If you stroll through Vence on any given day you are likely to find people waiting in line to fill containers with fresh water from one of the many fountains that are located throughout the town. Since the middle ages Vence has been known for the high quality of its water. Surrounded by three rivers (the Malvan, the Lubiane and the Cagne), our town is also lucky enough to have two springs (the Foux and the Riou). The springs and rivers supply a multitude of fountains that can be found throughout the city.
For many centuries the presence of plentiful water was often a source of envy and conflict in southern France. Farmers, of course, depended on water for their crops and ordinary citizens required a good, clean and consistent source of water for their everyday needs.
The most well known spring in Vence is the Foux, which has been in use since the time of the Romans. Located on the northwest side of town, close to the Lubiane, the spring is first mentioned in a text from the year 98AD. It is this spring which feeds most of the fountains in the city today. You will find the words “La Foux” carved into to the top of many fountains, certifying that the water is indeed from the spring.
Altogether there are well over twenty fountains sprinkled throughout Vence. No matter what part of town you find yourself in you are never very far away from a fountain with cool, fresh, invigorating water.
I’ve put together a walk between twelve of the most interesting fountains spread over the central portion of the town. Depending on your speed and how much time you spend at each fountain, the walk should take between sixty and ninety minutes to complete.
Fontaine Place du Peyra
8 Place du Peyra
Known today as the Fontaine Place du Peyra (due to its location at the entrance to the Place du Peyra, a small square in the Old Town portion of Vence), this fountain was once known as the “Haute Fontaine” (High Fountain) in conjunction with another large fountain found at the other end of the Old Town which was known as the “Basse Fontaine” (Low Fountain). The current fountain was designed by the architect Etienne Goby de Grasse and has been in place since 1822 when it replaced a previous fountain that had existed since 1578. The first fountain on this same location dated back to 1439. Circular in shape, the fountain has a large column in the center with four spouts that allow water to fall into a sizable basin. The ornate column in the center of the fountain was inspired by the style of Louis XIV, with flutes, grooves, an interlaced belt and a large pine-cone on the top.
Next: At the far end of the Place du Peyra turn right on Rue du Peyra and then left on Rue de la Place Vielle. Continue to the Rue de la Coste. Here, immediately on your right, you will find the next fountain.
Fontaine Rue de la Cost
1-11 Rue de la Coste
This small fountain, found in the Old Town where the Rue de la Place Vielle intersects with the Rue de la Coste, is one of the few fountains in Vence that is not flowing continuously. A simple column, just over three feet in height and made from green metal, the fountain utilizes a brass hand crank on the top to begin the flow of water. Give it a good, strong twist and the water will begin to flow, but for only a few seconds, before it shuts off again automatically. One of the more “modern looking” fountains in the city, this same metal structure can be found in villages and cities all over southern France. Where water is not as plentiful as it is in Vence the ability to turn it on and have it shut off automatically after a very short time is very valuable. If you look closely on the wall behind the fountain you will see the remnants of the original structure which most likely featured a backsplash, basin and pedestal.
Facing the fountain, follow Rue de la Coste to your right and exit the old town through the Portail Levis. Make an immediate left and climb Rue de Dr. Binet. At the top of the little hill cross the street and proceed into the Place du Frêne.
Fontaine Place du Frêne
2 Rue du Docteur Binet
The Place du Frêne is a small, lovely space situated on the north side of the city, overlooking the small valley of the Lubiane river, giving visitors a wonderful, panoramic view of the hillsides outside of Vence. You’ll find both locals and tourists gathered in the square enjoying the majestic scenery. At one end of the square stands a marvelous ash tree which is said to have been planted in 1538 under the reign of François the 1st. In the center of the Place du Frêne sits a small, circular basin, once used as a baptistery, that dates from the 12th century. At one end is an aging, curved pipe with some beaten metal ornaments which discharges water into the basin. It is plain and uncomplicated, yet quite elegant in its simplicity. The basin sits on a small, round platform of stones which gives it a sense of importance and significance. With it’s large, low, circular shape, the fontaine Place du Frêne is unlike any other fountain in Vence.
Return back to Rue de Dr. Binet and turn left, going back down the little hill. Turn left on Rue Fontaine Vielle for just a short distance and on your left, set into the wall, you will see the old spring through a locked iron gate.
2 Rue Fonatine Vieille
The next stop on our tour, Fontaine Vieille, is easy to miss if you are not looking for it. Situated on the left side of the road, carved into the stone wall, is a small arched opening with a weathered iron gate at its front. The gate, of course, is locked, but the bars are set wide enough apart to allow easy viewing of the old basin and canal behind it. Little is known about this ancient source of water. It appears to be a very small spring and it is said that it would disappear from time to time, requiring work to set it flowing again. Behind the iron gate is a small stone basin and behind that a tunnel for the thin canal that leads back into the earth for at least 15 or 20 feet where it makes a turn to the left. Who knows how much father it continues beyond that? A small stream of water still trickles down the long path into the small stone basin, though these days it no longer services a working fountain.
Next: Continue along Rue Fontaine Vielle as it winds up and to the left. It will dead end into Avenue Henri Isnard where you will turn right. You’ll find the Jardin Frédéric Mistral on the left.
Fontaine Place Frédéric Mistral
25-41 Avenue Henri Isnard
Situated in front of the Chapelle des Péntents Blancs is the Place Frédéric Mistral, named for the French writer, poet and lexicographer of the Occitan language who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1904. On the wall of the Chappelle is a plaque with several verses from his poem “Mireille.” A large stone bench which comes from the garden of the former seminary of the Avenue Toreille graces the small square. On the east side of the square is a small fountain built into a short wall. One large spout provides a strong and steady flow of water into a low, large basin below it. Just above the spout “La Foux” is carved into the stone, indicating that the water is indeed from the Foux spring. It’s another simple, utilitarian fountain, used throughout the years by countless people in need of cool, fresh water. Today you will often find children playing in the square and local residents stopping at the fountain for a quick drink.
Next: Continue another block down Avenue Henri Isnard to the intersection of Avenue Elise where you will find the Lavoir du Vence on the left.
Lavoir du Vence
72-82 Avenue des Poilus
Almost all Provençal villages have a lavoir, or washhouse, and Vence is no exception. A fountain at one end almost always supplies the water for the washhouse. Originally built in 1811 and then modified in 1832, what we actually see today was constructed in 1861. It’s a long, covered washhouse that is fed from the Fontaine du Lavoir on the west end. A long canal channels the water over a distance of about thirty yards. The sides of the canal are sloped inward to allow for the washing of clothes. It is said that there was a always a struggle among washerwomen for placement along the canal. Those closest to the top would enjoy the cleanest, freshest water, while those downstream had to be content with water dirtied from those higher up. Ideally, those who were rinsing clothes would work at the top and those who were washing would be at the bottom, with everyone alternating regularly.
Next: Continue in the same direction along the road, which has now turned into Avenue des Poilus, make a left on Avenue Victor Tuby and a right on Avenue Foch. You’ll find the next fountain a few feet up on the left.
Fontaine Avenue Foch
39-63 Avenue Foch
Next to the Lycée Henn Matisse (the Matisse school) and the Domaine de la Conque (a French retirement home) you’ll find a small fountain dating from 1932 built directly into the wall facing the street. Fabricated with stones from La Sine (a beautiful forest close to Vence), it features a very unique support system for the basin, quite distinctive and unlike anything else you’ll see in Vence. Unlike other fountains that are built as one structure, this fountain is more of a fountain by design than by construction. The spout for the water protrudes from high up on the wall itself. A basin lies below, supported only by large, rugged stones which are stacked in a pile. Water flows into the basin from the spout above and then trickles down over the rocks beneath into the ground. Situated on a very busy street next to a very busy intersection this fountain does not see as much use as other fountains in Vence.
Next: Proceed to the left, back towards town. Take a right at the roundabout on Boulevard Emmanuel Maurel. Take the left fork in the road and at the corner of Chemin du Baric you will find the next fountain.
Fontaine Chapelle Sainte-Anne
379-411 Boulevard Emmanuel Maurel
The Fontaine Chapelle Sainte-Anne is situated in perhaps the most beautiful setting of any fountain in Vence. Directly across the street from the Chapelle Sainte-Anne it is nestled between two large plane trees and is almost always situated in the shade. The Chapelle was built on request of the Bishop of Vence Pierre du Vair in 1617. The current bell tower and stained glass windows date from 1871. Beside the chapel, and just next to the fountain, stands a huge, imposing crufix. The fountain is a relative newcomer to Vence, having been built in the 1940s. A large stone backdrop provides support for the basin which stands about waist high. A single metal spout supplies water in the basin where you’ll find two metal rods bridging from front to back. These types of metal rods are not uncommon in southern French fountains and provide a place for users to sit a bottle, bucket or other container while it is being filled.
Next: Turn left on Chemin Sainte-Anne and then left again on Avenue Emile Hugues. At the main roundabout turn right on Avenue de la Résistance. You’ll find the next fountain a few blocks on your left.
Fontaine Avenue de la Résistance
12 Avenue de la Résistance
Sitting on a small pedestal against the wall of the Passage des Pénitents Blanc, the Fontaine Avenue de la Résistance is one of the most frequented fountains in Vence. Rue de la Résistance is the main street leading into Vence and is full of shops, banks and other businesses. Pedestrians frequent the street as they walk from one end of town to th other. Many stop at the fountain, especially on hot days during the summer, for a quick, refreshing drink of water. Carved entirely from stone, the fountain features a large basin which sits about waist high on a vertical base, looking and functioning much like a very old outdoor sink. A steady stream of water flows from a curved metal spout which emerges from a flat backsplash. At the top of the backsplash you’ll find the words “La Foux” carved into the stone, signifying that the water from this fountain does indeed originate from the main spring in Vence.
Next: Continue into town down the Avenue de la Résistance until you come to the main square, the Place du Grand Jardin. On the street, just about halfway across the square you’ll find the next fountain.
Fontaine Place du Grand Jardin
Place du Grand Jardin – Avenue de la Résistance
The large fountain loacted in the Place du Grand Jardin is the most centrally loacted fountain in all of Vence. It’s location makes it ideal for many people to access easily. Additionally, it is perfectly situated for the daily market of vegetable and flower sellers in the place. Close by you’ll find the Marseille column, one of two ancient pillars from Roman times (the other column is located in the Place Godeau inside the old town). Originally, the Fontaine Place du Grand Jardin was located closer to the Basse Fontaine, but it was moved at some point to help alleviate traffic problems. It is the only two sided fountain to be found in Vence. The north side has a large, low basin with two large spouts that jut straight out from the fountain. The south side has a smaller, wash like basin with two spouts that curve over. You’ll find a small breakdown and analysis of the minerals in the water carved on the north side.
Next: Continue across the square and follow Avenue Marcellin Maurel as it curves around the old town. When you reach the intersection of Avenue Colonel Meyere you’ll find the Basse Fontaine.
2 Place Antony Mars
The majestic Basse Fontaine is located on the circular road which surrounds the old town portion of Vence. Originally built in 1539 it was redesigned in 1822 by the renowned architect Etienne Goby de Grasse, the same architect who designed the Fontaine Place du Peyra (the first fountain on our tour). The two fountains share a few similarities including the large base (designed to allow farm animals easy access to the water) which is exactly the same on both. However, the tall, center column of the Basse Fontaine, a round Roman column supported by a rectangular base with a small ball at the top, is completely different than that of the Fontaine Place du Peyra. The fountain is graced with four main spigots protruding from the center column and a fifth placed at the edge of the base, along one of the quatrefoils, which allows for easy access to water. If you look closely you’ll find the date 1822 is carved into the rectangular base.
Next: Turn left down Avenue Colonel Meyere and proceed a few blocks where you’ll find the next fountain, on the left, directly across from the entrance to the town’s swimming pool.
Fontaine Chemin du Camp
253-275 Avenue Colonel Meyere
One of the most interesting and unique fountains in Vence is the small fountain located across from the municipal swimming pool on Avenue Colonel Meyere. Located about a mile outside of town it is built directly into the side of small building. This fountain features a thigh high basin and one spigot from which water flows continuously. As with many fountains there are two small rails spanning the basin for setting bottles, buckets and other containers on when they are being filled. Built from large, flat, rectangular pieces of stone it is surrounded by an area of of concrete with random stones embedded in it. Just under the spigot are six pieces of painted tile, grouped together in a rectangle. Time has worn the tiles quite a bit, but you can still see, quite plainly, a calm, serene setting of large leaves at the edge of a body of water (maybe a lake, maybe a river). The words “La Foux” are painted over the background.
Congratulations! You’ve reached the end of the Vence Fountain Walk. Proceed up Avenue Colonel Meyere in the direction you came from, turn left on Avenue Marcellin Maurel and return to the center of town.
Keep in mind there are many more fountains in Vence, I’ve just touched on some of my favovrites that make for a nice walk around the center of town. If you’d like more information about where to find the others just drop me a line.