Vence, the City of Arts is a Nice Place to “Get away from it all”

The city of Vence can trace its history back to prehistoric times. Many archaeological finds including tombs exist in or near Vence. The actual city is credited to the Ligurians, who made it the capital of the Nerusi tribe. There are many artefacts from the Ligurian, Gallo-Roman and Roman times and cultures. These include finds of jewellery, ceramics, inscriptions, and reliefs. From the medieval era Vence was ruled by bishops and lords until the French Revolution. At which point power was turned on its head, allowing France to become the modern country we know today. One of the most notable accomplishments of the middle ages era was the resistance of a Huguenot siege in 1529. Vence stayed loyally and staunchly Catholic.

Vence calls itself a city of arts. Art lovers will agree that Vence is the place where they can feel the essence of art. Not only are there many galleries, but even the churches reflect the art of artists such as Chagall (who is buried in the nearby St. Paul) and Matisse. The city of Vence was also home to the writer D. H. Lawrence for a short period at the end of his life when he chose it as a place where he could fight his tuberculosis. Other notables of Vence’s history have been: Dufy, Anthony Mars, Dubuffet, Arman, and Carzou.

Vence is, however, much more than art. With a population of just over seventeen thousand, Vence is one of the biggest and most important economic and cultural centres in the Provence region of Southern France. Natural beauty surrounds the town in the form of flowers, olive trees and orange trees. From medieval architecture to art, from natural beauty to sports, Vence has something for visitors of every taste and persuasion.

Vence has had several recorded names over the years. The first dates nearly to the time of Christ. In early records Vence was called Vintium, a name of one of the local deities. Over the years it has been renamed many times including Ouintion, Viensiensis episcopus; Ventio; and Ventia.

Modern France is much more peaceful than its ancient counterpart. Vence has settled down to be a centre of arts and culture as well, economics, and a very warm and welcoming place to visit. Most of the buildings of the city date back to the medieval age, and the town walls are still largely enact. Five gateways or “Portes” of this era are still there. These gates date from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries and reflect these different parts of town history. The last was built to enable the Bishop to more comfortably move to and from his carriage.

The Portes to look out for are:

  • Portail Levis
  • Porte du Peyra
  • Tour-Porte du Signadour or Portail Saint-Paul
  • Porte du Faubourg ou Pontis;
  • Porte d’Orient, or Porte du Siege or Porte de Cagnes or Porte de la Brèche

Other sites of interest for the architectually minded include:

  • The Cathédrale which features a mosaic by Chagall.
  • The Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs
  • Chapelle du Rosaire (Matisse) was the brainchild of the great artist himself, who designed and decorated it between 1947 and 1951 It is known for its use of stained class to bring color to the inside of the chapel.
  • The Château de Villeneuve, which dates from the seventeenth century
  • The tower, colonnes des Marseillais.
  • and Penitents blancs.

More traditionally art-minded persons may prefer to wander the various galleries of Vence. There are many of them, and they vary for every taste and style. The important thing in Vence is the art itself, not the type of the art. Vence has been a cultural center long enough to be sophisticated about the way artistic styles may come and go.

Another famous work of art in the city is the Grand Jardin. This is one of the most famous gardens in the region. Visitors may also want to visit Vence’s museum: The Musée Provençal.

A good way to get a feeling for the city is to take the Tourism Office’s walking tour. The first step of this tour (no pun intended) is to get the map from the tourism office itself. The map identifies key areas that tourists can visit; each area has a discreet plaque that gives information on the site in French and English. This tour includes the city gates, chateaux, fountains and etc.

Vence is also famous for the clear mineral water that comes from “La Foux”. This water is available from fountains in various parts of the city. One of the most popular fountains is the Place Peyra fountain that dates from 1822. Here one can also find a list of the minerals present in the water.

Besides the water there is also a great supply of French wines and fine coffees available to the discriminating guests of the City of Artists.

There is also a great variety of the Provential foods available in both restaurants and cafes. For the culinary inclined individual, there are plenty of options in restaurants and cafes. Provence’s cooking is somewhat regional. Being close to the ocean, of course, offers a wonderful selection of seafood. The Mediterranean influence also brings hot spices and olive oil onto the menu. Some spices include: Rosemary, serpolet, sage, thyme, marjoram, savoury, basil. The local diet also includes fruits, salads, pastas, cereals, vegetables, and some meat. A careful vegetarian may find a meal in nearly any café. What the local diet does not often include is a lot of cows milk and cheese. In the hilly country, it is easier to raise the small adaptable goats than the large, clumsy cattle. Therefore local dishes often include goat cheeses.

The greatest part of Vence will always be its artists. These include painters, sculptures, writers, as well as others. The town is full of their works, and in the summertime, guests and residents of the Artist’s city may be treated to an outdoor exhibit, or even several. More literary minded art fans will not be disappointed in the range of literary events offered by the city of Vence, including the city’s book fair. Theatre patrons and music lovers will also find events that cater to their tastes.

One of the most famous residents of Vence was Matisse, who once said “This morning while walking near my house, seeing all these girls, women and men riding their their bikes to the market, I thought I was in Tahiti”. Another famous resident was the writer D.H. Lawrence, who came to Vence, hoping for some relief from his tuberculosis. He died in the city in 1930. He was first buried in Vence, but was later exhumed, cremated, and moved.

Next to art, one of the biggest things in Vence is shopping. Vence has been an economic center since the time of the Romans. It is still very mercantilly minded in many ways. Several markets are available to both tourists and townsfolk. Foods sold in the market are usually both fresh and delicious. Visiting these markets is a way to appreciate both the history and the culture of this wonderful little city.

There are several important celebrations in Vence every year. Both the Fête communale and the flower parade celebrate Easter. Participants will come to realize that this is a joyous holiday. There is a large music festival in July. Finally, The Fête Patronale falls on the first Sunday in August.

Active tourists can enjoy tennis. Skeet shooting, hunting, camping, fishing, swimming and hiking. There is one public swimming pool in Vence, and three hiking trails: the GR51, The Le Gue du Malvan, Chapelle St Raphael, and the Le Baou des Blancs. The second one provides a look at an interesting historic site while the last gives a beautiful panoramic view of the countryside.

Where does one stay in Vence? There are many options. These include bed and breakfasts, hotels, holiday rentals and campsites. In each of these places there are friendly hosts and good service.

If tourists want to leave Vence to see the surrounding areas, there is very good bus service in the area. The last bus for Nice is at 8 o’clock PM or 20:00. The bus route includes such towns as Nice (21 kilometers or 13 miles), Saint Paul-de-Vence, (only 4 kilometers or roughly 2 miles away) La Colle-sur-Loup (6 kilometers, or just under three miles), and St Laurent-du-Var. All of these towns are cultural centers in their own right. Other nearby towns include Tourettes sur Loup, 5 kilometers or 3 miles, and Cagnes sur Mer 10 kilometers or 6 and a quarter miles.