The village of Saint Paul de Vence is amongst the oldest of the famous hilltop villages in the mountains at the back of Nice. It sits symmetrically on top of its mountain and its 16th century fortifications, waiting for invaders to maraud up from the coast. It is just inland from the town of Cagnes sur Mer and only a twenty minute drive from where we were staying at La Colle sur Loup. It is a beautiful hill town but it knows it; like a beautiful courtesan, it is perfectly preened and well maintained down to the smallest cobblestone and the suitors and the marauders come every day from the cruise ships docked at Cannes to prowl the narrow streets looking for loot and souvenirs. It is one of those places like San Gimignano in Tuscany that are victims of their own beauty and like San Gimignano, it is best visited when the daytime invaders have retreated to their coastal ships and hotels.
Saint Paul de Vence has a long history of defending itself from neighbouring fiefdoms. Its first fortifications were built in the 12th century. In the middle ages, with this area of modern France being broken up into small kingdoms, St Paul de Vence was strategically placed on the borders between envious neighbours such as the rulers of Nice, Savoy and France. It was captured and besieged in the 1530s by Charles V of Spain whose ‘Holy Roman Empire’ stretched from Austria to Spain and to both northern and Southern Italy. The conflict was resolved by a treaty with Francois I and his Holy Roman rival and the King of France decided to upgrade the town’s fortification that we see still standing today. Like its coastal neighbour Antibes, St Paul de Vence was visited by Louis XIV’s military expert Vauban. Unlike for Antibes, Vauban only recommended restoration and improvements for this fortified hill town.
We visited Saint Paul de Vence during the middle of the day and despite the large number of visitors, it was still a pleasant place to visit. There were plenty of parking spaces down the hill a little from the town and as we walked up the slope, I noted that the city fathers had placed a copy of Marc Chagal’s painting, ‘Couple in a blue landscape’, on a sign beside the road. I have always loved Chagal’s whimsical approach to reality…who else would place the lovers floating in space above St Paul de Vence with a donkey-riding companion floating nearby. Chagal is described as a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin who lived from 1887 to 1985 and so experienced the best and worst of 20th century European history… of the 224000 Jewish citizens of his home town Vitebsk, only 118 survived World War 2. He settled in this hill town in the mid 1950s and is buried in the cemetery of Saint Paul.
The path up to the main portal through the fortifications of St Paul is a very relaxed welcoming space with a café and a bar next to a Boules Court (Petanque Court, boulodrome?). I presume relaxed tourists play boules here during the day and the locals come out in the late afternoon. Back in the day this square was frequented by the great artists of the twentieth century, Matisse, Chagall, Picasso et al, playing boule and relaxing after a day in their studios.
Before entering the town there is a beautiful view back over the valley leading up to St Paul. In the foreground, ensconced on the parapet, are some artistic renditions of the town’s domestic animals.
Further along from the bouledrome, there is the medieval entrance to the town. An ancient canon pointing directly down the line of the wall welcomes both friend and foe. It is recorded as a souvenir of the Battle of Cerisoles that took place in Northern Italy in 1544 as part of the almost continual conflict between the Holy Roman Emperor and Francis I of France. Apparently citizens of St Paul de Vence fought in this battle in which there was a very high casualty rate on both sides. The plaque above it reads…27 August 1944, the entrance of the first special liberation of Saint Paul.”
The complex military engineers of the 16th century onwards would never have built a direct gate into a citadel. The entry into St Paul turns left immediately under a covered walkway with a convenient gap overhead (machicolation!) for dropping welcoming, usually burning, gifts on invaders who have made it to here.
From here on in, the wars of the past are forgotten and the visitor is free to stroll the narrow stone alleyways of St Paul de Vence.
St Paul is a gorgeous hill town that knows it own worth and welcomes the visitors’ inspection. Go on, wander the streets, admire the perfect stone houses, be enthralled by the valley views and the public art merging into the landscape. If you are an art lover, make time to visit the galleries or one of the restored chapels like Chapelle du Rosaire. Commune with the spirits of the great artists of the twentieth century and their replacements, the chic french film stars of the 1950s. Despite the other impertinent visitors nudging you aside in the alleys, it will repay your strolling admiration.
The artist’s comment on the stone camera tucked into a corner of one alleyway reads…“We do not move anymore. Smile!”
The artist of this piece might be suggesting that Saint Paul de Vence, like the Greek hunter Narcissus, might be falling in love with its own reflection. It should be careful of not falling in to its own pool of admiration.