It is like stepping into a completely different age and one senses already on arrival in the city that Saint-Paul de Vence, that something is very special.
Here an expectant atmosphere prevails, which is clearly seen on the faces of the many tourists who flock to the city.
The artistic city and the celebrities
Saint-Paul de Vence is rightly called the city of artists. It is especially the art that, over the past 100 years, has formed and shaped the city’s welcoming soul and attracted all sorts of famous people from actors, sports stars and royals.
From the very first steps after passing the Fragonard perfume shop, you meet on the left hand side one of the city’s living “legends” – the world famous restaurant La Colombe d’Or. Here you will find a completely unique private art collection from the world-famous artists who have frequented the restaurant over time; Picasso, Matisse, Miro and more.
And as soon as you turn right from the Colombr d’Or, you meet the almost equally famous Café de la Place and the pétanque court on Place de Gaulle.
From another time
From here, the trip goes back to another era when passing through Porte Royale, which dates back to the 13th century. Just outside the gate you will find a fine map of the city and its sights.
Within the city walls there is a labyrinth of narrow alleys with small cozy shops, restaurants and an unusually large number of galleries.
It is precisely art that played a major role in the history of Saint-Paul de Vence.
La Rue Grande is the “main street” and runs from Porte Royale and through the city past the picturesque square with La Grande Fontaine from 1850 and ends at the viewpoint at the end of the city, where there is a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean.
Marc Chagall´’s grave
Next to the viewpoint is a very nice cemetery where several celebrities are buried, including Marc Chagall, the couple Maeght and Escoffier.
On the way around the small streets you meet the city’s other sights (see the complete list after this article) and here we will especially highlight the area on Place de l’Église, where there are five interesting sights: The old prison (now a town hall), The Chapelle Pénitents Blancs (The Folon Chapel), the Museum of Local History, the Collegiate Church and the Freinet School.
Enlightening path along the ramparts
Finally, one should also enjoy the walk on the west side along the city ramparts. A relatively new path has been laid out here, starting either from the cemetery or at Place Neuve just before going through Porte Royale. Along the path, there are boards with information about the surroundings.
A bit of history – from antiquity to the heyday of art
Since ancient times, there have been settlements on the Puy plateau and from the early Middle Ages, city life gathered around the former church of Saint-Michel, which was located where the cemetery is today.
Up through the Middle Ages, the city gained greater status and it began to take the shape of the city we see today.
In 1388 the county of Nice broke with Provence and joined the Duchy of Savoy. This new political coalition meant that Saint-Paul de Vence gained an advanced strategic importance by virtue of its location.
After this, an expansion will begin for the strengthening of the city with, among other things, the city walls and projecting bastions. It was in 1538 under François the 1st that this work was carried out. It was by the standards of the time one of the most modern bastions designed by Jean de Saint-Rémy. It became four solid bastions with orillons to protect the city’s two gates and steep walls to protect the city on the sides.
Religious revival and the rise of the Baroque
Up through the 17th and 18th centuries, Saint-Paul de Vence experienced a religious revival. It was thanks to the bishop of Vence, Antoine Godeau, who elevated the church to the rank of collegiate church in 1666. It was during this period that the church was expanded and decorated with lavish baroque paintings, altarpieces, etc.
Saint-Paul de Vence retained its military role during this period. Among other things, Vauban came to inspect the ramparts in 1693 and in 1700, because he, in 1677, had become inspector general of all French fortresses.
Art makes its entrance
In the late 1800s and especially in the early 1900s, the area attracted artists from near and far. The landscape, the light, the hills covered with flowers, vines and olive trees as well as the city’s soft brown colors created a perfect backdrop for the creative process of art.
It was especially painters such as Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) who, in the early 1900s, became the city’s artistic pioneers when they set up their easels and unfolded their colors on the canvas.
Transport to the city became somewhat easier in the early 1900s when the railway from Nice to Vence was built, which is just 3 km away.
The 1950s and 1960s became the golden age of the village. The most prominent artists of the time such as Picasso, Miro, Chagall and many others took over Saint-Paul and the city was transformed into a fabulous film setting where the stars of French and foreign film met.
For the famous American novelist James Baldwin and Marc Chagall, the connection to the city was so strong that they preferred to settle down and enjoy the tranquility of the Saint-Paul countryside; they both spent almost 20 years in the village.
For more than a century, Saint-Paul de Vence has built its identity as one of the Côte d’Azur’s leading arts and cultural cities.
Here you also find the famous Foundation Maeght, inaugurated in 1964, and known worldwide.
By Tommy Sverre / 2020