Trip to Vence

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.

Trip to Rivarolo Canavese

When my beloved told me we were visiting the home town of one of his new clients, Rivarolo Canavese, I thought it sounded like a full-bodied red wine. But no, it’s a wonderfully historic town just 30 minutes north-east of Turin.

We drove there on a glorious Friday morning when all along the motorway the trees were just starting to show off their new lime-green finery and pale-blossoms. The crops in the farmers’ fields were showing early emerald shoots, lambs were gambolling and cows were lazily chewing the grassy green cud. This was all set against a backdrop of mountains still dusted with snow. Spring had most definitely sprung.

A bit of research revealed Riverolo’s ancient name of “Riparolium” means “place on the bank of the stream.” You can clearly see the “stream” in the map of the town below. In December 1862, shortly after the Unification of Italy, it was renamed Rivarolo Canavese to distinguish it from other similarly named towns in neighbouring Lombardy and Liguria.

Riparolium is first mentionned in an old document dating back to 1000 AD. From 1200 it belonged to the families of the Counts of Valperga and San Martino. The town’s  original early medieval core was enlarged in 13th century with a comb-like urban layout and walls. In 1358 the Counts of Savoy granted partial autonomy to the town in respect of the management of its ovens and mills. Mid-18th century the town’s medieval fabric was remodelled in a Baroque style. In 1863 Rivarolo achieved city status thanks to its socio-economic growth  and the construction of a rail link to Turin.

Nowadays Rivarolo sits at the centre of an efficient road and rail network linking it with Turin, its airport and the rest of the Canavese region. The town’s former activities in textiles and leather production have downsized but become more upscale with the presence of numerous artisan businesses.

The city’s main axis is a wide road (Corso Indipendenza) featuring a number of interesting 19th century buildings, such as Casa Pistono, Casa Maspes, Villa Recrosio and Villa Vallero which houses exhibitions, cultural events and educational activities and is surrounded by a public park. On week days there’s a small food market, largely fruit and vegetables, which morphs into a footwear and textiles one on Saturday mornings.

Given its interesting history, there’s plenty to see, particularly in its Old Town which spreads around the arcaded via Ivrea and features a number of former palaces: Palazzo Palma di Borgofranco, Palazzo Farina, Palazzo Toesca and Palazzo Lomellini, now the Town Hall. There’s also some really beautiful old shop fronts, many of which are still used for their original purpose.

Along this same street, there are also three churches the most spectacular of which is the octagonal, brick-built Baroque church of San Michele Arcangelo which dates back to 11th century, with 18th century additions.  Practically, opposite one another you’ll find the Church of the Confraternity of Jesus which has an elegant painted façade with a large wooden door and the Church of San Rocco and San Carlo which was built by the community after it had been devastated by the plague in 1630.

The town also has its own castle which I spied in the distance. Malgra Castle was built by the Counts of San Martino in 1333. It was renovated, at the end of 19th century by the architect Alfredo D’Andrade. In the inner courtyard there is a crenellated tower and a small portico with 14th century frescoes. Owned by the municipality since 1982, you can only visit it on Sunday afternoons from May to October.

After pounding the cobbled pavements in the town, I checked out its splendid coffee and cake shops, all in the interests of research you understand. Later when my beloved had finished work for the day we were able to sample the town’s offering of our favourite pre-dinner tipple, an Aperol Spritz, before a delicious dinner with his client.