Some 400 people live within its fortified walls, but 2.5 million tourists visit St Paul de Vence every year making it the third most visited place in France, after Mont-St-Michel and Versailles.
ts charm lies in the fact that St Paul de Vence is one of the most intact medieval fortified villages in the region. Perched on a narrow spur between two deep valleys St Paul de Vence is surrounded by very impressive ramparts – built on the orders of François I in 1537 – which have withstood the test of time.
This charming historical town combines a strong medieval influence with modern-day art galleries, enticing artisan shops, gourmet restaurants and a few prestigious hotels tucked away in its narrow cobbled streets.
Understandably, the summer months draw the largest crowds, making it difficult to appreciate its medieval architecture, art galleries and other lovely boutiques; and takes away some of the pleasure of discovering this historical place.
By the end of September things become a little easier and St Paul de Vence reverts to a more relaxed and peaceful environment and with still wonderful warm sunny days and fantastic clear, bright blue skies that arrive in Autumn, this becomes a magical place to visit.
During the building of the ramparts over one hundred houses were destroyed in the Sainte-Claire district, causing the inhabitants to flee from the devastation and settle on the plains which in turn led to the foundation of the village of La Colle-sur-Loup.
As you walk around the narrow and very picturesque streets of the village, from the Porte Royale to the Porte Sud via the (pedestrianized) streets, you’ll discover perfectly renovated façades and frontons of ancient stone houses, the 12th century church “La Collégiale” (also called Church of St Paul’s conversion) the 12th century wash-house and 16th century Royal Gate.
The Grande Fontaine, situated in the square of the same name, was built in 1850 by Melchior Martin, a local master stone-cutter. Today it is classified as a historic monument. An older fountain can be found in La Placette where water has flowed from it since 1611.
With its maze of charming streets, little shady squares, its ancient fountains, gateways and porches, you’ll quickly see why St Paul de Vence is a favourite subject for photographers.
While the views from the ramparts offer pleasant panoramas over the surrounding hills, terraced gardens and of course, the Mediterranean, it is perhaps the walk leading up to St Paul de Vence that is the most impressive. Here you have a totally unobstructed view across to this medieval town perched on its narrow spur and surrounded by its grey-stone ramparts. Highlighted by the afternoon sun it stands proud and mighty.
History of St Paul de Vence
The first to occupy the land were the Ligurians. Chased by the Romans in 120BC, they called their newly found region “Povincia”, known now as “La Provence”. It quickly became its own small republic and enjoyed great autonomy.
Authorised by Charles III in 1285, Place de la Fontaine was used every Saturday as a market place. By 1615, the market was also held on Wednesdays. Today the square is home to a large and pretty urn-shaped fountain behind which lies a lavoir (wash-house). In 1537, François I (at war with Charles V for 20 years) decided to fortify the cities at the edge of his kingdom.
He included St Paul de Vence, which was strongly coveted for its strategic placement within these fortifications. This was a prosperous period for the city, during which it became known as “Ville Royale”. It was not until 1747, with the wars of succession, that St Paul suffered its first assault of invaders, who destroyed the city. In its aftermath of this trauma, St Paul’s history became less warlike and much more romantic.
The fortifications were abandoned at the end of the Empire. However, in 1832, a committee of military engineers decided to restore them. When St Paul de Vence was demilitarised in 1870, the ramparts were sold off at auction. The mayor of the commune, deeming the fortifications of public importance, negotiated with the French government to save them from demolition. In 1872, the commune bought the ramparts for 400 Francs.
From the Past to Today
Most people combine a visit to St Paul de Vence along with one to the Maeght Foundation. Parking can be found close by and a short walk will bring you to the 17th century Chapelle Sainte Claire and the oil mill that today houses the “Vieux Moulin” restaurant and the wheel of the Sainte-Claire Mill.
Further down the road and approaching the ramparts you’ll pass La Colombe d’Or restaurant, located opposite the Café de la Place and the busy and much attended “Jeu de Boules” square.
The main entrance into St Paul was erected in the 1400s and features a canon muzzle. This was a trophy brought back from the Battle of Cerisoles, in April 1544 in Italy between the French Army, commanded by François of Bourbon and the Imperial Army, commanded by the Marquis of Del Vasto.
With so much to see around you at eye level do try to take a moment to look down at the cobbled path you’re walking along – the design is gorgeous and continues throughout the village. The entrance into the village is narrow and leads under a stone archway and can get quite crowded as bus loads of tourists make their way through or hover by the Tourist Office. Be patient as, once beyond this point, you’ll discover a truly delightful village that you can then saunter through at your leisure.
A Home for Artists
With the exceptional luminosity found in this part of the region, the village became increasingly irresistible and inspired numerous artists, painters, writers and poets to work here; some of whom took up residence in the village.
By the 1920s, a host of painters, founders of the 20th-century schools, flocked to St Paul: Matisse, Soutine, Chagall, Renoir, Signac, Modigliani, Dufy – not to mention writers including Gide, Giono, Cocteau and Prévert. Later, it was the turn of film directors and scriptwriters: Clouzot, Cayatte, Audiard and French, and international stars: Yves Montand, Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Romy Schneider, Roger Moore, and Tony Curtis to cite only a few.
Many artists stayed at the hotel “Le Robinson” managed by Paul Roux (today known as the “Colombe d’Or”) or the “Pergola” and then “La Résidence” run by Ferdinand Issert (today’s “Café de la Place”).
Time permitting, do try and visit the cemetery. Its location is truly one of peace while the tombs are beautifully maintained with freshly cut flowers, bowls of colourful plants and pretty Mediterranean plants.
This is the last resting place of the Russian born painter Mark Chagall. At the entrance, take the first gravel path on your right and then the next left. Chagall has a simple white tomb. When we were there we found some small pebbles placed on top of the tomb. This is apparently an ancient Russian and Jewish custom and a form of tribute. Here too lie Aimé and Marguerite Maeght. Their unimposing tomb is a little further away from Marc Chagall’s in a quiet shady corner of the cemetery.
Access to the cemetery can be done either via rue Grande to Porte de Nice, or by walking around the western ramparts, passing La Petite Chapelle restaurant as you start your walk.
Saint Paul de Vence
2 rue Grande
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 32 86 95
Fax: +33 (0)4 93 32 60 27
1 June to 30 September
10am – 7pm
1 October to 31 May
10am – 6pm
Closed 1pm – 2pm weekends
and Bank Holidays