Share romantic nights under the stars with that special someone, in the quaint, romantic village of Saint Paul de Vence, which has been the inspiration of numerous artists. Follow in the footsteps of Picasso and Matisse, in this French hilltop village, which almost seems to touch the sky. Wander through the charming, cobbled streets, which meander through an abundance of art galleries, cafés, boutiques, fountains and sculptures. Lush, colourful flowers creep up the pale, stone buildings, and in the spring and summer their scent wafts through the village, floating on warm enticing breezes.
Forget the saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but instead sit down with your loved one at an outdoor café, and enjoy Picasso’s favourite drink, absinthe, whilst watching the world go by.
Some of the famous visitors
Actor Nigel Havers has been going to Saint Paul de Vence since he was 6 years old. His favourite haunt is La Colombe d’Or, which he describes as feeling like a “well-worn, gloriously comfortable glove.” Other famous visitors to the village who have stayed at this hotel are Sophia Loren, Greta Garbo, Jean-Paul Sartre, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Simone de Beauvoir, Catherine Deneuve, and Yves Montand and Simone Signoret held their wedding reception there.
This hotel was originally a humble inn opened by Paul and Baptistine Roux. The motto was: “Welcome here on foot, on horseback or on canvas!” Paul Roux became one of Picasso’s closest friends. Screenwriter and poet, Jacques Prévert, discovered the village in 1941, and during his years there became a close friend of Picasso’s, making up the tight trio, with Roux.
Artist Marc Chagall can be found in his final resting place in the village cemetery. During his time living there, he was inspired to paint many pictures which featured romantic couples against a backdrop of a calm blue sky.
The American writer, James Baldwin, learned to speak impeccable French, and stood out as a striking character during the 17 years he lived in the area. Beauford Delaney, the American painter, was a regular visitor to Baldwin’s home, where he painted portraits of him and his companion, Bernard Hassell.
Bill Wyman, the former Rolling Stone bassist has a house there and British actor, Donald Pleasence died there in 1995.
Other notable names are artist Jean-Michel Folon, actor Lino Ventura and of course Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, who in collaboration with various artists, opened the Fondation Maeght, which has contributed immensely to the village’s wonderful reputation for art and culture.
Although neither an artist or a writer, another famous personality who lived there was Célestin Freinet. From 1928 to 1933, the renowned educator and pedagogue, taught in the primary school, and raised plenty of local eyebrows with his alternative teaching methods.
Of course we cannot forget the impact that Matisse had in the village, where he produced what many consider his most important work – the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, which will be featured below.
The village today
Spectacular views combined with romance, fine dining and culture make Saint Paul de Vence a favourite today for well-heeled travellers. It is also a bit of a shopper’s paradise, with all manner of speciality textiles, gourmet gifts and clothing for sale. The breathtaking beauty of the region continues to make it a haven for artists, and the galleries are filled with original sketches and paintings available for that one-of-a-kind vacation souvenir. Explore the many boutiques or soak up the warm sun in the open-air markets in the centre of the village, which can be found every day except for Monday and Friday.
Discover the many treasures that lie within the ramparts of the village. Following in the footsteps of Picasso and Matisse, prepare yourself by taking a drink at the Café de la Place, in the legendary Place du Jeu de Boules. Then it’s off to take in the Porte de Vence, the powerful, intimidating fortified gateway, and the panoramic views of the local countryside en route to the cemetery. Located in a picturesque setting, the cemetery is the rather beautiful resting place of Marc Chagall, artist, amongst others. Art lovers, historians and tourists flock to the site to lay small, white stones of remembrance at his simple tomb.
Other of the many jewels in the village’s crown are the Place de la Grande Fontaine, the Place de l’Eglise, the Musée d’Histoire Locale (Local History Museum), Rue Grande, the Folon Chapel, the Collegiate Church and of course Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence.
Matisse started work, aged 77, on the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, which is often called either the Vence Chapel or the Matisse Chapel. He had been nursed back to health after surgery for cancer by a young, pretty nurse, Monique Bourgeois, who in 1943 became a nun, Sister Jacques Marie. It was her order, the Dominicans, who wished to build the chapel, so she asked for Matisse’s help. She tells the story of their collaboration and friendship, in her book Henri Matisse: La Chapelle de Vence. Matisse said about his masterpiece: “What I have done in the chapel is to create a religious space . . . in an enclosed area of very reduced proportions and to give it, solely by the play of colors and lines, the dimensions of infinity.”
The striking Fondation Maeght is another place not to be missed. It houses pieces from artists such as Joan Miró, Bonnard, Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Marc Chagall, and Braque among others. After visiting, you can take the road past the Fondation Maeght and explore the enchanting, fairytale forest just outside of town.
Art and luxury in the hotels of Saint Paul de Vence
Why not relax in the outdoor jacuzzi amongst the hundred year old olive trees? The Le Mas de Pierre is a five-star luxury hotel located on the Route de Serres, featuring sumptuous French décor and gorgeous, palatial rooms and terrace suites. The hotel features a shady, sprawling grove of these lovely old olive trees as well as a greenhouse orchid garden, and most of the vegetables and herbs used in the hotel restaurant, La Table de Pierre, are also grown right there on site.
The restaurant offers mouthwatering dishes of both classic and contemporary French cuisine, with an extensive selection of decadent wines and cocktails. The rooftop terrace, with its expansive ocean vistas, is especially relaxing at sunset. A horse riding club, on-call doctor and spa vouchers round out the generous amenities at Le Mas de Pierre.
Romantic and charming, this hotel epitomises the flavour of Provence. The cicadas’ sounds will guide you to this lovingly restored 18th century country manor, which offers guests sun-drenched luxury and four-star dining and accommodation. The boutique hotel’s pastel décor and French Provençal furnishings are oozing with old-world warmth and charm. The hotel’s restaurant provides a decadent terrace breakfast buffet with some of the finest baked goods in Provence.
Relax in the evening by the candlelit pool, and take in the breathtaking hillside views. One of the most charming extras offered by Le Grande Bastide is their free shuttle service; every day, a member of the hotel staff escorts guests to town in the hotel’s beautiful Citroën.
For the ultimate in French Provençal decadence, the exclusive five-star Hotel Le Saint Paul is the place to stay. The hotel’s structure is noble and statuesque, situated on sun-drenched grounds filled with colourful hibiscus and bougainvillea. Each room is decorated with sumptuous textiles and furniture, and the artwork in each room is original. No two rooms are alike, and each one is flawlessly decorated down to the minutest of details.
The Restaurant Le Saint Paul features two spacious, airy dining rooms and ivy-covered terrace café areas. The renowned chef specialises in seafood, using ocean delicacies which are caught in the waters surrounding Provence. The constantly rotating menu features dishes that highlight the produce, cheeses and oils that are local to the region.
Within the hotel, a small spa offers services such as deep tissue massage and beauty treatments to soothe and pamper travel-weary patrons during their stay.
Matisse once called this little hotel a “a small paradise” and it truly has its own special charm. La Colombe d’Or is frequently called the most beautiful inn in France. Stay there or go there for drinks or dinner, and you’ll be continuing to follow in the footsteps of Picasso, who used to hang out there with other arty types in his day.
Art from Picasso, Matisse and others, is said to have been given as as form of payment for food and drink. In the dining room you’ll see real Bonnards, Legers and Miros adorning the walls, in the bar there’s a Braque and in the garden a Rodin and César’s The Thumb. This is the spot to have a drink under a genuine Picasso.
The food, and the inn, are considered by many to be unpretentious, but there is a magical atmosphere, and celebrities love to flock there. Rabbit stew is one of the specialities and the hors d’oeuvres are famous, and rather generous.
This auberge is not luxurious in the modern way we have become accustomed to, but staying at La Columbe d’Or feels like you’re an invited guest, at a fabulous French house party!
Jackie de Burca is Co-owner of Holiday Home Advice.