I’m slowly running out of material from my various trips and travels though I might just be able to eke them out until 11 May, when some restrictions may be lifted.
We’ve previously explored La Colle sur Loup, Saint-Paul de Vence and now we’re heading further up into the hills behind where I live to Vence, the site of my favourite training hill, Col de Vence. I particularly like the small individual shops in and around its charming, circular walled Old Town. It’s a town I frequently visit, usually on my bike.
Vence was formerly the ancient Roman settlement of Vintium, and subsequently became the bishopric and seigneury of the Villeneuve family. The town has conserved much of its historical heritage, erected largely in the Middle Ages, including the five entrance gates into the heart of Vence: the Porte du Peyra, an original entrance although rebuilt in the early 19th century; the Porte d’Orient added in 18th century; the Porte du Signadour, an original 13th century gateway; le Pontis, added in 1863; and the Portail Levis, one of the original entrances, although the tower that originally stood above the gate has since been lost.
We typically park in Vence’s Place Maréchal Juin, the main town square before following the Avenue de la Résistance towards the historic centre, entering through one of its original gateways in the ramparts. We’ll usually enter through the Porte du Peyra, next to a 16th century ash tree donated to the town by Francois I, and the Château de Villeneuve, now converted into contemporary art museum.
Public executions used to take place in Place du Peyra, but it’s now a peaceful square with cafes and a fountain! The layout of Vence’s historical centre broadly follows a circular route, with various smaller roads that all lead sooner or later to the main square, Place Clemenceau where a market is held every Tuesday.
Many of the most important historic monuments in Vence are in and around Place Clemenceau, including the Town Hall, and along the adjacent Passage Cahours. These include the jewel of the city’s religious heritage, the Notre-Dame de la Nativité Cathedral, a classified historic landmark, former HQ of the diocese of Vence and France’s smallest cathedral.
Built on the site of a Roman temple, later a Carolingian church, its architecture and furniture reflects the richness of Vence’s heritage. Inside it contains stalls sculpted by Jacotin Bellot, a carpenter from nearby Grasse (15th century), a beautiful 16th century altar piece, a unique set of 17th century polychrome wooden statues, a mosaic by Marc Chagall (“Moses saved from the waters”) and a Saint-Veran sarcophagus dating back to 5th century.
Another of Vence’s highlights is the Chapel of the Penitents Blancs, on the approach to the Old Town, boasting a cupola covered with multi-coloured varnished tiles and a Renaissance belltower. It’s home to a number of exhibitions throughout the year.
All around the Old Town there are lots of cafes, and there is still a strong art connection in Vence with numerous small art galleries. Outside the historic walls you can also take a stroll around the Place du Frêne, to check out the views of the surrounding hills, and the newly renovated Place du Grand Jardin.
A 15 minute walk from Vence, there’s the Chapelle du Rosaire, also known as the “Matisse Chapel”. The small chapel was designed inside and out by Henri Matisse in the years following the end of WWII and is reckoned to be among his greatest artistic achievements (albeit not in the traditional ‘Matisse’ style). It’s delightful – small yet perfectly formed.
Most of the pleasure from visiting Vence comes from simply strolling around the old town admiring the ancient houses and the picturesque and shady old squares full of cafes and restaurants where you can just relax and enjoy the setting. It is the ensemble – the attractiveness of the town as a whole, the flower bedecked streets, the views across the countryside – that will stay longer in your memories than any one of its particular monuments.