Following the collapse of Roman influence in Provence, hilltop villages grew out of a need for security. Saint-Paul-de-Vence was one of them. The village dates back to the ninth century and has been remarkably preserved. The modern ramparts protecting the city were constructed during the reign of Francois I (1494-1547), and in 1872 the city purchased them for preservation. Saint-Paul has a remarkable modern history as home and playground for the rich and famous, yet it preserves for today’s visitor the (supposed) charm of medieval life in southern France.
To visit Saint-Paul you enter through the fortress gate that opens off a staging area for tourism. Inside, plunge immediately into a network of deep and narrow streets that wind about on the hillside and front an array of art galleries, upscale boutiques, restaurants and homes. Bring your walking shoes, because it’s up and down over cobbled streets and stone steps all day.
If the interior of the village seems dark and confining, the rear terrace is an opening to the surrounding the countryside. Take in the view of red-roofed houses from the top of the ramparts and dine in one of the open-air restaurants.
The charm of Saint-Paul has attracted artists for over 100 years, and the village still contains works by major talents, who paid their room and board with them. Mark Chagall is buried here.
To get there you may follow the A8 toll way from Nice and take exit 48-Gagnes. Then get onto Avenue des Alpes (D336) and then Boulevard Pierre Sauvaigo (D436), which quickly becomes D536 and D7. By then you will see ample signage pointing to Saint-Paul. As you approach Saint-Paul you may want to park at the free lot adjacent to the road on the right. This lot was mostly full in September, which is not the peak season. The parking garage next to the village is not free. The drive is about 21 kilometers from the center of Nice. Bus No. 400 from Nice leaves at 30 to 45-minute intervals and gets you to Saint-Paul in about an hour after several stops.
Drive past Saint-Paul, if you like, for further adventure. The town of Vence is a few kilometers down the road and offers additional shopping, dining and atmosphere.
The Saint-Paul official Web site is at http://www.saint-pauldevence.com/, providing essential historical and cultural information about the town.