Just 16 km from Nice, Vence sits on a 60-feet rocky outcrop nestled in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean sea with astonishing views towards Cap d’Antibes, the Alps and the Estérel Mountains. Sheltered by two stunning cliffs, Baou des Blancs and Baou des Noirs, (Baou is a Provencal word meaning “rocky spur”) its south-facing aspect offers a mild climate throughout the winter.
It is bordered by the towns of Saint-Paul de Vence, la Colle-sur-Loup, Tourrettes-sur-Loup, Courmes, Coursegoules, Bézaudun-les-Alpes, Saint-Jeannet and la Gaude.
The commune of Vence stretches across an area of 3,923 hectares of which 500 hectares is forest and 2000 hectares dry, almost prairie-like, landscape and is home to over 17,000 inhabitants, called Vençois.
This charming town is made even more attractive by its flowered squares, numerous hanging baskets, large earthenware tubs overflowing with colourful plants, and its amazing number and variety of trees.
Although Vence is normally called “The City of Art”, I’d also be tempted to call it the “City of Trees”. The town has been carefully landscaped with a remarkable number of tree varieties such as Lime, Oak, Nettle, Palm, Carob, Persimmon, Jujube, Olive, Plane and Judas trees to name just a few but which makes Vence a truly ‘green & leafy’ town.
An Impressive Ash Tree
But the most historical and illustrious of them all is the enormous Ash tree on Place du Frêne close to Porte du Peyra. It was planted to mark the visit of King François I and Pope Paul III during the drawing up of the Trêve de Nice in 1538 – and is over 475 years old.
Another notable attraction of Vence is its water and, as such, the town could almost be listed as a spa. From its origins in the Lubiane valley, the “Foux” water is channelled to various stone built fountains dotted around the town where it is freely available to the villagers. It is renowned for its diuretic and cleansing effect.
During my first visit to Vence I noticed quite a few people filling up their plastic bottles and earthenware jugs with water. I came armed the next time and filled up my flask. Its taste is clean, fresh and surprisingly good and reminded me of Evian mineral water.
Vence is a careful blend of the new and the old, with the old town maintaining its walled circle of medieval buildings, as it must have appeared hundreds of years ago. Five medieval gateways give entry into the walled city: Porte d’Orient, Porte du Portail Levis, Porte du Peyra, Porte du Pontis and Porte du Signadour.
A little bit of history
The town of Vence has been rich in history ever since the Nerusii, a celto-ligurian people established themselves there. Marked by Latin civilisation, Vence then became a bishopric until the Concordat. Numerous churches and chapels bear witness to the long Catholic tradition of the town.
But there is also a very strong Knights Templar (a military and religious order founded in Jerusalem in 1118 during the Crusades) legacy, and this is never more noticeable than when driving up to the Col de Vence, along avenue des Templiers and discovering the amazing Château du Domaine St Martin.
Originally a Roman stronghold, Saint Martin, then Bishop of Tours, visited the site in 350 AD. The site was later named after him and a small chapel erected. In 1115, the Count of Provence handed over the estate to the Crusaders returning from Jerusalem.
In 1118 monks of the Order of the Knights Templars came and settled in Vence and built their “commanderie” on that very estate. The vantage point is awe-inspiring and must have been quite invincible in their day.
The Château, now a magnificent luxury hotel, sits in 32,5 acres of beautiful parkland and rolling hillside. I have known several people who have stayed there and say how remarkable it is – with views to take your breath away. And, as you can imagine, the Château makes for the most romantic of wedding venues.
Alexandre Farnèse, Bishop of Vence, became Pope Paul III, in 1507. He served as mediator between King Francois I and Charles V on the occasion of the treaty of Nice in 1538. In 1911, the town hall was built on the site of the former bishop’s palace. The Château des Villeneuve was bought by Emile Hugues, Mayor of Vence (1945-1959), then Keeper of the Seals, who donated it to the town of Vence in 1966. It is now home to some outstanding exhibitions devoted to 20th century art.
The cathedral, originally built in the IV century on the foundations of a Roman temple, took its present form in the XIII century. It has many treasures, among which a unique set of 49 statues in polychrome wood, (this term is usually used to describe sculptural or decorative objects finished or decorated with paint or glaze) and a remarkable mosaic by Chagall “Moses Saved from the Waters” which the artist did for the cathedral in 1979.
The Artist & Writers
Vence’s unique position, incredible light and wonderful climate has also been a magnet to a series of painters, sculptors and writers; Dufy, Matisse, Chagall, Dubuffet, Carzou, Arman, and Anthony Mars have all been part of the Vence scene. The town is full of galleries, sculptures, decorated buildings and frequent (summertime) outdoor exhibits.
A 5-10 minute walk from the centre of town across the bridge over “Le Foux” river, brings you to the Chapelle du Rosaire also known as the Chapelle Matisse, while the Henri Matisse Cultural Centre can be found inside an ancient olive oil mill located “descente des Moulins”.
In 1930, the author DH Lawrence spent his last days in Vence, and was buried there. His remains were exhumed in March 1935 and incinerated at Marseille on March 13.
Every morning local producers bring their products to the Place du Grand Jardin, and on Tuesday and Fridays to Places Surian, Godeau and Clémenceau. An antiques market is held on Place de Grand Jardin every Wednesday.
The town offers a wide choice of restaurants, where all cuisines are represented; several Asian restaurants coexist alongside French and Italian ones. Fine weather has many restaurants offering eating arrangements outside and menus are both interesting and affordable.
In July and August, Vence hosts “Les Nuits du Sud” – open air concerts on Friday and Saturday nights and held in the main square.
If you liked Eze and Tourrettes-sur-Loup, you’ll love Vence. Normal life and tourists blend easily together. Although in some ways a perched village, the old town itself is flat and nearly all pedestrian. It has none of the steep narrow streets so much associated with other perched villages.
We especially liked the open, leafy squares where art galleries, Provençal boutiques and charming restaurants rubbed shoulders together.
Parking is relatively easy as there is a choice of eight parkings, however Parking Saint Anne, located outside of town on Route de Saint Paul, is only open during the summer for Park & Ride.