Light and enlightenment
Travel is especially enlightening if the light is right. And in Vence — a sublime hillside town in Provence — the light is particularly auspicious.
The quality of Mediterranean light in this medieval town in France’s glorious south is the key element in a synthesis of sights that are absorbed as much as they are perceived. Sounds, smells, textures, and feelings are equally light-enhanced. The sensory pleasure of Vence is an optical effect.
Morning light washes an ochre brick wall accentuating its patterns and textures. Brilliant mid-day light coaxes depths of colour to the surface of historic stone buildings. Soft evening light falls like silk over a small public square where an exuberant wedding party has gathered in front of the hôtel de ville. Perched on a plateau several kilometres above the glittering Côte d’Azur — so near and yet so comfortably removed from the coast’s dazzle and hyperactivity — Vence is a jewel in the crown of the ancient kingdom of Provence and the perfect point de départ for the whole region.
As luck would have it, the hotel we have chosen for our stay in Vence is ideally situated for discovering this old market town and mediaeval episcopal centre.
The hotel Miramar is the kind of property sought out by travellers who prefer a home away from home that is comfortable, practical, and also characteristic of the destination. In the tradition of the family-owned establishment that the French do so well, Miramar is an excellent example of the kind of property that preserves and reflects its heritage.
Imagine an elegant, pastel-coloured, nobleman’s country place poised delicately on the edge of the plateau, the foothills of the Alps to the north and east and the Mediterranean to the south. We are standing on an extensive stone terrace surrounded by abundant and varied flora. Visualize a south-east exposure and a sweeping perspective of almost 200 degrees. To the right and below, are the roofs and gardens of a quiet Vence neighbourhood.
If you lift your gaze slightly you will see a lateral band of Mediterranean blue. It’s as if you could reach out and dabble your fingers playfully in this great inland sea.
Directly in front and to our left (think of a camera panning slowly) rise the foothills of the Alps sprinkled with idyllic villas. And on the clearest days, you can see distant, stately snow-capped peaks. This expansive vista is made even more appealing by the clarity and intensity of primary colours.
If you turn and look behind us, you will see the eighteenth century, four-story maison de maître (manor house) that is the hotel itself. Each of its rooms has a window that opens onto this grand view; the building thus adds a bonus of a few metres to the already lofty outlook. Typifying the elegant but subdued architecture found in the Vence region, this three-star hotel has been lovingly restored and refurbished with a keen eye not only to the aesthetics of the building itself but also to its environs. Visually, it exudes hospitality.
Miramar is the labour of love of Daniel and Catherine Varlet, a couple who with their two sons — and Pepsi the resident golden retriever — are our hosts. It is their home as well; spacious enough for privacy (for guests and themselves) but small enough that they can be accessible and attentive to their visitors. Like the bright handpainted flowers on the doors of each of the rooms, Miramar has a personal provençal touch.
Daniel’s previous professional life in business, community, and volunteer work involved human relations and anticipating the needs of others. He and Catherine chanced upon Miramar after two years of intensive searching and they knew at once that they had found the lieu de calme et de beauté des yeux (tranquil site and feast for the eyes) that matched their aesthetic and professional objectives. And their dream of sharing their home and le goût provençal with their guests continues year-round.
Accessibility is a prime advantage of Miramar, and of Vence. The natural beauty of this relatively unknown area of eastern Provence and its eclectic offerings — cultural, historic, architectural, natural, and gastronomic — are within easy reach, both in a literal and figurative sense.
Miramar is a pleasurable 300-metre stroll past the local school playground, a senior citizens home, shops, and restaurants to the heart of the walled cité historique of Vence.
Because of their fortuitous geographic locations, these complementary retreats (each has its own comprehensive vista) have managed to preserve a visual and temporal insularity as well as their historic authenticity.
It is no surprise to learn that great artists like Bonnard, Chagall, and Matisse came to the area for its separateness and its quality of light; both are a balm to the senses. And it is as clear as the air in the region how such a milieu can liberate the senses.
An important “pilgrimage” site on what is often referred to as the Route de l’Art Sacré, Vence enticed these great artists — and many others, including such notables as Raoul Dufy and D. H. Lawrence (the latter died here) — with its distinct provençal light and colour.
Escaping the bombings of Nice during the Second World War, Matisse spent six years in Vence at the villa Le Rêve (The Dream) and found here the kind of peace of mind that nourished much of his work.
In the hills just outside the town you will find La Chapelle du Rosaire, a stunning edifice he designed and decorated for the Dominicans between 1947 and 1951. An integrated piece of art, the chapel is a must-see for art lovers. A treasure of the world of modern art, its simplicity, luminosity, and visual balance embody the natural beauty of the region. Especially exquisite are the stained glass windows that Matisse created using three primary provençal colours: the yellow of the sun, the green of the hills, and the blue of the Mediterranean sea and sky. The windows admit the magnificent light and transfigure it into primary hues that tint the pure white interior walls.
Admirers of Marc Chagall will be delighted and perhaps somewhat taken by surprise by a modest but impressive mosaic “Moses in the Bullrushes” tucked away in the baptistery of the equally beautiful Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Nativité.
Like Vence, the cathedral blends the modern with the ancient. Built on the site of an ancient Roman temple of Mars with a surreptitious sidedoor that opens onto the Place Clémenceau, it incorporates Merovingian and Romanesque styles with traces of the Romans for whom Vence was a strategic town in the empire.
Another union of past and present is the splendid Fondation Maeght, a modern art museum four kilometres across the valley that separates Vence and Saint Paul de Vence. This architectural gem of white concrete and rose-coloured bricks was designed by José Luis Sert and is nestled in a quiet, hilly pinewood. The gardens are accented with sculptures and mosaics by artists such as Miró and Braque. The intricate and deliberate design of the museum with its strategic windows and skylights draws the Mediterranean light in, illuminating the building and the priceless works by Chagall, Matisse, and many more contemporary modern artists.
Known as la ville coup de coeur (the town that tugs at your heartstrings), Vence provides the perfect combination of culture, leisure activities, and the good life. Whether you are a rambler or an ambler, this is the kind of locale to explore at leisure and on foot. New perspectives and new delights are around every corner. For the very serious trekkers, for cyclists, or for those who simply wish to walk slowly through a countryside in which nature imitates art, the surrounding alpine foothills (les Baous) contain more than 40 well-maintained trails that are in fact ancient mule tracks.
The villages perchés (hillside towns) of Tourrettes-sur-loup, Coursegoules, Saint-Jeannet, and of course Saint Paul, are natural observatories where traces of prehistoric, Celtic-Ligurian, and Roman civilizations can still be found.
Vence is also a practical and comfortable home base for visiting the great centres of the Côte d’Azur (Cannes, Antibes, Nice, Monaco, Menton) using the coastal trains that stop in nearby Cagnes-sur-mer. It is also an easy point of departure for excursions into stunning mountains and valleys. (The historic Nice-Digne narrow-gauge railway, which climbs to 1000 metres and passes through or over more than 50 tunnels and viaducts, follows the Route des Crêtes and the Haute Vallée du Loup stopping at towns and villages en route.) Returning to Vence at the end of a day’s excursion is like coming home again. You feel satiated by the sights and sounds of the day but lulled by the peace and quiet of evenings in Vence.
For the traveller, Vence is a town in which to live, however briefly. The town is a feast for the eyes and dining here is an equally aesthetic experience. The low-key, affordable restaurants of Vence are a quiet tribute to the provençal table, as well as to the eminent wines of the region produced in the surrounding hillsides. Whether dining outdoors in the Place Clémenceau under the plane trees — swallows flitting overhead, animated leafy patterns on the cobblestones — or in the intimate Chez Jordi in a small street near Miramar, Vence’s placid hospitality is the main ingredient.
Vence is an all-seasons destination with impressive concerts, exhibits, fairs, theatre, and diverse cultural events. A “season” in Vence — no matter how long or short — is garnished by the products of the sun (wine, olive groves, aromatic herbs). The town embodies détente, réflexion, and création (relaxation, quiet contemplation, and originality) — with the accent on living well.
During a quiet chat on the terrace overlooking Vence, Daniel makes reference to le relationnel (relationships and connections) as being fundamental to his role as a hôtelier here. It occurs to me that this attitude and worldview is intrinsic to Vence, to its art, and to its history. Experiencing such underlying inter-relationships is the effect of a visit here; a natural response to the resplendent light of a day.
“Happiness … is drawing happiness from oneself, from a good day’s labour, from the moments of clarity such a day brings to the mists that surround us.” — Henri Matisse, Écrits propos sur l’art
When to go
The winter months can be bright and clear and comfortably cool for sightseeing. The spring months of May and June are glorious with fresh flowers and tree blossoms. July and August are obviously the peak tourist months with the hottest temperatures. The fall months of September and October are also good times to visit Vence when the majority of the tourists have gone home.
How to get there
There are frequent flight connections from Paris to the Nice airport (minutes from Vence) and regular shuttle service to the Place du Grand Jardin in Vence. The TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse) from Paris to Nice is also an interesting way to see some of the sites along the way to Provence. Confirmed reservations should be made in advance. Vence is also very accessible by road especially if you are arriving by the Autoroute du soleil and the autoroute aptly named Le Provençal.
For More Information
Access the Vence website Vence, the website of the Hotel Miramar Hotel Miramar, or the Saint Paul de Vence Web site Saint Paul de Vence. You may also wish to contact the Vence Office de Tourisme at Place du Grand Jardin, 06140 Vence, France, Tel: 33 04 93 58 06 38, Fax: 33 04 93 58 91 81. There are also many excellent tourist guides in libraries and bookstores that give details of this area.