The legendary ancient Provençal village of Saint Paul de Vence is an ideal destination for a day trip away from the coastline of the French Riviera, especially if you are feeling in an arty mood and want to discover a different side of the area without having to travel too far. Saint Paul ticks all the boxes of Provence stereotypes, as depicted in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence – old men playing pétanque, beautiful views over the hills, manicured gardens, communal laundry troughs, squares with brown stone fountains, small alleyways and expensive art galleries – but does it all in incomparable style. In the following itinerary, I combine the fairytale beauty of Saint Paul with the more down to earth charm of nearby Vence, both easily accessible by public transport from Nice, but if you are travelling by car, I’ve added an extension to the surprising village of Saint Jeannet.
The area covered in the article is located roughly 10km north-west of the centre of Nice as the crow flies, beginning on the western side of the Var river that acted up until 1860 as the border between the Provence region of France and the County of Nice (which was under Italian influence). Crossing the river, you can really tell the difference in the scenery and the atmosphere, as if you were crossing from one country to another… Instead of the high mountains dotted with perched villages directly overlooking the sea on the coastline east of Nice (think of Eze, Sainte-Agnès or Gorbio), the Vence area is full of dry, rolling hills, vineyards and cypress tress more reminiscent of Tuscany and dominated by the spectacular baous, the Provencal name for “rock” referring to the abrupt inland cliffs that sprout up all over the region and that are today heaven for rockclimbers.
Saint Paul de Vence – some historical background
The village of Saint Paul is located just 15 minutes’ drive from the coastline on top of a large mound known as the Plateau du Puy, on top of which a Roman oppidum was built, followed by a medieval castle, which was then known as the “castrum”, dominated in the Middle Ages by the Counts of Provence. The village got its big break in 1388 due to its proximity to the Var river when the County of Nice was seceded to the Kingdom of Savoy and Saint Paul was upgraded to bordertown garrison level – in the 16th century, repeated attacks from Charles V of Spain and his Habsburg dynasty that dominated most of Europe at the time lead French King Francis I to build the mighty city walls and fortifications that still stand today.
In the following centuries, the village developed its Baroque religious architecture and in the 19th century, the artists started to arrive, attracted by the light and the beautiful architecture of the village. One of the local hotel entrepreneurs, Paul Roux, owner of the future Colombe d’Or Hotel (the best place in town, at the entrance to the village), decided to lodge some artists for free in exchange for some of their paintings, which still adorn the hotel.
Nowadays, Saint Paul maintains this arty feel thanks to the presence of high end galleries all over its cobblestoned streets and sculptures donated by famous artists.
It is also a tourist favourite thanks to its proximity to Nice, the Provencal atmosphere that seeps out of its beautifully-kept streets and the beautiful views from the city walls over the coastline and the inland baous, especially the remarkable Baou de Saint Jeannet which culminates at an altitude of 802m. So now it’s time to explore the village!
What to see and do in Saint Paul de Vence
Whether you arrive either by car (parking des Serres or Espace Saint Clair) or by bus (line 400), it’s highly likely that you’ll be entering the pedestrian old town, easily recognised by the high city walls, from the northern end. As with most smallish villages, St Paul is not too rich in historical must-see monuments (it’s not exactly Venice or Florence), so what I would advise is to wander around the main streets and just soak in the atmosphere, the facades and the general laid-back vibe. Also, the streets can be very crowded at the normal times: weekends, afternoons, holiday periods, the summer, so if you can avoid any of these periods, be my guest – I visited on a sunny Wednesday morning in November, driving in from Monaco at around 10.30am, and that was perfect though it got a bit more crowded from noon onwards.
Here are some of the main sights of the village, arranged in a short walking tour, the following map provided by the tourist office website illustrates it quite well.
The medieval part of the village is oval-shaped and crowned by a small hill so I would suggest first to go through it, then around the city walls and finally to the top section, as follows:
- Enter the village. As you approach the village’s imposing north entrance and cross a succession of small squares, you will already notice the typical, almost cliché, Provencal atmosphere – first of all the luxurious but traditional Colombe d’Or hotel that I mentioned earlier with its priceless art collection and Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurant, welcoming the local and international glitterati all year long. Just behind it you can find a traditional laundry basin and on Place de Gaulle, you will find the old locals playing pétanque or boules… It’s very tricky to get any more Provençal than that.
- Wander through the village via rue Grande. Walk up the small slope and pass through the thick and imposing 14th century PortedeVence, to reach the tourist office and the village’s “high street”, rue Grande, which despite its name is already pretty narrow and can therefore get very congested in the summer when there are large tour groups, so prepare to use your “rugby elbow” techniques.
Rue Grande crosses the village from north to south and walking from one end to the other (it’s not very steep) will give you a great feel of the place, with its luxurious art galleries, small squares and beautiful buildings which indicate how prosperous the village was in the medieval ages – take note of the beautiful fountain located on the square about half way up, dating from 1850.
- Enjoy the view at the southern tip. Once you have reached the southern tip of the village, walk through the large Porte de Nice gate and enjoy the magnificent view towards Nice and the coastline. You will also have a good view of the cemetery which has some famous residents, notably Marc Chagall who died in St Paul in 1985.
- Stroll around the city walls. From the cemetery, turn east (to the left if you are facing the sea), and follow the solid city walls dating from the reign of French king Francis I to enjoy some beautiful views of the surrounding countryside whilst heading back towards the entrance to the village:abouttwo thirds of the way down, you will be able to enjoy a splendid view over the spectacular cliff face oftheBaou deSaintJeannet which dominates the scenery.
Walk across the northern tip of the village and then head back south facing the western side, over a wider valley (that of the Loup river), with vineyards and great views over the medieval buildings of the village.
The full walk around the city walls should take a maximum of 30 minutes at a slow pace, as the village circumference isn’t huge.
- Visit the top of the village. Once you have walked back to the Porte de Nice, head back across rue Grande until the Place de la Fontaine and then walk up the Descente de la Castre up to the church square – the climb isn’t as tiring as it may seem (unless you have hundreds of other visitors around you). The main draw is the 13th centuryCollégiale de la Conversion de St Paul, located at the highest point of the villageandbuilt in a typical Provençal Romanesque style with its large square tower – despite the name being a bit of a mouthful r(and the fact that St Paul got a village named after him after having converted, which is a good reason to convert!), the interior is worth a visit, mainly due to a painting of the Virgin Mary by Tintoretto.
Other points of interest at the top of the hill are the Chapel of the White Penitents and the quaint Town Hall.
Once you are done with the visit of the Old Town, which should have taken around an hour and if you are a modern art fan, I would definitely recommend a visit to the Maeght Foundation: this gallery, located 800m from the northern gate of the city walls (see map), was founded in the late 1960s by Aimé Maeght, a gallery owner from Cagnes, who befriended several artists and decided to promote the works of innovative artists. The entrance fee is a pretty hefty 14€ but the natural location and the original presentation make it worthwhile for art lovers.
Unfortunately I didn’t try out any of the local restaurants during my last visit in November as almost everything was closed for annual holidays: I had wanted to try out Le Caruso restaurant by the main church but that will be for next time. There are also some nice looking places by the walls facing west and on Place des Tilleuls, just above the main (northern) entrance to the village.
Bear in mind that given the touristy status of St Paul, everything is pretty expensive compared to the other small villages in the area, a bit like St Tropez: main courses in a standard looking restaurant are between 20€ and 30€ for example. On the other hand, there don’t seem to be as many blatant tourist traps as in the aforementioned coastal town and the onus seems to be on upmarket quality…
Getting to St Paul de Vence
- By car: obviously the easiest way as with anywhere in the hinterlands, just get off the A8 motorway from anywhere on the Riviera at the Cagnes sur Mer exit then it’s an easy 10km/15 minute drive inland to St Paul. When you get there, park at Espace Sainte Claire or at Parking des Serres, which are both just outside the Colombe d’Or at the northern tip of the village but not cheap at around 2.50€ an hour so plan your visit accordingly.
- By bus: from Nice (the bus station near the Promenade du Paillon) you can take the no. 400 bus (1.50€ each way), see timetables on this link, that also continues up to the town of Vence. Allow about an hour without traffic, buses are cheap but tend to be full and the route is pretty boring so this option is pretty time-consuming, I’d plump for the following option instead…
- By train: take the coastal line up to Cros de Cagnes station and then hop on the no. 400 bus towards St Paul and Vence. Alternatively if you have some extra budget and want to save some time, you can grab a taxi from Cros de Cagnes station, that will set you back around 40€.
Additional excursions in the area – Vence
If you’ve already visited St Paul and fancy hanging around in the area, the nearby, equally medieval, town of Vence is just a few kilometres further inland. Unlike St Paul, Vence is a real town and outside of its ancient central core, the new town can have a slightly gritty feel compared to the fairytale and slightly artificial vibes of St Paul and has its own excellent music festival in the Nuits du Sud each summer, so I can still recommend a short visit.
Vence’s pedestrian and circular old town is a treasure trove of beautiful streets with nice views over the hills surrounded by medieval walls. Unlike Saint Paul, it is a bit more functional, with outdoor meat and fish markets every morning but also plenty of beautiful squares, small alleyways, fountains and old streets with beautiful facades to get lost in. It also houses (according to the very friendly and helpful lady I chatted with at the tourist office), France’s smallest cathedral, Notre Dame de la Nativité, located on Place Clémenceau with a beautiful golden Virgin Mary on the façade.
The best place to enter the Old Town is via the Porte du Peyra gate (with an interesting watch tower), then wander round the circular streets through the main squares: Place du Peyra, Place Clémenceau, Place Godeau and Place Surian.
If you are there in the morning, check out the special atmosphere on the market street, rue du Marché. And before or after your tour of the Old Town, make sure you check out the great panorama from the esplanade just to the left of Porte du Peyra, with great views over the hinterlands and the Baou de Saint Jeannet, which dominates the region.
One of the main reasons however that visitors travel to Vence is the presence of Matisse’s modernist Rosary Chapel, about a kilometre outside the town centre: the artist lived in Vence from 1943 to 1949 and this was one of his last works, opening in 1951 just three years before his death. If you have the time, it’s well worth a visit but only if you can make it within the rather restrictive opening hours, which you can find on the French version of the Vence tourist office website (there is also an English page which has details on the chapel but not the latest opening hours).
If you are planning to eat there, you will find that Vence also offers a bit more variety and value for money than Saint Paul. I tried out Restaurant Le Michel Ange on Place Godeau, just by the Cathedral and wasn’t disappointed: good value French food at 21€ for a 3-course set menu that was pretty enjoyable (without being extraordinary) with friendly service, something not to be taken for granted in the South of France – and the added bonus of a lovely view from the outside terrace (in mid-November), the scavenging cat was also pretty entertaining.
To get to Vence, just take the number 400 bus from Nice, Cros de Cagnes or Saint Paul (from which it’s about a 15 minute drive), or else drive on from St Paul: parking is relatively easy albeit rather expensive, just use one of the centrally located car parks, either Place du Grand Jardin or Marie-Antoinette, which are both within a 5 minute walk of the Old Town.
A special bonus: the village of Saint Jeannet
If you have a little time to spare after this two visits and only if you are driving, give yourselves a treat and swing over to Saint Jeannet. Just a short 20-minute drive from Vence and only 10km inland from Nice airport, this beautiful village is located right at the foot of the spectacular baou of the same name that dominates the whole Vence area and seems to be guarding the Var valley: the village is located on the Western side of the river, which means that it was always a part of Provence and therefore had less Italian influence.
Saint Jeannet is full of charm and authentic character and is located on the hillside below the cliff so the best thing to do is to park your car (for free) on Place René Veyssi and then climb up to the heart of the village. Once you are there, just get lost in the maze of streets, with all the characteristic features of Southern France: there is also a spectacular view over the vineyards and the Baie des Anges by Nice to be enjoyed from the esplanade behind the main church, Eglise Saint Jean Baptiste. When wandering through the village, you really get a feeling of being out in the middle of the countryside as opposed to just a 20 minute drive to the coastline.
An hour should be more than enough to explore the village at a leisurely pace, unless you fancy getting some lunch. I didn’t eat there but saw a couple of nice looking places, notably La Table des Baous, located on rue Nationale (just above place Sainte Barbe, the main square when you enter the village) – the menu seems varied and original and the prices are pretty reasonable, enough to pique my curiosity so I’ll give it a try upon my next visit.
Saint Jeannet is also a great place to enjoy some outdoor activities: the local tourist office has some pretty comprehensive hiking itineraries around the village, unfortunately for some reason the website is only in French (even though the map provided in the village also has all the information in English).
But the main draw if you are a rock climbing enthusiast is to try your hand on the steep cliff face of the Baou de Saint Jeannet, of a total height of 802m above sea level but a sheer drop of almost 300m between the top of the cliff and the village. There are several climbing clubs that you can contact if you are that way inclined, one example of which is the Saint Jeannet climbing club (website in French only as usual, grrrr).
Once you are done, you can either return to Vence and Saint Paul via the same route or else travel straight down the Var valley and reach Nice in around 30 minutes via Gattières and Carros. As I mentioned, I would only recommend a trip to Saint Jeannet if you have a car but if you really want to go there using public transport, there are two options:
- From Vence, bus line 47 takes around 25 minutes and runs at irregular times (more or less every 90 minutes), here are the timetables.
- From Saint Laurent du Var (Cap 3000 shopping centre or the railway station), bus line 55 takes 40 minutes, here are the timetables.
I managed to visit these three villages in a day by car at a relaxed pace from Monaco and it definitely brings a great culture shock so I hope you enjoy their unique and laid-back Provençal atmosphere, just a stone’s throw away from the coast.
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