Medieval hilltop towns abound throughout Europe, walled fortresses built by conquering civilizations in past millennia. None, perhaps, is so memorable as the village of Saint-Paul de Vence, a short drive from either Nice or Antibes in the south of France.
We visited during a half-day excursion from Windstar Cruises’ Wind Surf as it was anchored offshore of Antibes.
Busy roads ascended into the foothills of the Alpes-Maritimes, but the lanes at St-Paul were much too narrow for our tour bus to challenge. We disembarked and clambered to the summit of the 557-foot hill, where the hamlet is situated.
A quick history
Romans controlled Provence for 700 years, beginning in the 2nd Century B.C. They had a regional center at Vintium (Vence), whose economy was based on wine and olive oil. After the fall of Rome, to better fight the plague and defend against outside invaders, many from Vintium moved to higher ground, establishing the village of Saint-Paul in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Saint-Paul emerged as one of the more influential towns of eastern Provence. Integrated into France in 1481, it was invaded by Spain in 1524 and 1536. As a result, four massive bastioned walls were built around the village in the next decade. They continue to surround Saint-Paul today.
Drawn by the light, painters and other artists discovered the village at the end of the 19th century. So, too, did writers and actors, who made it a prized retreat during the Cannes Film Festival. Many of them enjoyed visits to the famed Colombe d’Or inn, near the entrance to the village. In the 1920s, artists like Picasso and Matisse traded paintings for the fine food at this restaurant, which continues to cater to creative visitors. Indeed, the hillside village is imbued with the energy of artists past and present.
The Rue Grande
Saint-Paul’s tourism office is just inside the community’s Gate of Vence, built in the 14th century. Rue Grande, or Main Street, extends for about a mile through the village to a cemetery where impressionist painter Marc Chagall, who lived here for 19 years, is buried. Unlike other hillside villages that are packed with souvenir shops, the slender streets of St-Paul de Vence house elegant stores, high-end art galleries and small cafes. It is clear that people still live here on the side streets as potted plants and homey touches stand outside doorways and balconies.
At its heart is the Grand Fountain, the bustling medieval site of the town market. Side streets and stairways lead to the Plâce d’Église, the main plaza outside the Collegiate Church. Built in Romanesque style in the 14th century, expanded in Gothic and Baroque styles into the 18th century, the church is adorned with friezes, frescoes and medieval paintings. During our visit, the nave also exhibited an intriguing collection of contemporary art, some of bordering on risqué. Count on the French!
Adjacent is the 17th-century White Penitent’s Chapel decorated in mosaic and stained glass by Belgian artist Folon (1934-2005). The oldest structure in Saint-Paul (also facing the Plâce d’Église) is the Mairie, which has served as Town Hall since the 1700s. Its lower part dates from the original 12th-century fortress, and has never been destroyed.
We took a short, steep walk — down one hill, up the next — to find the Fondation Maeght, as contemporary as Saint-Paul is ancient. This modern, three-story art museum, designed in 1964 by Catalan architect Lluis Sert, is home to one of the largest collections of paintings, sculptures and graphic works of the 20th century in Europe. Painters and sculptors collaborated with Sert by creating works that integrated the building and gardens. We meandered past tiled fountains and through a labyrinth by Spanish artist Joan Miró, marveling on the lovely grounds and art.
Inside, we commented on a stained-glass window by George Braque, wall-sized paintings by Marc Chagall, mobiles by Alexander Calder, and works by Fernand Léger, Pierre Bonnard, Wassily Kandinsky and Alberto Giacometti. And today, it’s part of the foundation’s mission to bring together contemporary artists with art lovers.
Other excursion choices from the Wind Surf on this day included drives to Cannes and Grasse, the latter famed for its fragonard perfume industry. Grasse might have smelled better, but we’re sure Saint-Paul was more intriguing.