St Paul de Vence is one of those picture-perfect almost too-beautiful-to-be-true Provençal villages. It sits majestically perched on a low hill with 360° views, taking in the striking Baou de St Jeannet, the town of Vence, and the gentle plain that runs down to the coast of the Côte d’Azur. It’s not high up like many of the medieval hill villages in the area but it is strategically located and heavily fortified to ward off attack back in the day when that sort of thing happened.
Nowadays the only attack it is threatened by is the coach loads of tourists bussed in from cruise ships and thousands of other independent visitors. It is almost too beautiful for its own good; it is perfectly renovated even down to the tiniest detail in the cobbled streets, it’s packed full of high-end art galleries, restaurants, antique shops and tempting boutiques, and people! But despite the crowds I do still love it and living only 20 minutes away I’m able to visit at quieter times. Like recently when killing time waiting for my son to finish his handball training in nearby Vence one evening I decided to go for a stroll….
Actually I was really very pleasantly surprised by how few people were about. I was there between 6 and 8 pm and while some shops were shutting most were still open, but the crowds had definitely gone. The light was gorgeous and wandering around some of the tiny twisting alleyways I was completely alone except for the odd cat. In eight years on the Côte d’Azur I had never seen it so calm.
St Paul (as it’s known locally without the Vence bit) is one of the oldest medieval villages on the French Riviera and its ramparts, constructed by François 1er in 1540, are still almost fully intact. It thrived in the Middle Ages producing wine, olives, oranges and figs but declined over the intervening years until the twentieth century when numerous well-known artists made it their base. Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Calder, Matisse, Miro and Dufy are just some of the names who have spent time here and during the 1960s many famous French actors, including Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, rocked up too. Its place on the international art map was firmly established when art collectors Aimé and Marguerite Maeght established the Fondation Maeght in 1964, now considered one of the most important private modern art collections in the world.
Art is all around in St Paul, you can’t miss it, from the many private expensive galleries to the varied and wonderful public sculptures and even a very contemporary Space Invader by the Unidentified Living Artist (ULA) Invader.
There is also a truly unique collection of art by the above mentioned artists (Picasso et al) inside the walls of the Colombe d’Or hotel. After the First World War these very artists paid for their food and lodgings here with paintings which still hang on the walls throughout the hotel today. Unfortunately you can’t just wander in and look, you have to be a client of either the hotel or restaurant, fair enough really. For art lovers and art history buffs I suggest splashing out on lunch at the Colombe d’Or at least once to gain access to this amazing collection. I have been and it’s absolutely worth the price, but that’s another story for another day.
While St Paul is most well-known for art surprisingly it still has two tiny working vineyards hidden away below the ramparts amongst residential land. I say surprisingly because the land around St Paul is fairly heavily built up, in the nicest of ways with luxury villas, swimming pools and boutique hotels, and there’s barely a metre to spare. On my recent walk the spring vines looked gorgeous, bathed in golden light from the setting sun.
I think that’s enough words, I’ll leave you with some photos which speak for themselves. Bonne balade!
I hope you enjoyed your walk around St Paul, what do you think? Pretty, n’est-ce pas?
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I just watched “To Catch A Thief” and was googling small towns near Nice and your site came up.
What a cool blog!
Thanks so much for doing what you do!
What a lovely place! Those giant colors pencils have to be my favorite, but we do love it when we spot Invaders during our travels. We have 200 of them in LA! How lucky you are to live just 20 minutes from this gem of a town. #farawayfiles
There is something so romantic about a hill town – I love the little twists and turns and cobblestone paths. The vistas are not so bad either. St. Paul de Vence looks dreamy. Thanks for sharing this sweet little spot. Cheers from Copenhagen. #FarawayFiles
Gosh that looks so lovely when it’s quiet – we have only been once and it was so busy we didn’t stay long , perhaps we need to aim for an evening walk there at some point #farawayfiles
What a picturesque place. French charm condensed into a small area! Strangely enough, I hadn’t heard of St Paul de Vence, so thanks for the introduction. #FarawayFiles
St Paul is my favourite place in France – we had a place in nearby Grasse when I was a young girl so it’s bursting with nostalgia. We used to see Yves Montand playing petanque in the square, outside his favourite haunt, La Colombe d’Or. So many wonderful memories. #farawayflies
How delightful to have St Paul de Vence almost to yourself. I’ve been here too but it was a while ago and it was certainly not so quiet. I’d love to have lunch at La Colombe d’Or one day – it would be great to see all that art. Thanks so much for sharing this on #FarawayFiles. Now I can sit back for a while and dream about Provence…
Oh it’s absolutely gorgeous! The detail in those cobbles and the winding lanes – so lovely. I do love to see modern art in historical settings – I think I’d enjoy a visit.
Love the photo of the two gentlemen in hats strolling in the village. Looks like another lovely place in France!
Oh, I love streets like these! So full of character and charm! Glad, you shared it on my blog event! 🙂
Just gorgeous! My favourite picture is of the two couples walking down the hill, husbands with their hands clasped behind their backs.
Simply stunning Phoebe. I just can’t get over the beauty of St Paul and Provence. I am seriously getting France obsessed! You’re right I need to address this problem pronto! Your descriptions and photos make me feel like I am waking the streets with you. I’m glad there wasn’t too many tourists on your visit – they’d probably have ruined the ambience somewhat! Thanks for linking up with #MondayEscapes
Your photos are amazing, it looks like you’ve really captured the essence of the village. I can understand why it’s popular with tourists but I imagine it’s so much nicer in the evenings! #mondayescapes
Thanks Clara, we have plenty more villages like this around and most aren’t as busy as St Paul but even with the crowds it’s a pretty special place. I visited St Lucia on a tiny cargo ship which moored next to a cruise ship back in 97 (on my way from Barbados to Trinidad for carnival!) Back then we thought the cruise ship looked enormous but it’s nothing compared to how big they are now. 6 in one day is tooo much for a tiny place like Castries.
Gorgeous pictures Phoebe. How wonderful to have somewhere like that so close to where you live. I can sympathise re cruise ship passengers – St Lucia used to have up to 6 huge ships in a day at the height of the season! Cheltenham, luckily, is too far from the sea….
Provence is almost synonymous with art owing to the large numbers of artists who’ve lived here over the years, drawn to the area partly because of the gorgeous light. There’s art everywhere.
What a lovely comment, thank you.
If only we could keep these places a secret for ourselves….
There’s every style of art in St P de V Rhonda and I think the differences all work well together. We’re not so very far from the Costa Brava here, so I imagine there are some similarities in architectural styles, though I don’t know it well (I’ve only been to Cadaques, Roses and Barcelona which are very different).
So when are you coming to visit Corinne???
I think San Gimignano was probably the first medieval hill town I visited in Europe, when I was 18 and I still remember it vividly. I loved it. You must come back to St P de V one day Eileen, just try and make it during the winter, and in the evening!
I love the horse too. The crowds do thin a bit over the winter, but from about April till October they’re bad, it’s not just summer.
The Colombe d’Or is very special, I hope you get there Helen.
I was very surprised at how few people there were. I definitely recommend an early evening visit.
So gorgeous – I love Provence though I hadn’t realised there was so much art as well as the history. #MondayEscapes
The Mother says – What a beautiful and charming town. I felt so relaxed just reading this. #MondayEscapades
You’re spot on in comparing the fortifications of medieval times with the need to fortify against invasions of tourists – or indeed reluctantly having to open your fortress to them!
What a charming medieval town. The detail in the roads and the archways crossing the streets take me back some of the smaller Costa Brava towns we visited. The modern artwork made me smile, it seemed so out of place, yet very French.
Gosh, Provence! Beautiful village after beautiful village. I’m so glad you were able to enjoy it without the cruise crowd!
I felt the same way about San Gimignano. We stayed overnight. And walking out in the evening to dinner after all the large groups of day visitors had left we were able to feel the town exhale and appreciate it more. St. Paul DV is a wonderful town. I’d love to go back (in the off season).
I love towns like this! They are so beautiful and then, you can spend all day looking at the art (btw, the horse made with horseshoes is fantastic, it is creative and makes you wonder what was the message the artist wanted to transmit). Are the crowds there all year or during a season (like summer)?
Beautiful photographs Phoebe. Have spent many happy times here, hope to go back one of these days and make it to the Colombe d’Or.
Lovely photographs. It’s good to know what St P looks like without the hordes. Next time we’re at Lou M we’ll try an evening visit, when maybe the ateliers will be closed, thus reducing (expensive) temptation.
more than likely though I remember a visit to Antibes with them more clearly
Yes, I remember! We’ve also been with the children in tow, haven’t we? – I have photos of them sitting on a wall.
Yes I’ve heard that he has a place here though I’ve never spotted him! More importantly Ruth, it’s the place we went for a girlie lunch without children about 7 years ago when getting away from the children was a great treat!
Isn’t that where Bill Wyman has a house (apparently just down the hill from the Colombe d’Or). He describes it as his most relaxing place in the world (well, in the interview I read, anyway).