Insight Guides: Explore Nice & the French Riviera (Insight Explore Guides) (2015)
Still ringed by ramparts and a curving wall of buildings punctuated by gateways, the historic centre of Vence forms an attractive labyrinth, where traces of the Roman town of Ventium can still be seen amid the medieval lanes.
DISTANCE: 1km (0.75 mile)
TIME: A half day
START: Place du Grand Jardin
END: Château de Villeneuve - Fondation Emile Hugues
POINTS TO NOTE: From Nice get to Vence via Cagnes-sur-Mer (either taking the M6007 or the autoroute E80) then take the M336 and park in the car park under Place du Grand-Jardin; you can also take a bus (nos 400 or 94) from Nice via Cagnes-sur-Mer or a taxi from Cagnes-sur-Mer.
Vence has a chequered history. It was occupied by the Phoenicians and the Gauls. The Romans named it Ventium and made it an important religious centre when the town converted to Christianity early on, a change usually attributed to St Trophime. The first bishopric was founded here in AD 374, and the town quickly became an important regional centre. The Lombards ravaged the region at the fall of the Roman Empire, and they were followed by the equally destructive Saracens.
Old Vence’s two main sights - the old cathedral and former château of the lords of Villeneuve - point to the power struggle between bishops and nobility that long dominated the town. With the eruption of the French Revolution in 1789, Bishop Pisani was forced to flee the country and the see was never restored. Vence drifted into a steady decline so that by the beginning of the 20th century, it was half deserted, with many houses in ruins. After World War I, writers and artists including André Gide, D.H. Lawrence (who died here in 1930), Raoul Dufy, Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine were drawn to the town. Today, tourism and sunbelt industries have transformed Vence into a bustling centre of more than 17,000 people.
Vence’s well-preserved walled and oval Old Town defies the urban sprawl
Start your walk at place du Grand-Jardin 1 [map], situated on the edge of the historic centre and home to the farmers’ market (Tue-Sun am), a flea market on Wednesdays, Les Nuits du Sud summer world music festival (for more information, click here), the Tourist Office (for more information, click here), and several bistros and cafés, including La Régence, see 1.
PORTE DU PEYRA
From the northeastern corner of the square, cross avenue Henri Isnard and go through the Porte du Peyra 2 [map], an arched gateway through the city wall, adjoining a fortified 12th-century tower. The ramparts were built in the 13th and 14th centuries and once had a broad walk running along the top. A tablet proclaims the virtues of the Source de la Foux, a spring bringing delicious fresh calcium-rich water from the mountain to the drinking fountain beneath and the adjacent 19th-century urn-shaped fountain. Behind on the place du Peyra, probable forum of the Roman city of Ventium, ancient chestnut trees shade the café and restaurant terraces, and the Poterie du Peyra provides a tasteful selection of Provençal pottery, table linen and kitchenwares. The medieval centre of Vence is very picturesque and, once you get away from the souvenir sellers, the lanes and alleyways are little changed from previous centuries.
Cross the square and turn right into narrow rue du Marché, where the former ground-floor stables and kitchens now contain excellent food shops, including Poivre d’Âne. Turn left up ruelle de la Mairie to place Clémenceau, home to the Hôtel de Ville (town hall), inaugurated in 1911 on the site of the former bishop’s palace. Here you will also find some good restaurants including Les Agapes 2.
On the outskirts of Vence towards St-Jeannet, the Chapelle du Rosaire (468 avenue Henri Matisse; tel: 04 93 58 03 26; Mon, Wed and Sat 2-5.30pm, Tue and Thur 10-11.30am and 2-5.30pm; charge) is the spiritual masterpiece of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). It was designed between 1947-51 in gratitude to the young Dominican nun Sister Jacques-Marie, who had nursed and sat for him when he was living in Vence during World War II. The elderly artist conceived everything from the building itself, with its blue-and- white glazed pantiles and simple lancet windows, to the gilded crucifix on the altar. The calm interior is a wonderful mix of Matisse’s mastery of line, as seen in St Dominic, the Virgin and Child and the Stations of the Cross drawn in black on white tiles, and of colourful stained glass, the reflections of which send dapples of yellow and green across the walls.
To its right is the Cathédrale 3 [map], built between the 12th and 15th centuries on the site of an earlier Merovingian church which was in turn built on top of a Roman temple dedicated to Mars. From 374 until the French Revolution, Vence was a bishopric and had a tradition of powerful clerics: the bishops Véran (5th century) and Lambert (12th century) were both declared saints, while Farnese (16th century) declined the Vence bishop’s crosier, going instead to the Holy See to become Pope Paul III. He proved to be quite generous to Vence, however, and donated several reliquaries.
The unusual side entrance has painted cherubs over the doorway and Roman tablets inserted into the pilasters on either side of the door.
Inside is a triple-naved Romanesque structure with numerous fragments of Carolingian carving from the earlier church incorporated into the walls and columns. Set into an elaborate sculpted frame behind the font is a delicate mosaic designed by Chagall, depicting the baby Moses in his cradle in the bulrushes against a sparkling sun. Also worth admiring are the 15th-century oak and pearwood choir stalls carved by Jacques Bellot of Grasse, alive with animals, plants and sometimes irreverent details of clerical life.
The distinctive white-and-blue Chapelle du Rosaire
ALONG THE MOAT
Leave the cathedral and double back across the square into rue Alsace Lorraine to take the Porte du Pontis 4 [map], which is a vaulted passage that emerges onto avenue Marcelin Maurel. This was once the moat that divided the walled town from the outer faubourgs (districts).
Turn left and follow what is now a busy shopping street until place Antony Mars, and return to the old city through the 13th-century Porte du Signadour 5 [map] into rue de l’Hôtel de Ville.
Turn right down rue St-Lambert, a characterful medieval street, taking a look on the way at the archway, on the right with a Roman stele inserted into the wall, which leads into evocatively named place de l’Enfer (Hell).
Place du Grand-Jardin
AROUND PLACE GODEAU
At the end of rue St-Lambert, turn left into place Godeau 6 [map], the pleasant tree-lined square behind the cathedral, named after 17th-century poet bishop Antoine Godeau, who was a founder member of the Académie Française. In the centre is a granite Roman column.
To the right of the narrow Gothic doorway at no. 5, take rue des Portiques, which overlies part of the Roman road between Cimiez and Castellane, and turn left at the end into rue St-Véran, one of the main thoroughfares through the town. Explore the series of narrow, stepped streets such as impasse du Cimetière Vieux, rue Ste-Élisabeth, rue Pisani and rue Ste-Luce, which lead off it to boulevard Paul André 7 [map], where the once imposing ramparts have been cut down to provide beautiful views of Les Baous mountains.
CHÂTEAU DE VILLENEUVE
Take rue Pisani into rue de l’Evêché, full of craft galleries and artists’ studios.
Head west back to place du Peyra. On the edge of the square is the rear entrance of the Auberge des Seigneurs, see 3, a historic inn that is still a fine place to stay or eat. Also here is the Château de Villeneuve - Fondation Emile Hugues 8 [map] (tel: 04 93 58 15 78; Tue-Sun 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm; charge), the 17th-century mansion of the lords of Villeneuve, which can be entered through the bookshop beside Porte du Peyra or from place du Frêne.
Inside, leading off a grandiose balustraded staircase, are well-restored, light-filled rooms as well as a tiny square cabinet (tiny room) with a frescoed ceiling, which are used for interesting temporary exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.
Leave the Château on place du Frêne, where the ash tree in the centre is supposed to have been planted in 1538 in honour of the visit by François 1er and Pope Paul III.
Food and Drink
1 LA RÉGENCE
10 place du Grand Jardin; tel: 04 9324 02 10; daily B, L and D; €
The place to go for coffee, breakfast, a snack or a cake. There’s a good selection of vegetarian dishes and free WiFi too.
2 LES AGAPES
4 place Clémenceau; tel: 04 93 58 50 64; Tue-Sun L and D; €€
This smart bistro’s garden courtyard is the place to sample elegant, beautifully presented Provençal dishes. There is a good-value lunch menu featuring pork stuffed with dried tomatoes accompanied by blettes and ricotta-filled pasta drizzled with an olive emulsion.
3 AUBERGE DES SEIGNEURS
Place du Frêne; tel: 04 93 58 04 24; www.auberge-seigneurs.com; Tue-Sat L and D; €€
Spanning a wing of the château between place du Frêne and place du Peyra, this venerable inn has welcomed centuries of illustrious and ordinary travellers, serving classic Provençal dishes in a dining room with a beautiful fireplace. There are also six good-sized bedrooms.