I’ll admit that for many years I was unfair to the historic village of Saint-Paul de Vence. I wanted nothing to do with it. Though it lies only a few kilometers from Vence, and is one of the most popular villages in all of France, I avoided it like the plague. Why? The first time I visited the village was in the summer of 2012 when I was completing the first round of my “73 Villages by Bike” challenge and Saint-Paul was one of the villages on my list. As I cycled into the small, historic village I was overwhelmed with the crush of tourists. It was insanely crowded and all I wanted to go was get out of there as quickly as I could. Carole and I went for a visit later that same summer and I again found it just swarming with tourists. Because Saint-Paul is so close to Nice, Antibes and even Cannes, tourists are bused in by the hundreds, if not thousands, each day during the high season. It certainly looked like a lovely village but I was just so put off by the sheer number of tourists that I had little interest in returning.
My disdain for the village continued for many years. Only in the last year or so have I come to appreciate the village for what it is. Yes, it is maddingly crowded during the summer months but if you visit it during the off-season its charms are much more apparent and much easier to appreciate. I’ve hiked from Vence to Saint-Paul several times over the last year (it’s only 5km) and each time I’ve enjoyed the town more and more. I visited it recently on a sunny winter morning and was surprised to find I had the entire village almost entirely to myself. What a difference that makes.
Perched on a rocky spur (like so many of the “perched villages” of the Alpes-Maritimes) just a few kilometers from the sea, the views from Saint-Paul of the Côte d’Azur coast are magnificent. The village itself is almost fairy-tale like with it’s immaculate narrow streets, beautiful houses, buildings and impressive ramparts. Because the main commerce is tourism the town really puts a lot of work and effort into maintaining everything aspect of the village. I would certainly encourage you to pay a visit if you haven’t in the past. Just try to go at a time when it won’t be too crowded.
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A Little History
The very early history of Saint-Paul is lost to us now, but most experts think the town as we know it was probably settled sometime in the 10th or 11th century, making it one of the oldest medieval villages on the French Riviera. Certainly the area was inhabited long before that by various native tribes before they were conquered by the Romans. A castle was probably built during the middle of the 12th century. In 1388, when Nice broke away from Provence to become part of Savoy, Saint-Paul found itself in a very strategic military position near the border.
In 1418 Saint-Paul was declared a “Royal Town” and placed under direct control of the then King of France, Louis III. This made the village very important from both a military and administrative standpoint. The famous ramparts, almost entirely intact to this day, were constructed by Francois I between 1543 and 1547 after repeated attacks on the village by the troops of Charles V.
Early in the 20th century Saint-Paul began to attract a wide range of famous artists and painters. Drawn to the town by the location, the beauty of the well-preserved medieval village and especially the remarkable light of the region, artists like Matisse, Chagall, Renoir and Modigliani became frequent visitors and residents. But it wasn’t just the painters. Writers, filmmakers and movie stars vacationed or lived in Saint-Paul. Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, two of the most famous French film stars of their era met in Saint-Paul in 1949 and were married there two years later. Bill Wyman, the bassist for the Rolling Stones, has lived in Saint-Paul since 1971. James Baldwin, the famous American writer, lived here for the last 17 years of his life.
A Walk Through The Village
A walk through Saint-Paul is a journey through time. Everywhere you turn, everywhere you look, history presents itself to you and beckons you to abandon the present and dive deep into the past. A natural place to begin a tour of the village is at the Porte de Vence, sometimes known as the Royal Gate. Dating back to the 14th century, this imposing passage was modified and improved at the same time as the ramparts. To get there you’ll need to park and then enter Saint-Paul from the north end, just off the main highway (the D2/D7D) that runs from Colle-sur-Loup to Vence. A small road will take you past a few modern shops (Fragonard and l’Occitane), the famous hotel La Colombe d’Or and an old washhouse on your left and the Café de la Place on your right.
Straight ahead is a large covered passageway with an old cannon, le canon Lacan from the 16th century, guarding the entrance. Just after the passageway is the Porte de Vence and above it the Tour à Machicoulis, one of two large towers that once protected the entrance at the northern end of the village. After you pass through the gate you’ll turn right immediately onto rue de la Cour which lead up to the western ramparts. Note that the Office de Tourisme, is located just past the gate but straight ahead, so if you want to stop for a map and some information, this is the time to do it. (You can also download a map and tour at the end of this article.) Then just walk back a few steps and turn up rue de la Cour.
When you reach the end of rue de la Cour turn right on the large street that runs along the ramparts. The large Place Neuve (once known as Place de Marché) is a wonderful place from which to view the valley below with its enchanting array of grape vineyards, citrus trees, olive trees, mimosas, palm trees and cypress trees. The World War I monument is located here and you’ll also have an excellent view of the Tour à Machicoulis, originally designed for crossbowmen to inhabit and defend the village.
Walk south along the ramparts and admire the views to the west. After a very short distance you’ll come to a set of stairs that will allow you to climb even higher up onto the ramparts. A narrow ledge runs along the wall and it’s not hard to imagine villagers atop these barricades centuries ago defending their homes. Be warned though, the ledge is fairly narrow, it is fairly high up and there is no guardrail on the inside. If you’re afraid of heights, you definitely want to stay away from this!
Either by way of the road or the high ramparts continue until you come to the southern end of the village. Here you’ll find, just outside of the city walls, and through another ancient entrance to the village (Porte de Nice), the old cemetery where Marc Chagall is buried. A map outside the cemetery entrance shows exactly where Chagall’s grave is, so it’s easy to find. I found it covered with coins, painted rocks and other small trinkets. The cemetery is also home to the Chapelle Saint-Michel, the oldest chapel in the Saint-Paul area, dating back to the 14th century.
Back inside the walls you can climb back up on the southern ramparts at the Point de Vue (viewpoint) for more magnificent views of the area including the Malvan Valley. On a clear day in the winter you can see the snow capped peaks of the Alpes in the distance. If you enjoyed the walk along the high edge of the western wall there is a similar one here on the eastern side.
Since the ramparts of the village are one of its most important (and famous) attributes I think a little more information about them is necessary. Creating an approximately 1 kilometer perimeter around the village they look much the same today as they did when they were originally designed by Jean de Saint-Rémy an expert in his time on fortifications. In fact, these ramparts were the first in France to be designed by a French architect. When they were first constructed it required the demolition of dozens of houses along the edges of the village. Over 400 residents found themselves suddenly homeless and were forced to look elsewhere for new homes. Nearby Colle-sur-Loup and Roquefort-les-Pins were settled by these Saint-Paul refugees.
The famous French military architect Vauban came to inspect the fortifications in 1693 and again in 1700. After a period of neglect the ramparts were restored in 1832. Here’s a fun little historical tidbit: in 1870 the ramparts were sold at auction (how is that even possible?), but fortunately they were bought back just two years later due to some intense negotiating by the then mayor of the town. In 1945 the ramparts were classified as an Historic Monument.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
The main street through town, rue Grande, runs from south end of the village to the north. Once an ancient Roman road, it links the town’s two gates that at one time provided the only entrances into the village. As you begin to stroll down the narrow walkway of cobblestones you’ll find the art galleries, boutiques and shops that Saint-Paul is so famous for today. You’ll also see the beautiful and very well preserved facades, doorways and windows of numerous ancient buildings and houses, many of which date back to at least the 16th century. Above some of them you’ll see dates announcing their creation and sometimes coats of arms from the families that originally inhabited them. Bougainvillea plants and other vines grow wild all over the village and you’ll find one example after another where they creep along the stone surfaces of the buildings and cover them with color and vibrancy. Lovely stone staircases are everywhere, tempting you to follow their timeworn steps to who knows what. Take the time to look down once in a while, you’ll find some really beautiful designs in the cobblestone streets.
Very shortly you’ll come to la Placette, a small square from the 1600s that radiates with charm. There’s a small fountain and wash basin at the front of the place just begging to be photographed. As you continue down the street you’ll pass by the le Pontis (a bridge house from the 15th century) and la Grande Fontaine (a large fountain built in 1850 by Melchoir Martin) located in the main square of the village where the market was held centuries ago. Behind the fountain is le lavoir (the washhouse) where for hundreds of years women washed clothes.
At the fountain you’ll leave the rue Grande and follow the small street, Descente de la Castre, up and to the right. Take the first right and then the first left and you’ll come to Place de l’Église where you’ll find the Town Hall which now resides in a dungeon that dates back to the 7th century, perhaps the oldest structure still remaining in the village, and all that is left of the original castle. The top floor of this building contains a very old clock and a bell that dates back to 1443. Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner were married here at the Town Hall in 1984.
Église Collégiale (Collegiate Church)
One of the real highlights of the village is the Église Collégiale de la Conversion de Saint-Paul, a large church located in the center of the village on the highest point of land. It took almost 400 years to build this church, from the 14th century to the 18th century, with more being added on over time. The church contains a variety of treasures and furnishings including a pulpit and stalls carved from walnut. In 1739 the original bell tower collapsed and what we see today was built the following year in 1740. Interestingly enough, when the bell tower was rebuilt it was moved from the left side of the church to the right and also made taller. Inside the church, at the far right end, is the Chapelle Saint Clément which was added on in 1681. It features a Baroque décor with frescoes and colored stucco.
Next to the Town Hall is the Musée d’Histoire Locale, a small museum that celebrates the town’s history and traditions.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs
Just across the street is one of the most impressive monuments in Saint-Paul, the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs sometimes also known as la Chapelle Folon. Constructed in the 17th century the chapel served as a meeting place and the start of religious processions. It has a very interesting 3-sided bell tower and is today decorated inside with artwork and murals by Jean-Michel Folon, a Belgian artist who nurtured strong links with Saint-Paul for over thirty years. The theme of his work is charity, exactly what the white penitents stood for hundreds of years ago when they were formed to help the poor and less fortunate.
Folon’s large murals are gorgeous, but for me the most amazing part of the chapel is a huge mosaic (106 square meters) that portrays the village with over one million small pieces of stone, each approximately 1cm square. It’s a stunning work of art and the colors are absolutely beautiful. The chapel is open throughout the year, from 10AM to 12:30PM and 2PM to 6PM during the high season and 10:30AM to 12:30PM and 2PM to 4PM during the rest of the year. Cost is 4€, with a reduced price of 3€. A guided tour is 7€. The ticket also gives you access to the Musée d’Histoire Locale.
From here head over to the eastern ramparts and make your way to the former home of Jacques Prévert, a famous French poet and filmmaker. It’s one of the most beautiful houses in Saint-Paul and today the front is covered almost completely with vines. Somewhere I have photos of Carole sitting in front of this house on four different visits over the course of ten years. If you now head up to the northeast end of the village you’ll find the Tour de l’Espéron, a large tower and former prison. From here you can head down rue de Prison to the Place du Tilleul and the Gate of Vence where we began our little tour.
As you head back out of town take a few minutes to notice the Place des Ormeaux which is almost always full of pétanque players and la Colombe d’Or, the famous hotel and restaurant which houses a fabulous private collection of 20th century art by likes of Picasso, Matisse, Dufy and many others. These artists all traded the founder of the hotel, Paul Roux, paintings for room and board back in the first half of the 20th century when a tram line ran through Saint-Paul on the way from Cagnes-sur-Mer to Vence. You might want to stop at the Fragonard shop on the main street. Primarily a perfume store you’ll also find all kinds of clothing, housewares, bags, gift boxes and more here as well.
Finally, on the road at the edge of town you’ll find the Chapelle-Sainte Claire. Dating from the 15th century this little chapel is dedicated to the patron saint of the Saint-Paul countryside. It was here, in front of the chapel, that famous visitors were greeted by the mayor and town officials in days gone by. There are at least eight other chapels in the Saint-Paul area, if you have an interest in seeing some of the others visit the French Wikipedia site and you’ll find more information.
The Saint-Paul tourist office offers several themed guided tours including: “Heritage,” “In The Footsteps of Chagall,” “The White Penitents’ Chapel,” The Fondation Maeght,” and even one designed to teach you how to play pétanque. Prices are 7€ for each guided tour, children under 12 are free.
La Fondation Maeght
The Maeght Foundation is a fascinating “museum” dedicated to the collection of modern art and contemporary paintings and sculptures. It’s about a 20 to 30 minute walk from the village of Saint-Paul and is definitely worth a visit if you have the time. The building itself, constructed of brick, concrete and glass and designed by architect Josep Lluis Sert, sits on a large piece of wooded land. The entire complex was specifically designed to give it the sense of a “living space” rather than the cold, distant and impersonal feel of so many museums. In fact, the literature goes out of its way to say that “La Fondation Maeght is not a museum.” Works by Calder, Chagall, Braque, Giacometti, Miró, Léger, Kandinsky, Matisse and more are housed in the permanent collection. Outside you’ll find a stunning collection of sculpture works including ones by Miró, Giacometti and Calder in the Sculpture Garden. Don’t miss the mosaic pool by Georges Braque.
It is open every day of the year, from 10AM to 6PM during most of the year, but until 7PM in July and August. Cost is 16€ with reduced prices for groups, students and under 18s. Under 10 years old is free.
Saint-Paul de Vence is located between La Colle-sur-Loup and Vence, about 15 minutes from the A8. You can take the 400 bus from Nice or Vence for the cost of just 1.50€. There is a large parking lot, Parking Indigo, just outside the village on the road to Vence. The Office de Tourisme (located at the northern end of the village) is open from 9AM to 6PM from April 8 to September 30. The rest of the year it is open from 9:30AM to 5PM. Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays it is open from 10AM to 5:30PM. Of course, be sure to check online ahead of time as they hours can change. You can find lots of information about the village in the Office de Toursime and on their website listed below.
What: The village of Saint-Paul de Vence
Where: Saint-Paul de Vence (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: All year
Phone: Office de Tourisme – 04 93 32 86 95
Download a PDF brochure (in English & French) with information about the village and a map.