With abundant water and the sheltering pre-Alps behind, VENCE has always been a significant city. The old town is blessed with numerous ancient houses, gateways, fountains, chapels and a cathedral (daily 9am6pm) containing Roman funeral inscriptions and a Chagall mosaic. In the 1920s it became yet another haven for painters and writers: André Gide, Raoul Dufy, D.H. Lawrence (who died here in 1930 whilst being treated for tuberculosis contracted in England) and Marc Chagall were all long-term visitors, along with Matisse whose work is the reason most people come.
Towards the end of World War II, Matisse moved to Vence to escape the Allied bombing of the coast, and his legacy is the town's most famous and exciting building, the Chapelle du Rosaire, at 466 av Henri-Matisse, on the road to St-Jeannet from carrefour Jean-Moulin at the top of avenue des Poilus (Mon, Wed, Fri & Sat 25.30pm; Tues & Thurs 1011.30am & 2.305.30pm, Sun briefly from 10.45am; €2.50). The chapel was his last work consciously so and not, as some have tried to explain, a religious conversion. "My only religion is the love of the work to be created, the love of creation, and great sincerity", he said in 1952 when the five-year project was completed. Searching for a Vence hotelthis website has a lot of choice.
The drawings on the chapel walls black outline figures on white tiles were executed by Matisse with a paintbrush fixed to a two-metre long bamboo stick specifically to remove his own stylistic signature from the lines. He succeeded in this to the extent that many people are bitterly disappointed, not finding the "Matisse" they expect. The only source of colour in the chapel comes from the light diffused through green, blue and yellow stained-glass windows, which changes according to the time of day. Yet it is a total work every part of the chapel is Matisse's design and one that the artist was content with. There's also a small collection of photos and sketches by the artist in an adjoining building.
Vieux Vence has all the chic boutiques and arty restaurants worthy of an haut-lieu of the Côte aristocracy, but it also has an everyday feel about it, with ordinary people and run-of-the-mill cafés. On place du Frêne, by the western gateway, the fifteenth-century Château de Villeneuve (TuesSun: JulyOct 10am6pm; rest of year 10am12.30pm & 26pm; €5) provides a beautiful temporary exhibition space for the works of artists such as Matisse, Dufy, Dubuffet and Chagall.
Current artistic creation has a home at the Centre d'Art VAAS, 14 traverse des Moulins, just north of the old city (TuesSat 9.30amnoon & 2.306pm; free). A garden of sculptures leads to what was, from 1955 to 1970, Jean Dubuffet's studio. As well as a gallery of figurative art, this is a space for artists to meet and work, and the high-quality courses of art and sculpture it runs are open to anyone who wishes to pay the fees. It also gives the best view of the blue-tiled rooftop of the Chapelle du Rosaire.
Yet more art, this time by the likes of César, Klein, Arman, Ben, Tinguely and Warhol, are shown in changing temporary exhibitions at the Galerie Beaubourg in the Château Notre-Dame des Fleurs, halfway along the road from Vence to Tourettes-sur-Loup (AprilSept MonSat 11am7pm; OctMarch TuesSat 11am5.30pm; €5).
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