I’ve written elsewhere on the site about most of the other chapels to be found in Vence. I’ve chosen to write a separate article about the Chapelle Saint-Raphaël because of it’s location. It doesn’t really fit into one of the two tours I put together for visiting the other chapels because it lies about five kilometers outside of the town. You can drive and park pretty close to the chapel, or if you’re up for a nice hike, you can walk the entire way. Either way you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful little chapel hidden away up in the hills above Vence. The Chapel sits on a small rocky outcrop, once the site of a Roman “castrum,” a small fortified military camp. Just a few feet away from the current chapel lies the ruins of a much older chapel that dates as far back as 1292.
[more info after the photo gallery]
La Chapelle Saint-Raphaël is accessible only by foot. You have the choice to either hike from Vence or to drive most of the way, park your car and finish the trip on foot.
Hiking: The hike is not very long, a total of about 9km round trip. The first 8km are on roads, only the last 1km runs through the forest. The route begins in the center of Vence at le Grand Jardin. Follow Avenue de la Résistance (the main road out of town) to the big roundabout. Go straight through the roundabout onto Avenue Foch, turn right on Place Marc Chagall and then left on Avenue Rhin et Danube (M2210A). Follow the M2210A until you come to a small road on the left named Chemin des Anciens Combattants where you will turn left. After a short distance you’ll see a small road on the right, Résidence les Oliviers. Here you can find the the remnants of a long forgotten chapel named la Chapelle Notre-Dame de Bon Voyage. Not much of it remains now and it is attached to a private residence. It is the oldest rural chapel in the Vence area.
Continue on Chemin des Anciens Combattants until it passes under the big bridge which traverses the Malvan River. Keep to the left and you’ll go up a hill and rejoin the M2210A where you’ll see some statues of giraffes on the left. Continue to the right (west) up a small hill and turn right on Chemin des Colles. Chemin des Colles will dead end into Route de Grasse, the M2210. Take a right at the stop sign and then an immediate left on Chemin des Cambreniers. You will see an old sign for the chapel immediately on your left, pointing up the Chemin des Cambreniers. Follow Chemin des Cambreniers for awhile as it twists and turns. It passes through a little “suburb” of Vence with some very nice houses and real estate. After about .8km you will see another old sign pointing to the chapel.
After about 1.2km you will come to a very steep portion of the road. Near the top of this steep portion the road begins to deteriorate and you will a sign clearly marking the direction towards Chapelle Saint-Raphaël. You’ll also find an official hiking balise, N°118. From this point follow the directions “The Final Ascent by Foot.”
By Car: Make your way to Avenue Rhin et Danube (M2210A) heading west out of town. After you cross the big bridge which traverses the Malvan River you’ll see some statues of giraffes on the left. Just past this intersection turn right on Chemin des Colles. Chemin des Colles will dead end into Route de Grasse, the M2210. Take a right at the stop sign and then an immediate left on Chemin des Cambreniers. You will see an old sign for the chapel immediately on your left, pointing up the Chemin des Cambreniers. Follow Chemin des Cambreniers for awhile as it twists and turns. It passes through a little “suburb” of Vence with some very nice houses and real estate. After about .8km you will see another old sign pointing to the chapel. After about 1.2km you will come to a very steep portion of the road. You can park near the bottom of this stretch or near the top where the road begins to deteriorate. At the top you will find a sign clearly marking the direction towards Chapelle Saint-Raphaël. You’ll also find an official hiking balise, N°118.
The Final Ascent by Foot: Regardless of whether you have hiked to this point or driven, you will now need to set off on foot for about one kilometer to reach the chapel. Just past balise N°118 you’ll see a tree with a yellow marking indicating that you should veer to the left up a steep rocky path that shortly rejoins the road. It’s really just a little shortcut and if you stay on the road itself it simply circles around and comes back to the point where the trail and the road meet up again. So, if you wish to bypass this steep little section of the trail, just stay on the road and you’ll come out at the same place in just a few minutes.
After just a few steps on the road you’ll come to a trail on the right. It is not marked with a sign, but there is a tree with a yellow marking that indicates you should turn to the right. Leave the road and take the trail. Very shortly you’ll come to another sign pointing to the chapel and balise N°117. On the left is a large cement structure, some sort of water processing plant maybe. Straight ahead is a large wooden beam across the road preventing vehicles from continuing. This is the main trail up to the chapel. It’s a very wide dirt trail with lots of rocks. Easy to navigate and follow. It’s not particularly steep, but it is uphill for almost the entire way. Another yellow marker on the tree indicates you are going the correct way. Keep an eye out for these markers, you’ll find them on trees and rocks periodically to confirm that you are on the correct trail to the chapel.
Balise N°116 appears shortly. There are two markers, one pointing towards the chapel and another pointing in the opposite direction towards Tourrettes-sur-Loup. Before long you’ll begin to hear the sound of the Malvan River in the distance. Depending on the time of the year and the recent weather the trail can be wet and muddy at this point. Crossing the river is very easy (unless there has been a LOT of rain). You can usually just hop right over it.
If you keep an eye out to the right you should soon see the ruins of the old chapel high on a rocky outcrop. You might not notice them unless you are looking. After almost exactly one kilometer you’ll come to a small little flat clearing. In front of you are mountains, behind you are the woods. To the right is a steep rocky path with black iron handrails that leads up directly to the chapel.
The Old Chapel
There appears to be some confusion about the ruins next to the current chapel. Some claim that these three stone walls are the remains of an old Malvan castle while others say they are what’s left of an even older chapel. To me it is quite clear that the second opinion is correct. When you come up the path that leads to the two chapels you’ll find the old chapel on the right. You’ll see the back of the chapel and if you climb up to it and circle around to the front you’ll have a nice view of what was once the interior. The entire roof is long gone, as is also the front side of the structure. The semi-circular shape of the building makes it clear, at least to me, that this was once a chapel. Given that it is the only old structure standing in the area I just don’t see how it could be considered to be part of an old castle. It’s far too small. Inside you’ll find a window on the left side and a very, very thick wall on the right side.
This old chapel is mentioned back as far as 1292. It served a small village, Malvans, which was quite important and which had the status of Municipality of Malvan. On the trail up, if you pay attention, you can sometimes see some remains of various structures from this old inhabitation.
The Current Chapel
While the old chapel certainly dates back to middle ages, the new one has been around for awhile as well. It is thought to originally date from the late 1400s, most likely founded by the Bishop of Vence at the time, Raphaël Monso, from which the name of the chapel is derived. Over the years it served as the parish church for the Lord of Malvan. It was renovated in 1988. Around the chapel can be seen signs of an old village and across the valley a short distance you can see the remains of the Malvan castle, said to have been inhabited by Jeanne, Queen of Naples and Countess of Provence in the 1400s. The chapel is closed to prevent damage but you can look through the door at the inside. It is adorned with a modern fresco painted by Philippe Roessler.
The chapel is maintained by a small organization called “L’Association des Amis de la Chapelle Saint-Raphaël” (The Association of Friends of the Chapel Saint-Raphaël). Founded in 1986, their goal is to maintain the traditions linked to the chapel and keep the structure in good shape. A small plaque can be found above the door which reads: “Donation from the chapel Saint-Raphaël made in worship 1866 by Mr. Bruno Court.” Another engraved plate on the side says, “Souvenir of Madame Ardisson 1879.”
Every year on June 24th, the feast of Saint John the Baptist, a large celebration is held at the chapel, organized by the Friends of the Saint Raphaël Chapel. A mass is said by the priest of the parish of Vence. Afterwards there is an aperitif followed by a picnic where dishes and deserts are often shared among the attendees. After the sun goes down a large fire is lit and everyone who dares, both young and old, makes a leap across the flames. Music is provided by local musicians and it makes for a fine afternoon and evening with family and friends.