Saint-Paul de Vence in the South of France is one of the prettiest medieval villages in all of Europe, an exceptional town, with two personalities: delightful and not crowded during the off-season, but totally different in the summer when it is loved too much, with big crowds squeezing into the narrow lanes. Each year it gets 2 1/2 million visitors, so it can get quite crowded, especially during the busy season from May through September. Like much of the Cote d’Azure, it is much better to visit between November and April, when the weather is fine and the crowds are still at home. Off-season tranquility is especially delightful in a small jewel of a town like this which is vulnerable to overcrowding due to its narrow pedestrian lanes, unlike larger towns such as Cannes and Antibes which can more easily handle crowds.
St-Paul is a fortified walled village of stone structures that date back to the 15th and 16th centuries, with some of the best preservation you will ever see. It had fallen apart in recent centuries and by the early 20th century it was quite dilapidated, but it has been fixed up like new – largely because the art industry has moved in. There are 50 art galleries here of the highest quality, along with various shops, restaurants, a couple of small hotels, and several hundred local residents. While the many art galleries exhibit beautiful paintings and sculpture, the main aesthetic attraction here is the town itself. Of all the little towns in the book, St Paul is the one place you should not miss.
The town is easy to visit because it is only 300 meters long by 100 meters wide, and fairly level except for a few staircases, so it's effortless to walk around and see the entire place. You could spend several hours wandering through this medieval maze and be endlessly fascinated. The village is so enchanting you should walk through during the daytime and then again in the early evening with the glorious lighting mixture of twilight sky and illuminated shop interiors casting their glow. In between you could eat, or make a visit to the nearby museum of modern art, the superb Maight Foundation.
While the ancient stones buildings are the main attraction, the cobblestone paving of St Paul is a major work of art in itself, a perfectly composed mosaic of smooth pebbles in endless patterns and harmonious colors, so be sure to look down and admire as you stroll along. If you are especially lucky there will be a brief drizzle to make the cobblestones glisten. Of course the entire village within the walls is all pedestrianized – no cars allowed except the occasional service vehicle. You will get a mild workout as you walk gentle upslopes, downslopes and short staircases, but nothing too steep.
St Paul is easily reached from the nearby city of Nice in a one-hour ride on bus 400, or you could take the train from Nice to Cagnes and then transfer to that same bus for the 7 kilometer road journey from Cagnes-sur-Mer. Choice of ride partly depends on your hotel location in Nice: if staying close to the waterfront, catch the bus in front of the Meridian Hotel by Albert 1st Gardens, but if your hotel is inland near the station, take a train.
When approaching on the main road you get a fine view of St Paul surrounded with its massive walls, standing on a detached promontory, with steep terraced slopes descending into the valley below. The bus then drops you off in front and in two minutes you walk through a little park into the village, or alternatively, ring the bus bell on first sight of the village to get off one stop early in order to enjoy a supreme view of the citadel from the road, then walk five minutes to reach the town.
Like walking into a movie set, yet truly authentic, the dramatic entrance is via the main gate in the massive fortified wall, and then through the inner gate vaulted passage, beneath a tower with a channel for the portcullis grating which dropped down to keep the enemy out. Fortunately no such barriers remain and you easily arrive inside the town.
Start with a stroll along the full length of the village on the main pedestrian lane, Rue Grande, which runs straight through the middle from one end to the other, lined on both sides with old stone buildings. There will be plenty of time to double back and explore the little side lanes and venture into shops and galleries, which are mostly along the main lane.
You never have to worry about getting lost while you're walking around in this village because it is small and very clearly defined with a wall around it, so you know when you've reached the edge of town. You don't need a map to navigate your way around, so you can relax and wander -- you don't have to be in any great rush even if you only have a couple of hours, which is plenty of time to see the village. It's quite small, but each little lane is worth a close look. If you have a full day you could get that much more out of your visit.
While walking the main street you will be impressed by the preservation of its ancient shops. At almost every step one meets with wide arches that contained both the door and window of the shop. There are more houses of obvious antiquity in this place than will be seen in any town of its size in Provence.
When you reach the far end of the main lane after a leisurely 30-minute stroll, you exit through another gateway arch and find a staircase that leads onto the wall with a lovely viewing platform where you can see across the distant landscape. From this terrace you can notice how the walls are wider in some places, with an inner walkway, perhaps for archers to stand and shoot at the attackers. The path along the parapet that sentries once patrolled is undisturbed. One almost expects to hear his challenge for the password. The town is as ready to withstand the attack of an army of bowmen or of halberdiers as it ever was. It might even defy cannon if they were as small and as weak as the old ones that you still see by the main gate. The circle of ramparts, the medieval wall around the town is unbroken. There are still the old gates, the towers, the bastions and the barbicans. St. Paul de Vence offers a vivid realization of the fortified town of the middle ages. It is but little altered and that only superficially. Its fortifications were laid down in 1547 and they are still quite complete.
The small gardens of the adjacent houses slope downhill with dark foliage and golden fruit of their orange groves, forming a beautiful foreground to the lovely views of green rolling hills that are visible off in the distance in every direction. The surrounding countryside offers some lovely nature hikes that you might also enjoy. The tourist information office has brochures describing self-guided walks in the countryside and along the outside of the village for a look at the circuit fortifications of the old wall that runs around town.
The wall extends uninterrupted all the way around the village and dates from the 16th century. It hugs the contours of the rocky spur on which the village stands, forming a 1 kilometer perimeter that has undergone only slight modifications since the 16th century. The ramparts in Saint-Paul de Vence were among the very first bastioned fortifications erected in France to have been designed by a French architect. Back in 1872, the city purchased the bastioned walls of Saint-Paul de Vence. They were declared a Listed Historical Monument in 1945. Today, they are the jewel in the village's historical crown.
At this far end you can walk through an open space between the inside of the wall and the outside of the village, which forms a driveway and small parking lot for the residents. You’ll probably see some locals out for a walk, with parked cars here and there and apartments above in the ancient stone buildings. Then you can walk back up through one of the little side alley staircases and that will return you into the center of the village.
Notice there is a four-star deluxe hotel here in the middle of town, Le Saint Paul, which would be an excellent place to stay if you’d like to spend the night. However it's not open in the off-season, which is actually the best time to visit Saint-Paul because it is pretty empty from the end of October until April. In the peak of the busy summer season it would be a different experience altogether, with 1000 people wandering these lanes -- you might even have human gridlock, but if you are here in November you get the whole village to yourself, and yet most of the shops and nearly all the art galleries are open.
Your walking route from this point can take off in any direction you like, bearing in mind you will soon be going in little circles, so it doesn’t matter which way you go. For now assume you are returning back along the main Rue Grande, where you will soon arrive at the Place de la Grande Fontaine, which stands in the very center of town -- redesigned in the 17th and again in the 19th century. There were several other public wells available in the village, but the Grand Fontaine was certainly the main one. The fountain was designed in a typical Provencal style and has inspired many painters and photographers. This square has always been the busiest spot in the village. From dawn until dusk villagers would come to fetch water, donkeys and mules would drink, and washerwomen would scrub and beat their laundry in the washhouse. That water basin is still there inside the loggia. This little plaza also hosted the weekly market in the 17th century. A picturesque fountain designed in typical Provençal style and has inspired many painters and photographers.
Continue along the path sloping up to the right of the fountain, heading towards the church and old city hall on a small plaza. In a minute you reach the summit of the town with the church and, close to it, the two great, square towers of the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. The taller of the towers was the belfry of the church, while the other was the tower of the town.
The church, L'église Collégiale, dates from the same era as the towers. The church is a small but remarkable monument with an interior that is one of the most beautiful in Provence and certainly one of the most interesting. Among its most notable features are a couple of altar screens of exquisitely carved wood, which date from between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The chapel of St. Clement the Martyr, is a magnificent work of art. It is classified as a national monument. Called the Collegiate Church, the construction stretched about 400 years from the 14th to the 18th century. There’s another advantage to visiting this old church -- next to it you'll find public toilets, which really come in handy.
Getting hungry is no problem with the limited but adequate choice of restaurants, ranging from take-out sandwich to sit-down feast. Consider the friendly crêperie in front of the church with a barrel-vaulted interior that's probably about 500 years old. We had a chance to learn the name of the restaurant from the very friendly lady who owns it. “THE is the French name for tea, and we are a tea room”, she explained, listing crepes, salad, tarte and soups as specialties. Quite easy to find, it's located on the staircase lane just in front of the church. Typical of nearly all the restaurants and cafés of France, you might see a few dogs inside, welcome as part of daily life here, showing how relaxed and friendly people are.
Even though it's a small village we have a lot more lanes to explore, so keep walking. There is just something very special about narrow, pedestrian, medieval stone lanes -- you are surrounded left and right and front and rear by such interesting visuals gliding by, it makes you want to see it all.
Walk around behind the church along Rue Cassette, which leads you to Rue de l'Allée along the backside of town, which offers a view across the distant hills. Continuing along brings you to another lane with vaulting overhead, rue de l'Étoile. You'll often find the arch motif incorporated into the old stone architecture for interiors as well as gateways.
You do need to walk around and explore even in such a tiny village as St-Paul -- get off the main lane and check out the side streets for more shops and sights. Here you will see a wine cellar doorway on the right leading into La Petite Cave de Saint Paul. It's a 14th-century wine cellar open now for wine tasting and purchase, operated by Frederick Theys, an expert who has traveled the world and brought back some great wines, and who was a sommelier in Paris at the Ritz Hotel and the Hotel George 5th.
While walking around in St-Paul de Vence you cannot help but notice the many attractive art galleries. In fact there are at least 21 art galleries in this little town and in addition there are 26 art studios, or ateliers, which is a major reason visitors flock here, but by now you realize Saint-Paul offers much more than mere art galleries. The town itself is a living, breathing work of art breathing work of art.
The way the official Tourism Information Office describes it: “Modern, contemporary, fringe, naive… on gallery walls in Saint-Paul de Vence, talented artists from all schools rub shoulders with their illustrious peers. The village is an open-air gallery with artists at work in their studios and staging exciting exhibitions. A painting hung in the morning can find a home before evening falls… if it captures the heart of a visitor.”
Sometimes as you're walking along you might get lucky and notice an artist inside their studio at work, so go on inside and say hello, maybe have a conversation. They perhaps will tell you something about their work and their style. It’s not very often you can stand over the shoulder of artists and watch them work. You could buy a painting, so contemporary it's still wet.
A lot of money is flowing through this little town with so many high-end art galleries everywhere, and fortunately these funds have been put to good use in fixing up and maintaining the physical structure. There is no graffiti, no trash, nothing is broken and everything is sparkling. They keep the place spic and span, so if you want to see an old medieval village that is as clean as today go visit St-Paul in Provence.
There are also a variety of shops for your perusal: 6 craft shops and 20 other shops for gifts, kitchen goods, glass, clothing, ceramics and herbs -- all sorts of things. There's a bakery, a deli, you can buy olive oil, perfumes and even furniture.
Once again observe how the paving on the lanes is precise and beautiful. It’s so carefully arranged that the sidewalk looks worthy enough to be exhibited inside the galleries or maybe in the Louvre. The first cobbles were laid on village streets in the 1950s and have been perfected so much they are among the finest that you will ever see. Of course cobblestone paving is not all that unusual in small European streets. You find all varieties of size and shapes of the cobbles in your travels -- sometimes large flat flagstones, or crude blocks with deep roots, and other cases like here, so precious they’re more like a necklace that encircles the town with colored stones.
Before leaving St-Paul consider visiting the nearby contemporary art museum, the Maeght Foundation, open every day of the year. It's an easy 600-meter, 10-minute walk from St-Paul, out the front gate, turn left at the bus stop, up a driveway to the garden where you'll be soon enjoying sculptures in the yard by Giacometti, Leger, Miro and many others including Calder, Chagall and Braque. It was founded in 1964 and has got one of the great collections of modern art in all of Europe. For those who enjoy modern art, this small museum is a real treat.
They specialize in 20th-century art, for example with a nice selection of Kandinsky, generally considered to be the inventor of abstract art, the first modern painter. Chagall is another favorite here, and Leger. More than 200,000 visitors come every year. In the summer time it's open from 10 AM till 7 PM and October to June closes at 6 PM. They have a marvelous collection of paintings and sculpture, indoors and out.
After visiting the more commercial art galleries and shops in St-Paul it's refreshing to immerse yourself in some of the finest artists of the 20th century and enjoy some great works by them. Also on the property is a nice café and a library, and a cinema and the garden setting.
When finished with your visit to the museum it's even easier to walk back to the village of St-Paul because now it's downhill, only half a mile. That will take you 10-15 minutes and along the way you'll see a few cars buzzing by, a bit shocking after the tranquility of Saint-Paul.
Don’t leave yet! Return to the village, maybe now it is prime time, late afternoon/early evening, and stroll around. Take you on a walk again through town later in the day enjoying the late afternoon lighting and right on into the evening, which is a really magical time to be here. Why not re-trace all your steps from earlier in the day with this more subdued and magical lighting? This heavenly place deserves another good look. St. Paul, appears so unlike our modern workaday world of hotels, and houses, and railway-stations, and shops, that one can hardly believe that this place is real, and that we are not seeing it in some happy dream. It is very real, however. It has its modern life of births, deaths, and marriages, and its ancient history, dating as far back as the ninth century.
Saint-Paul started life as a fortified village back in the Middle Ages. It's up on a hill and they built a stone wall around it and filled the little village with these stone structures and the stone church, and different little town squares. The architectural interest of the place is immediately apparent. On every hand is evidence of genuine ancient and unaltered work.
The doorways are old and varied in form and almost everyone has a paneled lintel supported by corbels, many of the former containing carved shields and ornaments, and enriched with leaves and scrolls. In St. Paul de Vence will be seen, in almost every street, examples of the little shops of the Middle Ages. Under a wide arch or in a square opening will be found a door approached by a step and by the door a window. Most of these doorways are from the beginning of the sixteenth century, and indicate very early Renaissance work. Others are carved and molded with the double curvature of the late Gothic style, and a few show marks of a simpler and earlier design.
The population of the village and the immediate surroundings is about 3.500 people, most of them living in houses as scattered around in the countryside just outside the walls. Improvements have of course been made, repairs completed. The town of St. Paul remains a rare relic worthy to be placed entirely inside a museum, for it is a museum specimen, but it’s an outdoor museum, a living museum of the very best kind.
While there are a few small private garden courtyards tucked away here and there, for the most part the greenery is potted plants, and it's particularly noticeable as you walk along the narrow residential lane – they have their gardens hanging out front in flower pots.
Take a stroll through little village in the evening when the lighting is beguiling and the town is at its most charming. In the evening it takes on a different character altogether, the soft glow of twilight, and it is very quiet, the shops are closed and there are just a few people walking about. It's more tranquil, hardly any visitors, especially now in the off-season and you really get a chance to take in the physical beauty of St-Paul de Vence.
Many travel tips have been provided on the Tourist Information Office website, and they have a very helpful Tourist Information Office in the village. One of the features of the Tourist Information Office is walking tours. There are 10 different guided walks that you can take with a local guide. One of them is called "History and Heritage " and they say that every block of stone in St-Paul has a story to tell, a visit by Françoise the first, an inspection by Vauban, or the destiny of the great families that shaped that village. The walls the ramparts the houses and the towers have plenty to say about the village's rich past.
That friendly Tourist Information Office has many suggestions for guided tours, and activities, and walks on your own. The Tourist Information website has quite a few brochures available for viewing on-line or for downloading as a pdf. And they also list the shops, the galleries, the artist studios and the hotels.
The tourist information office in the Old Town at the beginning of Rue Grande, where a guide told the following story (at 5:30 into the previous video): “St-Paul is very famous because before it was a very little village with a lot of artists like Picasso, Chagall. There were French actors, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret. In the village you can find around 50 galleries, workshops and artists and so, a lot of shops of decoration of the house. The village was built in 11th – 12th centuries for the first fortifications, and after by Françoise Premiere in the 16th century. It's a medieval village. If you want to do a tour of the village you can find the main street where you can find the shops, the galleries, everything. You have the place where they have the big fountain, and also the heart of the village with the church. And also a lot of shops, the pleasant charming streets, yes.
"About the history of the village, you can find several houses that were from the 12th century. Also for the fortifications, they were built in the 16th century by Françoise Premiere. And St-Paul was a royal city. In the village you can find around three hotels, and there are two very famous hotels. So one with four stars, the name is Le Saint-Paul, and you can live in the heart of the village. So you have different views on the West side, on the East side. After you have the very, very famous hotel, the name is La Colombe d'Or, and the hotel is very famous because different artists like Chagall, Miro, Picasso lived there before. So on the walls of the hotel you can find the paintings, sculpture of the very famous artists. It's a very charming hotel, yes.”
Certainly you could spend just an hour or two, or three hours visiting St-Paul and walk around, enjoy its charms, but you might find that you'd like to spend a night or two here and use it as a base for exploring some of the surrounding countryside, and if you like to do that you have some overnight accommodations. Outside the walls of the town there are seven hotels located nearby. And inside the walls there are actually two lovely hotels.
In the 20th century St-Paul was discovered by actors, poets and writers. The 1950s and '60s were the village's Golden Age. Saint-Paul became an amazing film set, hosting French and foreign movie stars drawn to the French Riviera by the Victorine film studios in Nice and by the Cannes Film Festival.
When you take a close look you'll see most of the art for sale is high quality. Another way to expand your visit is to go inside the galleries, take a look inside the shops, talk to some shopkeepers, especially in small place like this. Go ahead on inside, walk around – that's why the doors open and they want you to come in, they want your business – even if you just taking a look and then exiting and continuing on your little walk.
Well it's finally time to depart St-Paul going out through that same medieval gateway through which you entered many centuries ago. It's a double gateway you see for a really strong defensive fortification.
It's easy to find the bus stop – just walk out the main gate, through the little park across the Place DeGaulle, a very famous gaming courtyard where they love to play pétanque, the ballgame called boules elsewhere. The actor Yves Montand was known to spend a lot of time there back in the days when he was around. If you're here in nice weather during you'll probably see several games going on.
The bus stop is only a short block away. You want to keep your eye on the clock and the bus schedules so that you don't have to wait too long at the bus stop -- they only come about every hour. The only public transportation available is the bus and it's quite convenient. Bus number 400, and the price is very reasonable, only two euro for the bus ticket.
It's an easy ride back to Nice -- it takes about one hour. The bus will take you all the way back into the heart of the city, with some nice scenery along the way. Some views of St-Paul from the distance as you drive by, back to the city of Nice, the best home base for exploring the French Riviera.
The bus will take you direct – no need to transfer. Obviously it makes stops along the way but it moves along nicely. Alternatively you could get off the bus at Cagnes and take the train the rest of the way, which could be good if your hotel in Nice is near the train station, but if you're staying down by the water it is much better to stay on the bus, because it'll bring you to Albert the 1st Park right at Avenue Verdun by Le Meridian Hotel.
Home to rest up after a very busy day, especially if you followed our suggestions to visit Antibes and Cannes along the way. By now you are tired, so get a good rest and be ready for another big day tomorrow.