The beautiful town of Vence is often neglected in favour of its more touristy sister St Paul de Vence. But that would be a mistake. Vence stole my heart instantly, in particular the old town with its narrow winding streets, bustling squares, terracotta-coloured buildings and spectacular views across the countryside. The old town is surrounded by its original fortifications (dating from 12th – 18th century) and is still entered through the original gates in the ramparts. I've been here twice: we were so taken with the place after our first stay that we ended up coming back the year after, accompanied by four friends, to celebrate my birthday. It feels like a home away from home and I know it's somewhere we will come back to again and again.
It is the perfect place to go for a romantic long weekend away (I recommend at least three nights). Part of the reason we fell so in love with Vence is La Maison du Frêne: the most beautiful guesthouse we have ever stayed in, located right on Place du Frêne in the heart of the old town. The house has just four rooms, all suites, each one with a unique decor. The house itself is like a museum, filled with paintings, sculpture, and other interesting objets d’art, but is welcoming, warm and comfortable. The hosts are art collectors and are happy to display their tastes for you to enjoy.
Our suite was enormous, with a huge bed, dressing area, separate bathroom and toilet, and huge windows with magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. We even had our own hallway. The room is filled with art books and artworks. This is why we suggest three nights: you could spend one without ever leaving your beautiful room, luxuriating in your surroundings. It really is that good. Don’t believe me – take a look at pics of our room below. You can view the other rooms on their website here. Another reason to stay here is the hospitality you will receive from Guy, Thierry and Antoine - they felt like old friends after a few days. When we returned the year after we were greeted with hugs. They even left me a little birthday present on the bed after we'd been out for the day. Fabulous people and my favourite place to stay. Ever.
Where to eat in Vence
Foodies are spoiled for choice in Vence. There are so many excellent restaurants located within the old town walls. For me, there is simply nothing better than having a meal outdoors in a warm climate on a bustling square, watching the world go by. On our first evening in Vence we ate in the excellent Le Pigeonnier on Place du Peyra. The weather was balmy. I had a glass of champagne in my hand. A jazz band was playing on the square. The food was excellent. We were in heaven. If you’re looking for romance, look no further.
On our second night we had tapas in La Onda, a recommendation from our host. Such a great place, run by Maribel, a very vivacious Spanish / French host. We loved the atmosphere, the music, the chats with the staff, the terrific food and the wine she recommended. So when our friends came over the following year we spent our first evening here. We ate an absolute feast and drank many glasses of wine. Maribel's recommendations and food combinations were spot on and we ordered exactly the right amount of food. We had the absolute best night.
On our second trip to Vence I was treated to a meal, or should I say a gastronomic feast, in the fabulous Les Agapes for my birthday. We wanted to try it the year before but it was booked solid. Even though it would be considered quite a high-end place, it came with none of the pretensions you would expect. Our hostess was warm and friendly and it was quite a special experience. The food was simply delicious. I love French food but find it can often be quite heavy and oppressive. Here you can expect lots of fresh flavours and a much lighter hand. I had a tomato 'rosette' with Buffalo mozarella and pesto to start. So simple but the ingredients were of really high quality. I had seabream as a main and it was divine. Martin is still talking about his rack of lamb. We finished with one of their gourmet coffees. It was pretty much a perfect meal in a perfect setting.
My final suggestion is a little more casual but it's a great place to hang out for an evening. It's on Place Clemenceau and it's simply called Le Clémenceau. It's one of the few bars that open later than others and is a good spot for a cheap apéritif. They also do amazing pizzas. Really cool staff too. Our waitress was good fun and the owner / manager is friendly and chatty.
Vence and culture
At this point we had fallen head over heels with Vence and never wanted to leave, asking friends and family to sell all our worldly goods and wire the money to us. It is a town of artists and sculptors, with many living and working in the old town centre, and there are many small commercial galleries to explore, one of the best being Galerie DS. Here we were introduced by the gallerist Sylvie to the work of Belgian sculptor Phil Billen, who just happened to have a studio next door. So she brought us over to meet him as we were so taken with his work. Just another example of typical Vence hospitality. Vence has a history of attracting painters and was home to Chagall, Matisse, Soutine and Dufy, to name but a few, in the early to mid 20th century. You can see one of Chagall’s mosaics in the Cathedral Notre Dame de la Nativité. A visit to Vence is not complete without a visit to Matisse’s final masterpiece: his chapel of the rosary La Chapelle de Rosaire, a short walk outside of town. This was the pinnacle of his career: he designed every aspect of the building including its architecture, the stained glass windows, ceramics, paintings, and even the priests’ vestments. You can read more about the history of the chapel here. It’s a profoundly special place and a must-see for Matisse fans.
Another huge draw to Vence is the Maeght Foundation: a world-famous art foundation located 4kms away near St Paul de Vence but accessible by the local bus. You can also do as we did and take the scenic route through the woods. I'd highly recommend it though at times we were thinking 'there's no way we're going to end up on a main road from here'. Yet we did.
It was founded in the 1960s by Marguerite and Aimé Maeght with the purpose of showcasing modern and contemporary art in all its forms. It came into existence due to the strong relationships between Aimé, a gallerist and art dealer, and some of the giants of modern art including Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti and Marc Chagall. I’ve written a longer piece about this place here in a blog about some of the world's most extraordinary museums.
You will notice an abundance of fountains in Vence and there is a special reason for that. The water from the La Foux river and spring, a source close to the town, brings crystal-clear mineral water which is available to the townspeople at a number of drinking points including the beautiful 19th century fountain at Place Peyra. In the evenings, you will often find crowds queuing up with their water bottles to take some away. For such a small town, Vence has a lot going for it. It is filled with charm, the people are warm and wonderful, and to me it’s one of the most romantic spots we’ve ever been. I'm quite taken with it, as you can probably tell.