Medieval charm, beautiful art galleries and lovely vistas go hand in hand in the winding, stepped streets of Saint Paul-de-Vence.
The warm October sun was shining brightly as our cruise ship decanted us in the French port of Cannes, home to one of the biggest film festivals in the world, and a venerable playground for the rich and famous.
However, much to my wife Gail’s chagrin, we hadn’t come here to rub shoulders with film stars or to stroll along the sparkling Boulevard de la Croisette in search of diamonds and designer fashions. Instead, we were heading to the nearby medieval village of Saint Paul-de-Vence along the coast to the east. (My credit card was grateful!)
If getting somewhere is half the fun, the bus trip through Cannes (which is known as the “crown jewel of the French Riviera”) was an excursion in itself. As we watched from the windows of our coach, we rolled past street after street lined with exclusive boutiques, spreading palm trees, trendy bistros and swanky casinos. And despite the onset of fall, the city’s toney yacht clubs were still packed with beautiful people and their gigantic yachts. Even in off season, this place puts a capital “C” in the word “Chic!”
Eventually, our bus climbed into the interior and we caught a glimpse of the French Riviera’s other jewel – the magnificent village of Saint Paul-de-Vence.
Perched on a rocky outcrop some 180 metres above sea level, Saint Paul is framed by the foothills of the Alps and surrounded by thick medieval walls. It sits enclosed within a ring of ramparts, overlooking the surrounding hills covered in flowers, vines and olive trees. The streets of the village are so narrow and hilly that it can be explored only on foot, so our coach dropped us off near the Chapel of Sainte-Claire and we entered the town through an opening in its fortified walls known as the Porte de Vence.
Saint Paul dates back to the Iron Age (circa 1000 BC), and was built to defend itself from various foes over the centuries, including the Saracens in the 10th century. This eventually resulted in the construction of a castle, of which only the dungeons remain, and a wide, enclosing fortified wall.
The town’s first ramparts were constructed in the 14th century, and two of the original towers, Porte de Vence and the Tour de l’Esperon date from this period. In the 17th century, the village continued to play an important military role and noble families built lavish mansions here. Saint Paul’s medieval church was extended at this time and contains a beautiful series of frescoes that end in the Baroque Saint Clement chapel.
Today, the medieval town is mainly a colony for artists and a haven for tourists, who are drawn to Saint Paul by its beautiful location, wonderful Provencal sunlight, and splendid views of the surrounding countryside. A rabbit warren of narrow, twisting cobblestone streets, pictureseque archways and stone staircases, the town provides fabulous views from the ramparts. Restaurants, cafes, art galleries, boutiques and modern statuary mix easily with medieval masonry and stone artifacts.
After strolling through town, we stumbled upon the Grande Fountaine in a square near the Courtine St. Anne, where there’s an old public fountain and wash house built in 1850. Above the square, there’s also a quaint bistro, where we stopped to admire the view, sip a cappuccino and share a pain au chocolat.
Next, we rambled along rue Grande past rue de Casse Cou where we discovered La Placette, a small square with a medieval fountain. Nearby is an old arched doorway of an ancient stable which is now the ground-floor of the Galerie Jean Carré.
We wandered further into the labyrinth of narrow streets and eventually found the Museum of Saint Paul, which opened in 1964 and contains works by some of the famous artists who have lived here including Picasso, Rodin, and Marc Chagall. Then we walked down to the museum of local history, which has a wonderful exhibit by local photographer Jacques Gomot. He has captured on film many of the famous international stars who have lived in or visited Saint Paul including Roger Moore, Tony Curtis, Sophia Loren, Donald Pleasence and Paul Newman.
We had now been in Saint Paul for two hours, and it was time to find our bus for the return trip to the ship. As we left through the Port de Vence, we paused for a moment to reflect on why so many artists and celebrities had been drawn to this tiny village over the years when the excitement of Cannes was just 45 minutes down the coast.
We decided the answer could be found in the peace and tranquility of strolling through a medieval village filled with history and art that seemed far removed from the hustle and bustle of modern Cannes. Perhaps the Latin motto inscribed on Saint Paul’s bell tower says it best: “hora est iam de sommo suggere,” which translates as “The hours invite us to dream.”
[Editor: Congratulations to David on his 55th story on Gentleman’s Portion as we head into our sixth continuous year of publication with at least one story posted ever week.]