Saint Paul de Vence is certainly one of most famous enclaves for artists in France. Art lovers and visitors alike (estimated to be around 7.000 a day) walk its narrow cobblestoned streets absorbing the unique setting which made Saint Paul a favorite spot for Picasso, Matisse and other contemporary artists - Marc Chagall even chose to be buried here. It is with no doubt one of the most visited villages on the Côte d'Azur. Saint Paul de Vence's attraction to artists can be explained by its hilltop position almost touching the sky with the glistenning Mediterranean sea to the south and the snowcapped Alpes in the north - a perfect setting. Time has stood still in Saint Paul de Vence as if awaiting an artist to capture its soul.
The 20th century started with Impressionism. Claude Monet, its founder, painted in Antibes. Auguste Renoir, who expanded Monet's landscape motives to real life scenes, had his studio in Cagnes sur Mer. While Seurat created Pointillism it was Paul Signac, working out of Saint Tropez, who expanded his techniques. Later Fauvism was born, a counter movement to Impressionism. Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy, both living in Nice, were its most prominent exponents. Cubism, evolving from Cezanne's work, was created by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. Both worked extended periods on the Côte d'Azur and Picasso spent one of the most productive years of his life in Antibes. Fernand Léger, another Cubist, who attempted to combine art and architecture, has a museum in Biot. Finally the Modernists surfaced here with Jean Cocteau, Nicolas de Staël and Marc Chagall creating important artworks here. The art scene continues to be alive and kicking on the Côte d'Azur, just visit one of the numerous small galleries or temporary exhibitions in Saint Paul de Vence and other towns and villages.
Once you have made your way from Cagnes sur Mer through a densely populated area with supermarkets, car dealerships and building supply stores and tucked away your car in the undergound parking garage below Place du Jardin you are eager to enter the medieval world of Saint Paul de Vence, located on a high rocky promontory. It was perhaps this location which saved it from the hectic urban development on the coast. It was discovered by artists in the 1920s and has been an artistic center ever since, as evidenced by the astonishing number of art galleries in the village. Further proof is the famous Hotel Colombe d'Or with invaluable art hanging on its walls and the Fondation Maeght, a world renown modern art museum just outside historic Saint Paul de Vence. But Saint Paul has its own literary and film connections as well. André Gide and D.H.Lawrence all spent time here. Cary Grant used to wander around exploring the art galleries and Yves Montand and Simone Signoret romanced here.
St. Paul de Vence's medieval heritage is everywhere. The starting point for every visitor is Place Charles de Gaulle at the principal entrance of the village. It was baptized in 1948 when General de Gaulle visited St. Paul. The plane trees, the pétanque players and the Café de la Place give it the typical Provençal flair. Yves Montand was co-owner of the café and played many a round of pétanque here. One can imagine how Picasso walked by on his way to have lunch at the Colombe d'Or. Moving on you will notice the ancient stones which form the protective walls of the village and the imposing, vaulted Porte Royale, the entrance gate. Once you are inside, transported back in time 400 years, you can admire the cobbled alleys, covered archways, hidden squares with fountains and the multi-storey stone houses leaning against each other. The massive Tour de la Fondule, a defensive tower, dates back to the 14th century. It served as a lookout tower onto the valley below and as a prison. The stone frontage on Rue Grande dates back to the 16th and 18th eighteenth centuries. Practically all the streets inside the old village are pedestrian. In any case a car would not be able to pass the many visitors leisurely walking around. All is very neatly restored, well organized and despite the many visitors Saint Paul has a relaxed air about it. The 17th century Château de Villeneuve on Place du Frêne houses the Fondation Émile Hugues, named for a former town mayor and government minister. There is a permanent art collection, but the main purpose of the foundation is to promote contemporary art through an annual series of exhibitions. Close by is Église de la Conversion de Saint Paul, the old cathedral, on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Mars and an earlier Merovingian church. The whole feel of the church is one of richness and quiet dignity. Take your time, wander around and enjoy the panoramic views from the old ramparts.
St. Paul de Vence must have attracted settlers early on due to its superb strategic location. The first ones on record - there were probably many others before them - were Celto-Ligurian tribes. Then the Romans occupied the region around 120BC. In early Christian times the fortified village was called Castrum Sancti Pauli, St.Paul's fortress. In 1537 King François I expanded the fortifications of the village, which was right on the border of his empire. Looking at this very French city called Nice today we tend to forget that the County of Nice was ceded to the French Empire only in 1860 by a treaty between the House of Savoy-Sardinia (the future Italian kings) and Napoleon III as a reward for French assistance in the Second Italian War of Independence against Austria. Until the mid 17th century Saint Paul prospered. It was elevated to the coveted rank of "Ville Royale", a town under direct control of the French king. But in 1747, with the wars of succession, disaster struck when the town was invaded and many buildings were destroyed. While most of the houses were rebuilt, Saint Paul's importance gradually declined as the towns on the coastal plains developed in the 19th and 20th century the town on the rock above was largely forgotten. In retrospect this turned out to be a good thing as its architectural heritage remained untouched. In the 1920's artists discovered romantic Saint Paul. From then on prudent planning and conservation efforts made Saint Paul to one of the most coveted destinations on the Côte d'Azur. Much credit has to be given to the owners of the Hotel Colombe d'Or and later on to the Fondation Maeght.
La Colombe d'Or
This inn and restaurant located in a series of ancient buildings in town was once the hangout of artists many of whom paid for meals with their works. The walls and gardens are adorned with works by Picasso, Braque, Miró, Matisse, Leger, Calder, Chagall and many others. All this came about because Paul Roux, an aspiring painter but even better innkeeper had a soft heart for starving artists like Pagnol, Giono, Prévert, Picasso and Chagall. As word of this generosity spread and his clients' fame increased, the standing of La Colombe d'Or as a gastronomic and art temple grew. It quickly became an institution on the Côte d'Azur, a place to see and be seen. The café and restaurant expanded and an annex of apartments was added. Paul Roux died in the early 1950's, but his son Francis and daughter-in-law carried on the tradition. You won't find cutting edge cuisine here and prices are a bit on the stiff side, but you come here to experience the atmosphere and feel a little bit like a celebrity yourself.
The Fondation Maeght, the exact name is "Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght" is a private foundation dedicated to modern art. Established in 1964, it was the first of its kind in France. Its founder, Aimé Maeght (1906-1981) was a legendary Parisian art dealer and friend of many modern artists, like Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, Alberto Giacometti and Marc Chagall. The museum's collection includes works of these artists and others like Georges Braque, Vassily Kandinsky, Pierre Tal Coat and Pol Bury. There are paintings, sculptures, mosaic murals, stained glass windows and pottery. Some of the art is displayed outdoors in the garden and patios surrounding the modern building. The Spanish architect José Luis Sert, a follower of Le Corbusier, used white concrete and red brick to create a building that still looks modern today and harmonizes perfectly with the art exhibited inside and outdoors. There is a Giacometti court, a Miró labyrinth, a Braque basin and a Bury fountain. The museum provides an easily manageable introduction to the art of the first part of the 20th century.
Chapelle du Rosaire
When Henri Matisse came to Saint Paul in 1941 at the age of 72, he became very ill with abdominal problems. He was nursed back to health by the sisters of the Dominican convent, but never fully recovered and was forced to spend long parts of the day in a wheelchair. During the long reconvalescence Matisse had promised the Dominican sisters to help with the design of a new chapel they intended to build. Initially there was talk about designing just one window. With the help of a Dominican novice, Brother Rayssiguier, and nudged on by Sister Jacques-Marie, his primary nurse during the illness, Matisse started with the design. He became so enthusiastic about it that he agreed not only to design the chapel but also to bear all the cost. It took four years and the help of Auguste Perret, a French architect, to complete what many regard to be Matisse's masterwork. A gargantuan task for a nearly 80 year old semi-invalid. The chapel was dedicated on June 25, 1951 and Matisse let it be known that "This chapel for me is the culmination of an entire life's work and the flowering of an enormous, sincere and difficult labor. It is not a labor I chose but for which destiny chose me at the end of my road. . . . I consider it, despite all its imperfections, my masterpiece, an effort resulting from an entire life dedicated to the search for truth." Indeed a masterpiece: white porcelain contrasting with simple black designs, floor to ceiling petal-like stained glass windows of yellow, blue and green. Of all the murals the Stations of the Cross is the most moving. A simple and pure design, the Chapel of the Rosary embodies the spirit of the 20th century painters of the Provence.