Walks in the South of France
On a country walk from St Paul-de-Vence to Vence, you can experience three different flavours of the fabled French “South”
One of the French things that foreigners often struggle with is the fine distinction between the different regions in “the South”, a large area sometimes misunderstood as a single cultural unit where old men play boule between the ruins of Roman temples and lavender fields that were once painted by van Gogh while Cary Grant flashes by in a speedboat.
Rather than providing a single cultural experience, however, the neighbouring regions of Provence and Côte d’Azur are divided by a sharp difference in temperament. I often illustrate this point with a small personal observation: in the Italian language course that we attended last year in the coastal town of Menton (with limited success, but that’s another story), every single one of the 20 or so participants had arrived at the Riviera on his or her own, mainly from other regions of France such as Paris and the North, but also from foreign countries like Spain, Germany and the Lebanon.
In stark contrast to this urbanity and openness, Provencal towns often come across as cagey and secretive. For the people who live there, there are undoubtedly places “where everybody knows your name” – as well as all of your old family secrets, reaching back generations.
Where to get a taste of Provence in the French Riviera
The exact location of the border between Provence and the Côte d’Azur, dissecting coast from hinterland, is not always easy to pinpoint, but you will know when you have crossed it, and St Paul de Vence and Vence – two of the most popular day-trip destinations in the area – are clearly on the other side. They also happen to be very close to one another, so you can visit both in a single outing from your Riviera base AND have a great country walk, providing you with the opportunity to dip your toes into Provence in more than a single way: you get to see a scenic village, a bustling country town and experience some of the landscape that stretches between the two.
The village first. Take Ligne d’Azur bus no. 400 to Saint Paul, either from Nice (the Jardin Albert I, near the Promenade des Anglais) or Cagnes-sur-Mer train station. (The nearest stop to the station is the Square du 8 Mai, which you reach by turning right out of the station and continuing for approx. 300 metres across the motorway bridge. The stop is on the other side of the road.)
St Paul de Vence is famously picturesque …
… and just as renowned for its long association with the arts, mainly with Marc Chagall who spent the last two decades of his long life here and is buried in the cemetery just outside the city walls. But the village has also welcomed many well-known writers such as Jacques Prevert, famous mainly for his chanson lyrics and screenplays (including the classic Les Enfants du Paradis) who lived here during the 1940s.
The town’s association with the arts is reflected by the large number of public statues …
… often charmingly integrated into the medieval townscape …
… and by the even larger number of galleries that offer all kinds of art …
… with the exception of postcard-style views of palm trees, sun-bleached villages and azure skies.
Most of the stuff on sale is actually rather “modern” in flavour and refreshingly unafraid of veering towards the monumental and ostentatious. Oligarchs and their wives looking for statuary to complement their lavishly styled villas do not have to leave empty-handed.
Leave St Paul through the ancient town gate and continue uphill on the Chemin des Gardettes in the direction of the Fondation Maeght (on the far side of the busy road that you will have to cross). This famous art museum is a destination in its own right, you could easily spend the rest of the afternoon there, but we have a walk to do and therefore no time for anything more than a quick glance.
Walk back to the main road and turn left into the continuation of the Chemin des Gardettes for approx. 200 metres before turning right (and left again soon after) into the Chemin de la Vieille Bergerie.
When this footpath ends, you may spot an arrow (to Vence) that points to the left, but the far more rewarding route is to your right. Turn immediately right again, on a stone path that basically runs parallel to the path on which you have come, and (after approx, 300 metres) take the asphalted country road to the left that runs uphill through the forest. When this road reaches a dead-end, walk straight into the forest on the footpath to your right. After 15 minutes or so, you will come out on the other way of the forest where you should turn right.
From here on, just follow the yellow bar which will lead you downhill …
… then across a rivulet at the bottom of the small valley …
… and uphill again, for a short but steep climb before you reach the outskirts of Vence.
This may sound easy, straightforward almost, but that was not what it felt like for us. We had sketched our route with the help of a map, but it turned out to be unfeasible in one or two places and we had to improvise. The result was great, although occasionally a little stressful – including, as it did, a couple of false moves into farmyards and suburban gardens (thankfully, the people who lived there had no aggressive dogs patrolling their property) and down blind alleys where we had to make our way back.
Fortunately, we did not lose too much time and arrived in Vence at around 3 pm, leaving us enough time to have a good look around, even in January (when it gets dark rather early all over “the South”, cultural differences or not).
What we found there will be the subject of our next post.