Saint-Paul de Vence is the full name of the city Saint-Paul, and the city of Vence is about three miles away, driving through peculiar country. The road skirts a gorge at one point from wihc rises a single, slender stone tower topped with a concrete railing.
It was once the central support of a viaduct, but the two arches that extended from it were blown up by the Germans in World War II. Prior to this, it carried the tramway from Nice to Grasse. On the east of the ravine, you’ll see an iron gate and an overgrown platform to a railway station, parts of the same ruins.
Vence has the Chapel of the Rosary decorated by Matisse, but also is the death place of D.H. Lawrence. It is the home of the Bishops of Vence, and boasts the saints St. Veran and St. Lambert as well as Pope Paul III, known to Vence as Alexander Farnese.
It also hosted Bishop Godeau, once known as the wittiest man in France and the ugliest. He’d been attached to the court of Julie, Madame de Scudery, daughter of the Marquise de Rambouillet, but tired of writing verses to pretty women and entered the priesthood at the age of thirty.
It was Godeau who recreated Vence. From a gallant, he became a model bishop, disciplining lax clergy while rebuilding his cathedral and economically revitalizing Vence with potteries, tanneries, and (to offset them, I suppose) scent factories.
Today, Vence’s narrow streets and squares stretch beneath flying buttresses and arches. In the Old Town center, you’ll find the Cathedrale de la Nativite de la Vierge, built on the old Roman military drilling field. The cathedral is a hybrid of Romanesque and Baroque styles, and in the baptistery is a ceramic mosaic of Moses in the bulrushes by Chagall.
The Chapel of the Rosary
The Chapel of the Rosary, outside the city proper, requires some advance planning if you want to go inside; it’s only open a few days a week for limited hours. And it’s worth seeing.
Matisse built and decorated the chapel himself in gratitude to the Dominican nuns who live in the convent attached, who nursed him back to health after a severe illness. According to some, Matisse himself considered the two walls devoted to stained glass in geometrical designs of yellow, blue, and green to be some of his best work. Whether this is so or not, the windows do let in an astonishing amount of light, with a surprising level of luminosity. The other two walls are decorated with line drawings of religious figures in the absence of color of which Matisse was a master.
Lodging and dining in Vence
Jacques Maxim, the superchef, runs an eponymous restaurant in an old gray farmhouse overgrown with full-scented wisteria. It’s his home as well as his restaurant, and he serves creative French country dishes. It can be pricey, but it’s delightful.
La Farigoule is also excellent, and slightly less expensive.
A wonderful and inexpensive inn is the Villa Roseraie, decorated with antiques and local tiles and fabrics. If you stay here, you’ll enjoy the true heart of Vence.