Saint Paul de Vence – The walled city

Saint Paul de Vence is a picturesque fortified village perched on a rocky spur that overlooks Cagnes-sur Mer.

Saint Paul de Vence
Nestled behind its ramparts

The village of Saint-Paul became known as Saint Paul de Vence, because of the proximity of Vence.

It also differentiated it from the other 9 French villages bearing the same name!

The name Saint Paul de Vence became official in 2011.

The Eglise Saint Michel-du-Puy was built in the 10th century and immediately attracted a small community.

The current church replaced the modest chapel during the 16th century.

This church district and its cemetery are located below the medieval fortifications.

Why was Saint Paul de Vence fortified in the late 14th century?

The region was the property of the Counts of Provence, who in the 13th century granted Saint Paul de Vence with a series of privileges.

Among those were the right to hold a weekly market, a sought after privilege that had a huge impact on the prosperity of the village.

One of the most significant dates in the history of Saint Paul de Vence is 1388.

This was indeed when the County of Nice (the current department of Alpes Maritimes) was attached to the Duchy of Savoy (the current Savoie and Haute-Savoie).

Saint Paul de Vence - Place de la Grande Fontaine
Place de la Grande Fontaine

Saint Paul de Vence was therefore fortified, because it then stood at the border of the Kingdom of France and Duchy of Savoy!

It remained a border town until 1860 when Savoy was annexed to France.

The gate, Porte de Vence, and the square Tour de l’Eperon are the vestiges of these original fortifications.

The Donjon (keep) is the only remnant of the medieval fortress that was pulled down during construction work conducted in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Donjon has housed the town-hall of Saint Paul de Vence since the French Revolution.

The bell located at the top of the tower was cast in 1443.

It bears the Latin inscription:‘hora is jam somno suggested’ 
‘The hours invite us to dream’
‘Les heures nous invitent à la rêverie’

As a border town, Saint Paul de Vence was quite exposed to the territorial disputes that opposed François I and Emperor Charles V.

The fortifications of Francois I

Charles V indeed occupied the fortress in 1524 and besieged it in 1536!

Francois I therefore traveled to Saint Paul de Vence in 1438 (and sojourned in the Donjon) in order to assess how to turn the town into an impregnable stronghold.

He consequently commissioned the military engineer Jean de Renaud de Saint Remy with the construction of new fortifications reinforced with bastions.

Saint Paul de Vence - Fortifications

These were built between 1543 and 1547.

They turned Saint Paul de Vence into one of the first fortresses with bastions built in France and designed by a French architect.

These fortifications, which are still standing in their original state, follows the contours and declivity of the rocky spur on which Saint Paul de Vence was built.

They are over a kilometre long and include impressive bastions and curtain walls.

The Bastion du Dauphin protected the north gate of Saint Paul de Vence and faces the Royal Bastion.

The cross-fire cannons produced by the two bastions ensured a very effective defence that made the fortress of Saint Paul de Vence impregnable.

Anecdote: the gun, whose barrel is seen coming out one of the apertures is known as Lacan, and was named after one of François I’s gunners.

The second significant date in the history of Saint Paul de Vence is 1666.

This is when the bishop of Vence elevated the Eglise de la Conversion de Saint Paul de Vence to the rank of Collegiate Church.

The church was enlarged and embellished while retaining superb Romanesque architectural features, such as the pillars and buttresses of the nave and the chancel.

However, what makes this edifice exceptional is the Chapelle Saint Clément, built in 1680.

Its furnishings and decoration (stucco and frescoes) turn it indeed into a masterpiece of Baroque style.

The ever-growing influence of Saint Paul de Vence attracted the nobility and gentility, who built many mansions in the heart of the old citadel.

Many of these historical buildings are located in the Rue Grande.

At no71 you’ll come across the 16th century mansion with medieval windows and the Hôtel d’Alziari de Roquefort at no92.

The Place de la Grande Fontaine was the citadel’s main square and accommodated the weekly market.

It was renovated in the 17th and the 19th centuries.

In 1872 the municipality of Saint Paul de Vence bought the fortifications and saved them from destruction!

These were classified as Historical Monument in 1945.

Saint Paul de Vence, home the great artists of the 20th century

The citadel of Saint Paul de Vence is known for its exceptional architectural heritage.

It is also known for attracting the most celebrated artists of the 20th century.

All began in a very understated way in 1920 when Paul Roux, the son of a local farmer, opened a café in Saint Paul de Vence.

Saint Remy de Provence - Saint-Paul-de-Mausole

In 1932, Paul and his wife Titine transformed Le Robinson into a three-rooms inn and renamed it La Colombe d’Or.

This was the start of an incredible cultural and artistic adventure!

Indeed in 1940, the filmmaker Jacques Prévert fell under the charm and quiet atmosphere of Saint Paul de Vence, while working in the cinema Studios de la Victorine in Nice.

He initially stayed at La Résidence, the current Café de la Place, then moved to La Colombe d’Or after befriending Paul Roux.

He was soon joined by his filmmakers friends Georges Clouzot, Marcel Carné or André Cayatte, but also by a young Pablo Picasso, who left many collages in the inn.

La Colombe d’Or became ‘home’ to many artists of the era such Duffy, Signac or Soutine, who came to paint in Saint Paul de Vence, attracted by its unique light and charm.

Paul often accommodated his artists friends (many were still little known!) in exchange of their artworks.

Thus began an extraordinary collection of drawings and paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Miro and Léger.

Without realising it, he turned La Colombe d’Or into a museum and cultural center!

La Colombe d’Or has retained its unique atmosphere.

It is now a luxury hotel with 13 rooms and 12 apartments, which is still favoured by many celebrities of the arts and cinema.

Yves Montand and Simone Signoret met at La Colombe d’Or in 1949.

They were married the following year in the town-hall of Saint Paul de Vence (Donjon) in the presence of their witnesses Jacques Prévert and Paul Roux.

1950 was another significant date.

This is when Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, a couple of gallery owners, art dealers and great patrons of the arts, moved to Saint Paul de Vence.

Maeght Foundation - Man Walking by Giacometti
Man Walking by Giacometti

They were already exhibiting the work of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century in their galleries of Cannes and Paris.

In 1964 they founded the Foundation Maeght at no623 Chemin des Gardettes.

Marc Chagall and his wife Vava settled in the village in 1966.

They built a large villa, La Colline, outside the city walls and next to the Maeght’s residence (Mas Bernard).

He painted extensively in the years he spent there and where he met his friends at La Colombe d’Or or at the Café de la Place.

Chagall died in 1985 and was buried in the cemetery of Saint Paul de Vence, not far from the Maeght.

The American writer and humorist James Baldwin moved to Saint Paul de Vence in 1970.

He spent the last 17 years of his life in a mas located on Chemin du Pilon, outside the ramparts.

This is where he entertained his many prestigious painter, singer and comedian friends.

Among those were Beauford Delaney, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitiers, Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Marguerite Yourcenar, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret…

His friend Bill Crosby even had red roses delivered to him every year on his birthday!

Baldwin died in Saint Paul de Vence.

He was, however, buried in Ferncliff cemetery in Hartdale near New York.

The Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon discovered the medieval citadel when visiting his friend, the sculptor Cesar Badalccini.

He moved to Saint Paul de Vence in 1970.

In 2008 he redecorated the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, a 17th century chapel restored in the early 2000s.

Folon also painted the street sign located above the entrance door of La Colombe d’Or!

The Chapelle du Rosaire is another unique building despite its simplicity and austerity.

Built from 1949 to 1951 by the architect Auguste Perret, it is also known as Chapelle Matisse.

The painter indeed created the stunning stained glass windows that reflect their vibrant blue, yellow and green hues on the white walls of the tiny building.

Needless to say that Saint Paul de Vence is one of the most visited villages in Provence!

Department of Alpes Maritimes
Coordinates: Lat 43.696973 – Long 7.122138

Photos Wikimedia Commons: headerNestled behind its walls Place de la Grande Fontaine – fortifications

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