Beyond the ramparts: Mediaeval alleys and St Paul de Vence's arts scene charms visitors. Photo: Richard Tulloch
A mediaeval hilltop town has charm and art in abundance, writes Richard Tulloch.
Artists came to St Paul de Vence because it was beautiful, quiet and cheap. The dealers moved in to hang out with the artists and buy their work. Their galleries attracted the tourists and smart restaurants replaced the artists' smoky cafes and bars. The artists passed away or drifted away to find somewhere quieter and cheaper.
St Paul de Vence, however, is still beautiful. Mediaeval villages perched on hilltops aren't easy to ruin and this village has been regularly and tastefully restored to keep tourists charmed.
The high stone ramparts that once protected residents from marauding armies now keep out cars and tour buses. Visitors have to enter on foot through the ancient arched gateway.
The work of artists Paul Signac, Marc Chagall and others built the village's modern reputation. For writer James Baldwin and actors Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, Saint Paul was a hideaway from the glamour, beaches and parties of the nearby French Riviera. Josephine Baker sometimes dropped in about Nice Jazz Festival time.
Although these days many of the ateliers sell fridge magnets and pretty paintings of French provincial scenes, we can enjoy strolling along streets freshly cobbled with little sun symbols set into them, and we can fill our heads with romantic images of what it must have been like here in times past.
The warm light that attracted the artists still bounces off the pastel colours of rough walls and spreads over the surrounding fields and vineyards. We may no longer be able to drink cheap wine with Pablo Picasso or play a lazy game of petanque with Montand, but we can get a decent coffee and use a clean toilet.
Chagall rests in relative peace in the little cemetery. As we stop to pay our respects, we are pushed aside by a loud Japanese tour guide, apparently telling his charges a hilarious Chagall anecdote. He is probably not there every day.
Saint Paul does still have a superb legacy left by former residents - the Fondation Maeght. The name gives little away. Even our French friends aren't sure how to pronounce it.
Many of the tourists happily snapping in the village don't bother to walk the steep kilometre up the hill to reach it. They miss the highlight of our day.
Art dealers and Saint Paul residents Marguerite and Aime Maeght formed the foundation with the help of their artist friends. Those friends happened to include Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti. Together they constructed a museum and sculpture garden, which opened in 1964.
The result is a magnificent collection of modern art, some designed specifically for its hillside location, with other works dotted under spreading trees and in the Giacometti Courtyard. Miro sited large sculptures in a winding stone labyrinth. Chagall contributed a mosaic, and Georges Braque a stained-glass window.
Inside are paintings by Pierre Bonnard and Fernand Leger along with temporary exhibitions.
It has become a French institution to those in the know, yet, in the late afternoon, we nearly have the place to ourselves. Yves and Simone, James and Josephine would have loved it.
Qantas/Emirates has a fare to Nice for about $2040 low season return from Melbourne and Sydney including taxes.
Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then Nice (7hr 30min); see qantas.com.au.
Bus 400 from Nice takes an hour to get to Saint Paul de Vence. €1.50 ($2) each way.
Entry to Fondation Maeght costs €15 ($20), plus €5 ($7.50) for photographic rights. If you have a camera you'll certainly want to use it. See fondation-maeght.com.