Over the centuries Vence has had a strong Christian presence as evidenced by the multiple chapels throughout and around the town. There are at least fifteen chapels that still stand and can be easily visited. To be honest, I didn’t even know most of these existed until not too long ago. Sadly, most of them are not open to the public on a regular basis so you may not be able to go inside. However, several feature grilled window panes in the door so you can at least get a peek of the interior. A couple are no longer even functioning as chapels at all and have been turned into garages. I’ve put together a tour that encompasses most of the chapels and broken it down into two sections because of the distances involved.
We’ll begin the first part of our tour at the Grand Jardin in the heart of Vence. The total walking distance is about 2.5 kilometers. You should allow between 1.5 and 2 hours to make this tour, depending on how fast you walk and how much time you spend at each chapel. In this tour we’ll visit the following chapels: Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, Chapel Saint Crépin, Chapelle Notre Dame des Missions, Chapelles du Calvaire (5 chapels) and Chapelle Saint Anne.
From the northeast corner of the Grand Jardin proceed towards the big Le Frêne (the famous old ash tree) on the edge of Old Town. At the Pharmacie du Frêne turn left and head down Avenue Henri Isnard. The Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs can be found on the left side of the street after about 200 meters. I’ve written a separate, more detailed article about this chapel, so make sure and visit that page if you want even more information.
Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs
Sitting right next to the Place Frédéric Mistral this is one of the largest, most well known chapels in Vence, dating back to the 13th century. One of the most impressive, distinguishing features of the chapel is the remarkable dome and bell tower, each of which is decorated with a multi-colored tiled roof made of polychrome glazed tiles. The dome features an octagonal shaped support with windows and a second, smaller “mushroom” like dome on top. The bell tower contains four large vertical windows in a full round arch, covered by another mushroom shaped roof. The chapel was renovated and restored in 1994 and is now used regularly for temporary art displays and exhibitions in conjunction with the Musée de Vence and the Fondation Emile Hugues.
Chapelle Saint Crépin
Travel further up Avenue Henri Isnard, which changes to Avenue des Poilus, until you come to a little six street intersection. Directly across the junction you’ll see one of the many fountains in Vence that serve fresh water from the Foux spring. Head up the road to the left of the fountain, Avenue Henri Giraud, which leads up to the Col de Vence. At the first corner on the left, Avenue des Alliés, you’ll find the next chapel, a very small, very old chapel that has now been converted into a garage. Except for the small cross that still remains on the roof you’d have no idea that this was once an important chapel. Saint Crépin is the patron saint of trades which relate to leather. The chapel is one of the oldest in all of Vence and inside there are traces of frescoes on the walls and a nice baroque-style stucco altarpiece. The floor is covered with glazed terracotta tiles of different colors. Outside another fountain is affixed to the wall.
Chapelle Notre Dame des Missions
Continue down Avenue des Alliés and shortly on the left you’ll find the Chapelle Notre Dame des Missions, a relatively new chapel in the town. Much more “modern” looking than any of the other chapels on our walk this one features a rather odd shape. There are several stained glass windows on the sides that are the work of the master glassmaker Ernest Boursier Mougenot. Unfortunately, to date I have been able to find very little information about this chapel and its history. The only reference to it that I can find says that it is a “deconsecrated chapel, inhabited by an individual.”
My friend Steve pointed out that this structure bears a very strong resemblence to the Chapelle du Rosarie de Vence designed by Henri Matisse (more about that later). The white stucco facade, the vertical stained glass windows, the wrought iron cross on the roof. I wonder if there is any connection? And my friend Michel told me that this chapel was for sale at one point not too long ago and that he was able to take a look inside. At the time the chapel was being used used as the entrance lobby of the pink building adjacent to it, which was still under construction. However, the owner was selling the chapel as a separate unit. Michel said there was really not much to see, just one large room with very poor lighting and one small bathroom. Absolutely nothing was left that would have indicated the structure could have been a chapel once except for the very narrow stain glass windows.
Chapelles du Calvaire
At the end of Avenue des Alliés you’ll turn left on Avenue Humbert Ricolfi. You go over a short bridge and then turn right on a small street named Chemin du Calvaire. Follow this road up a little hill and to the left and then make a hard left when it comes to a dead end. Here we find the remains of a remarkable collection of what was once a group of eleven chapels known as the Chapelles du Calvaire. Built in the early 1700s by Canon Honoré Blanc at the behest of the then current bishop of Vence, François de Balbis de Berton de Crillon, these chapels (one large one and ten smaller ones) were intended to portray and retrace the stations of the Calvary of Christ. Each chapel housed polychrome statues that were about 1.5 meters tall. This set of statues, of which there are around 50 and which are very unique in France, were created by local artists who were not experienced in statuary art.
The first chapel you see on your left is one of the ten smaller chapels built to accompany the “Grand Chapelle du Calvaire,” which you’ll find just a few steps down the road on the left. The large chapel is also known as the Notre Dame de Larrat and is attached to an old priory that is currently in a state of serious decay. It had a bell tower at one time which has now disappeared. The Grand Chapelle is currently being restored with plans for it to house the polychrome wooden statues in a permanent exhibit for everyone to see and enjoy.
Only four of the ten original small chapels now remain and they are very much in need of restoration and repair. Built in the traditional Provençal style they have undergone numerous hardships over the years due to wars, the French Revolution and then finally, in 1905 when the French government expropriated them from the church. By 1989 several of the small chapels had disappeared and the others were in the process of being destroyed or used for storage. Today they are almost completely swalled up by the large apartment complexes that surround them. They were classified as an Historic Monument and, at least for the time being, rescued from destruction.
Because of the deteriorating conditions the statues were removed from the buildings and put into storage for safety. They are now being kept at Notre-Dame de la Nativité, the cathedral in the Old Town of Vence. It is possible to visit them though you should check on the hours that they are available for viewing, as it changes during the year. The statues themselves were also classified as an Historic Monument in 1997. The small chapels don’t look like much from the outside, but inside of them you’ll find some marvelous old fresco paintings. You can’t go inside but it is very easy to see through to the interior of each via a slatted window on the door. Supposedly the small chapels are set for repair and renovation, but as of now there is no sign that that work has begun.
Chapelle Saint Anne
Follow Chemin du Calvaire down to the next intersection and turn right on Boulevard Emmanuel Maurel. Shortly you’ll arrive at the Chapelle Sainte Anne on the right. Consecrated in 1617, it was once known as the Notre Dame de La Pitié and Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs, and was built at the request of the Bishop of Vence, Pierre du Vair. Placed under the protection of Our Lady of Sorrows, the chapel now houses the remains of an old lapidary museum, most noticeably some large Roman stones. In front, across the street, is a large statue of Christ on the cross.
The original function of this chapel was to house the confraternity mothers of Vence. It began as a simple rectangular building but two smaller chapels were added to the sides to form the shape of a cross. The one on the left is dedicated to Saint Joseph while the one on the right to Sainte Anne. A large carved wooden altarpiece formed of fluted columns between which are arranged painted and sculpted scenes can be found in the choir. It dates back to 1700. The three-bay window, the bell tower and the stained glass windows were added in 1871. Each year Mass is celebrated in the chapel on July 26 and it is often opened for tours on European Heritage Days in September.
For part two of our chapel tour you can either make your way back to the Grand Jardin or simply begin there. This portion of the walk is considerably longer than the first, totaling about 7.5 kilometers. You should allow at least 2 to 3 hours for this walk, again depending on how fast you walk and how often you stop at each chapel. You might even prefer to drive this route instead of walking. In this tour we’ll visit the following chapels: Chapelle Sainte Bernadette, Chapel Saint Pons, Chapelle Sainte Elisabeth, Chapelle Saint Lambert and Chapelle Sainte Colombe.
From the Grand Jardin head down Avenue Marcellin Maurel and turn right at the Basse Fontaine on Avenue Colonel Meyere. On your left you’ll see what looks like a large apartment building but, in fact, was once a hospital. Dating back to the 18th century, it now serves the population of Vence as a retirement home. There’s a very small sign that points to the left and says “Chapelle Ste Bernadette.” It’s easy to miss, so keep an eye out for it. You’ll pass into a little courtyard and on your left is the next chapel.
Chapelle Sainte Bernadette
It took me a while to find the Chapelle Saint Bernadette the first time I went looking for it. I was expecting another “stand alone” chapel and just didn’t see anything that even resembled such a thing. Eventually I realized that the “chapel” was actually a part of the larger building. In fact, it was once known as Chapelle Saint Jacques, taking its name from the hospital building it shared. Once you are inside the courtyard, on your left you’ll see what looks like a typical chapel door and some windows in the side of the large building. The chapel features some interesting furniture and a gilded wood Virgin from the 18th century. It was updated in the 19th century by the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. Like the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs it is often used for art exhibits these days.
Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs
OK, don’t spend too much time looking for this one, as it no longer exists! Across the street, not far down the road, the Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs once stood. Built in 1643 at the request of Monseigneur Godeau it was demolished in 1912 to allow for the passage of the Vence-Cagnes tramway. At one point it was run by the Sisters of Nevers. Unfortunately, I can’t find much information about this historical structure, which is a shame.
Chapelle Saint Pons
From here it’s just a short little walk down the street to the Chapelle Saint Pons. It’s right across the street from the current library/media center and you’ll see a small fountain on the side wall. Dedicated to the Patron Saint of mule drivers, breeders and herdsmen it dates back to the 1500s. Sadly, it is no longer being used as a chapel, but instead another garage! Unlike the similar Chapelle Saint Crépin which at least has a cross still fixed to the top, there is nothing to give any indication that this was once a chapel.
Chapelle Sainte Elisabeth
It’s a bit of a walk to our next chapel. Continue down Avenue Colonel Meyere and veer to the left at Chemin de la Pouiraque. Follow this all the way down to where it connects with the M36, the main road down to Cagnes-sur-Mer at which point it turns into Chemin Sainte-Elisabeth. One short block later you’ll find Chapelle Sainte Elisabeth on your right, at the intersection of Ancien Chemin de Saint-Paul. It’s a beautiful little chapel situated on a nice piece of land that has now been listed as an Historic Monument. The Vencoise peasants made Saint Elisabeth the protector of their countryside.
Built in the shape of a rectangle, the chapel consists of two parts: the main section, which is decorated with frescoes, and a covered entranceway. A broken arch separates the two sections and it is fitted with a wooden grate which allows us to see inside. A masonry altar inside is only partly original, but there is a stone font (un bénitier) which dates from the original construction. Most of the rural chapels from these times featured a covered porch like this which was used by travelers for shelter and rest as they journeyed from one town to the next. The chapel is built in the Romanesque style and dates back to the 14th century.
Inside you can see beautiful frescoes adorning the vault. The frescoes were painted by Jacques de Canavesi, an itinerant painter from Turin, Italy in the 15th century. They were lost for many years, covered with a thick layer of whitewash, only to be discovered in 1924 during work on the chapel. Behind the altar is a trompe l’oeil altarpiece portraying the meeting between the Virgin Mary and her cousin, Saint Elisabeth. The chapel also features a small bell tower with polychrome tiles similar to (and most likely inspired by) the Chapelle des Pétinents Blancs where we started our tour. The bell tower, not an original feature on the chapel, was added sometime in the 1800s. Mass is celebrated in the chapel once a year on the Monday following the first weekend in August, after which there is usually a neighborhood party.
Getting to the next chapel on foot is a bit of a hike. Here’s what I do. From Chapelle Sainte Elisabeth go back about a short block to where Chemin de la Pouiraque connects with Route de Cagnes (M36). Head left (north) on Route de Cagnes for just over 1km until you come to a roundabout. Turn right on Chemin de la Gaude. You’ll turn left at the second street, unfortunately I can’t find a name for it! Then make a right turn on Chein du Poutaouch and stay to the right when the road splits. Now comes the fun part. At the end of the road you’ll find a trail that heads down the hill. It passes a few houses and after a short time you come to Chemin de Vosgelade. Turn right here and the Chapelle Sainte Lambert is just a few steps up on the left.
Chapelle Sainte Lambert
Legend has it that the Chapelle Sainte Lambert was built near the place where Saint Lambert, the bishop of Vence from 1114 to 1154, liked to sit, meditate and pray. Apparently the spot was very close to a spring from which Saint Lambert liked to drink and it gained a reputation for working miracles. A chapel was built and it soon became a popular pilgrimage for the devoted. The original chapel no longer exists, it was replaced in 1881 and is now one of the most recent rural chapels in the area of Vence. It sits on a small piece of land surrounded by cypress trees.
The new chapel was built by volunteers in just two months. Some say almost everyone in the town contributed in one way or another wishing to show devotion to Saint Lambert who also just happens to be one of the two Patron Saints of Vence (along with Saint Véran). Monseigneur Terris, the bishop of Fréjus, was called upon to inaugurate the new chapel, as by this time Vence no longer had a bishop of its own. It was restored in recent years by a small association and a Mass is held on May 26th each year, after which a neighborhood party and meal ensues. The door to the chapel is covered with a fine metal grate but I was able to press my iPhone camera right up on one of the tiny little holes and take a photo of the inside (which is definitely not visible to the naked eye)!
When you’re finished exploring the Chapelle Saint Lambert head north on Chemin de Vosgelade. When you cross over the Lubiane river, keep to the right on Chemin du Fort Carré. Turn left on Chemin de Sainte-Colombe and you’ll find Chapelle Saint Colombe just a bit down the road on the left.
Chapelle Saint Colombe
There are records of Chapelle Sainte Colombe that exist in archives from the 12th century, making it one of the oldest in not just Vence, but the entire area. Said to be consecrated to a dead Spanish virgin in Cordoba it was built near the old Roman road Julia Augusta that ran from Cimiez in Nice towards Auribeau. It also lies on a medieval path that led to Saint Jeannet. The building features a very simple design, again with a sheltered entrance that was used by travelers. Sometime in the 17th century a bell tower was added, this one too with polychrome tiles most likely inspired by the Chapelle des Pétinents Blancs. The chapel is attached to an old priory that is today a private residence. It was restored in 2004 thanks to a small “friends of the chapel” association. Today the group holds a mass each year followed by a fair in the adjoining fields.
To get back to Vence simply continue on Chemin de Sainte-Colombe for a little over 1 kilometer. You’ll once again cross the Lubiane river and almost immediately on your fight you’ll come to a steep winding little road, Descente des Moulins. Take that up and you’ll end up back near La Frêne.
There are two more important chapels in Vence, one of which may just be the most famous of them all. La Chapelle du Rosaire was designed by the famous artist Henri Matisse, who lived in Vence for many years. The Matisse Chapel (as it is also called) is important enough to warrant its own article.
Finally, we have La Chapelle Saint-Raphaël which is a few miles outside of town, up in the hills behind Vence. You can read all about La Chapelle Saint-Raphaël and how to get there (either by car or hiking) elsewhere on the site.
What remains of the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Bon Voyage is located on Chemin des Anciens Combattants near the edge of Vence on the way to Tourrettes-sur-Loup. This old stone chapel, formerly owned by the White Pentinents, is in ruins and now attached to a private house. Certainly it is the oldest rural chapel in the Vence area. Unfortunately, there’s not much to see at this point.
There are a few “private” chapels as well, chapels that now lie in the hands of private owners:
Chapelle Saint-Martin is a small, modern chapel located on the grounds of the very ritzy Château Saint-Martin a luxury spa and hotel that looks out over Vence from the road to the Col de Vence. It is said to be built on the location of an original chapel inside the old Templar castle.
Chapelle des Crottons, now called Notre Dame des Fleurs, is part of the Château Notre-Dame des Fleurs, another fancy château which has been transformed into a meeting and event center. The chapel has been restored and features stained glass windows by Jean Pierre Raynaud.
I found one reference to a Chapelle Saint-Croix that is now private property. Unfortunately, I can find no information about its history or location.
Gone But Not Forgotten
Chapelle Saint-Pancrace (sometimes known as Chapelle Saint-Michel) was destroyed in 1926. It was located near where the current Miramar Hotel now stands, close to the football field. It is said to have dated back to 1610.
Chapelle Saint-Pierre once sat on rue Henri Isnard (then known as rue du Béal). It was part of an old Priory and was about 10 meters long. Because it was in ruins and protruded out from the line of houses, what was left of it was destroyed sometime in the 1950s. There is a small, private garden near where it used to stand where some millstones and whetstone still remain.
Chapelle Saint-Laurent was located inside the castle up on the Baou des Blancs. Only ruins remain today, but we know that it had a rectangular section and a small semi-circular section that was partly closed by two small walls.
That’s it! If you’re ever in Vence I hope you will follow one or both of these little tours and see the chapels for yourself. If you’re far, far away dreaming of a warm, sunny afternoon exploring the South of France maybe this little “virtual” tour will tide you over until you can actually come and visit us.