This companion town to Vence is, at its heart, a medieval village, standing out on the horizon. Saint-Paul de Vence was an independent city-state in the Middle Ages, but today has lost much of its prestige and is now basically a sleepy town. By the turn of the 20th century, in fact, it had faded completely into oblivion. But it was discovered in the 1920s by penniless artists, who were paying for drinks at the bar with paintings.
Today, those paintings by Signac, Modigliani, and Bonnard are worth much more than the drinks, and the local bar is now a beautiful inn, where the walls are covered with the works of these artists – ink sketches and paintings alike.
Unfortunately, the residents of Saint-Paul de Vence have cashed in on the artistic reputation of their town by opening tourist trap souvenir shops between the quaint stone houses and in front of the beautiful rampart views. But they can’t block out the pure and clear light and air the artists were drawn to in the beginning, or the wraparound views and beautiful stone walls of the town.
You may see a few movie stars wandering through the terrace of the Colombe d’Or, or young hopeful artists painting in the early morning light like Modigliani once did.
What to see in Saint-Paul de Vence
Besides the wall of the La Colombe d’Or, covered with the works of now-famous artists, you should visit the Fondation Maeght. It’s set on a wooded clifftop near the town, and contains works by Jose Sert, Miro, Moore, and Giacometti. You’ll see also La Vie, by Chagall. And there are always new works to view.
Where to stay and eat
La Colombe d’Or
At La Colombe d’Or, you can stare at the walls filled with Miro, Bonnard, Picasso, Legers, and Braques among other great artists. These are the works traded for a meal and a drink by starving young artists who later became today’s greats. This was the center of the artistic revival that took place in this sleepy town, and you’ll pay primarily for the history here, not the food or the lodging. The food is good, but not great. However, it’s served beneath a ceramic Leger mural, a Braque hangs near the fireplace at the bar, the garden pool is decorated with a Calder. Your room will be more reminiscent of a starving artist’s garret than a luxury hotel, but still, they are hard to get and must be booked well in advance.
If you’re more interested in comfort than in the uniqueness of your surroundings, you can stay at Le Saint-Paul instead. Built in a 15th century house, this inn is luxurious and filled with comfort and charm, and is nestled in the center of a Gordian knot of alleys. You’ll relax in the atmosphere of Provencal furnishings. A candlelight meal on the terrace, where living flowers burst out from every nook and cranny, is a romantic ideal. The food is much better than that of La Colombe d’Or. There are only a few rooms, so you should book early to stay here.
If you’re a starving artist yourself, consider Le Hameau, less than a mile outside Saint-Paul de Vence. It’s a romantic and chaotic jumble of terraces, trellises, honeysuckle, and archways, with large rooms and Provencal furnishings in the main hotel. The smaller 18th century farmhouse has smaller rooms but excellent views. The pool is large and new.