In this marvellous, matchless corner of the Côte-d’Azur, tucked into the hinterland behind Nice and Antibes, some of the world’s greatest artists have come to pay homage. Artists, painters and poets all loved the light, the vitality and the views of Vence and St-Paul-de-Vence, among them Bonnard, Dufy, Matisse, Miro, D.H. Lawrence and Anthony Mars.
Of course, even geniuses had to eat and sleep, and where better than at Saint-Paul’s best hotel, the Colombe d’Or. The hotel possesses probably the greatest private collection of modern art anywhere in France, many of which were accepted by the late owner, Paul Roux, in lieu of board and lodging. ‘It was’, said Picasso, ‘my kind of hotel: no name outside, no concierge, no reception, no room service, and no bill.’
When Roux died, his collection was worth tens of millions, and his hotel the home of celebrities, indeed for a time virtually the permanent residence of two film stars of yesteryear, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. Nowadays the hotel has dropped a notch or two as a place to see and be seen but the only way to view the art is to stay or eat there. The pool with its sculptures and paintings is quite amazing, the dining room delightfully lit and adorned by a rotating collection of art, so no two visits are ever the same. The food is superb and the service…well, eccentric, and not for people in a hurry. Two cautionary notes. It is hopeless to turn up and expect a table. Book in advance, and ring every day to confirm. You will be given a bulky folder that contains some reasonably priced table d’hôte menus but, unless you are staying the night, you can only order à la carte, which looks as if a couple of extra zeroes have been added by mistake.
Outside, the cobbled streets of Saint-Paul are perhaps unique in that most of them date from precisely 1537, the year King Francois I pulled down more than six hundred houses to create the great ramparts and towers that still survive today. The alleys and steps, paved in pink mosaique, link picturesque squares with little fountains. The 12th century Romanesque church has a wonderful interior, including a nave with three aisles so broad that they form almost a perfect square.
Nearby, La Gaude, a charming provençal village, has many houses with beautiful façades, lovingly restored. The most imposing restoration once belonged to the wicked Marquis de La Gaude, and fell into disrepair after the French Revolution; sadly, its rich new owner is not receptive to visitors. The village is best known as the home of Marcel Pagnol, the author of two famous books made into films, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.
Vence, too, is full of painters, sculptors and writers who live and work there. In the summer the village has many exhibitions and examples of their work, and, it must be said, is packed to bursting point with tourists. Vence is, however, an essential visit, if only to see the all-white Chapelle Matisse, designed and decorated by Henri Matisse, and considered his masterpiece.
Vence remains a tight walled circle of ancient buildings, pierced by five medieval gateways, including one created especially for Bishop Pisani so that he could reach his episcopal palace without stepping into the street. The enormous ash tree, frêne in French, gives its name to the Place du Frêne and is said to have been planted in 1538, to celebrate a visit by François I. Perhaps the locals were simply grateful he did not pull down their houses as well.
© Agence ICEA photo Abbes-Tutoy-YB,DR,Zaragoza