caude dead ends into the Chemin de la Sine and you’ll want to turn left here. A small sign will tell you that it is another 40 minutes to Saint-Paul (or 20 minutes back to Vence).
On to Saint-Paul
From this point on you’ll be walking along well paved streets into Saint-Paul. There’s not usually much traffic but be careful just the same as there are no sidewalks and there is sometimes not much of a shoulder on the road as well. I always walk on the left side of the street towards the incoming traffic so I can clearly see cars headed my direction from as far off as possible. The Chemin de la Sine will turn into the Chemin des Gardettes and you’ll begin to get some great views of the ocean in the distance. At the 3km point there is a large roundabout, just keep going straight through that.
It’s a pleasant walk and you’ll find lots of villas and houses to look at along the way. Some are old and some are new. Some look to be quite expensive and some look like they might actually be very reasonable. Carole and I had fun looking at the various residences and imagining what it would be like to live up there. A fantastic neighborhood, great views, quiet and serene. But, not really within walking distance of anything. You’d need to drive to get anywhere you wanted to go. Not much different in that respect from living in the suburbs in the U.S.
Shortly you’ll come to the Foundation Maeght, a very well-known, very popular art museum. You can’t actually see the museum from the road, but you’ll see signs for it and a small road which turns to the right. Just past this point the road you are on, Chemin des Gardettes, will split in two. Take the left road which remains the Chemin des Gardettes. You could take the right road, the Chemin des Trious if you wanted, it’s a bit longer and will get you to Saint-Paul as well, but I prefer the left road. It actually splits again with another road, the Chemin de Sainte-Claire on the left this time, and again I prefer to stay on the Chemin des Gardettes, but you can take the Chemin de Sainte-Claire as well.
From here it’s a very short hike into the small medieval village of Saint-Paul de Vence. On your left you’ll pass a big ornate iron cross, elevated on a large concrete base, with “Mission de 1857” engraved on it. Across the street is Le Prieuré Ste. Claire, The Priory of Sainte Claire. Just as the road opens up into the intersection in front of Saint-Paul you’ll find the Chapelle Saint Claire on your left. It’s a beautiful little chapel that dates from the 1400s. On your right is the main entrance to the village.
Saint-Paul de Vence
Here’s the thing about Saint-Paul de Vence. It really is one of the loveliest little medieval villages in all of France. It’s in remarkably good condition and a lot of care goes into keeping it that way. It’s full of little shops, boutiques and, most of all, art galleries. The buildings are adorned with beautiful vines and flowering plants. There are several restaurants including one of the most famous in the area, La Colombe D’Or, and cafés. It’s a great place to spend a morning or afternoon. I’ve written a more extensive article about the village of Saint-Paul which I would encourage you to also read.
But… I usually avoid it at all costs because it is almost always completely overrun with tourists. Especially during the summer months. And I do mean completely. They bus in huge loads of tourists from Nice, Antibes, Cannes, etc. because it is so beautiful and so close to the Côte d’Azur. The first time I ever visited the village I was on my bike and the place was so damned crowded I just left immediately. It kind of prejudiced me against the village (maybe a bit unfairly) for a long time. I’m only now beginning to realize how sweet it is if you can manage to get there when the crowds are not insufferable. On this day, just one day after the strict confinement ended, we had the place practically to ourselves.
That said, if you can find a time to visit when it is quiet, it is an absolute delight. One of these days I’ll write an article about the village, but for now just take your time to explore what it has to offer. Dating back to the 900s the town is an excellent example of a “fortified” village with its high ramparts that surround it entirely. In fact, it is one of the first bastioned fortifications built in France. Of note in the village is a local history museum, the Saint-Michel Chapel, the cemetery (where Marc Chagall is buried), a large tower that remains all that is left of an old castle, the Collegiate Church of the Conversion of Saint-Paul, the Holy Cross Chapel and much more. There are wonderful views of the valleys on both sides of the village and the sea to the south. The Office de Toursime is open almost every day, so you can find lots more information there.
Back to Vence
You can, of course, simply retrace your steps along this route back to Vence, basically doubling the length of the hike, and I have done that in the past. If, however, you have had enough hiking at this point there is a bus that runs from Saint-Paul back to Vence. It’s the 400 and it runs every day, including Sundays and holidays. It’s a popular route so there are numerous runs each day. The bus stop is on the main road connecting Saint-Paul with Vence, the D2/D7D. Just walk out of the village and look to your left and you’ll see it. The rate is currently 1 and 1/2 euros and you need to have exact change. When we arrived at the village we checked the schedule at the bus stop, decided which bus we wanted to take and then we knew how much time we had to spend in the village.
Also, note that you could just as easily make this hike from Saint-Paul to Vence if you’d rather do it that direction. You could then hike back to Saint-Paul or take the bus from Vence to Saint-Paul (same line, the 400).
Important Notes: This is a hike that can be done at any time of the year. I would avoid it if there is any sign of rain or if it has rained much in the previous 24 hours as the paths in the woods could be quite slippery. As always you’ll want to make sure you have good hiking boots and plenty of water. I would suggest at least one liter of water for this hike, more if you are hiking in the heat. You will NOT be able to find food and water anywhere along the hike, but again, it’s pretty short. The best time to make this hike in the summer is early in the morning when it’s the coolest, the best time in the winter is early in the afternoon when things have warmed up a bit. You’ll probably want a hat and sunscreen no matter what time of the year you go. During the spring and fall you might want a jacket and even gloves and a warm hat. You should always hike with a first aid kit, a good knife, a raincoat, a flashlight and a whistle. If you are hiking alone make sure someone knows where you are going and what time you should be back. I always wear an identification bracelet that I got from Road ID.
To get to Vence from just about anywhere in France you’ll want to take the A8 until you get to Cagnes-sur-Mer. If you are coming from the east get off on Exit 48 and if you are coming from the west you’ll want Exit 47. Take the M336, then the M36 and finally the M236 north into Vence. The best parking is the Parking du Grand Jardin, right next to the old town, and right beneath the large square where this hike begins. Parking Toreille and Marie Antoinette Parking are both close by as well.
The Office de Tourisme in Vence is open Monday to Saturday from 9AM to 12PM and then again from 2PM to 6PM. The office is located at the southwest corner of the Grand Jardin. The Office de Tourisme in Saint-Paul de Vence is open Monday to Saturday from 10AM to 6PM. It’s located just inside the village.