Talk to anyone in Nice or has ever been near Nice, and St. Paul de Vence is mentioned in almost mythic terms. A little tiny medieval village just up the mountains only about 20 kilometers from Nice, St. Paul de Vence is renowned for its art. Marc Chagall lived and died there and is buried in the local cemetery. Matisse lived there for five years designing the church. The narrow, cobblestoned streets are lined with ateliers and art galleries.
The clouds did not break as forecast on Wednesday, but we took the Nice local 400 bus along the Promenade des Anglais and up through Cagnes sur Mer for a pleasant hour up to the shrine on the hill. The 400 bus costs 1.50. No kidding. Of course, it’s 1.50 down too, so you have to invest an entire 3 euros for the round trip.
The little village was all but deserted on a cold, gray gloomy day in late January. Many, if not most of the restaurants are closed for the season, and there were probably no more than 50 of us tourists walking the tiny, narrow streets. Tourists may have outnumbered residents.
The Office de Tourisme recommended we visit the church, historic museum and chapel of the White Penitents, at a cost of 4 euros per person. So we complied.
The church is mildly interesting, but fitting of a small village and not at all spectacular. It too is a cathedral, as the French seem to have as many bishops as parishes. But the cathedral of St. Paul de Vence does not compare to St. Reparate, the extravagantly Baroque cathedral a couple of blocks away from our apartment in old Nice.
Seeing the church is free. The museum is what costs 4 euros, which includes a guide to the seven exhibits and a visit to the chapel. How do I say this?–the museum’s seven displays are wax figures relating the history of St.Paul de Vence. It’s a Wax Museum. In all candor, the wax figures are actually fairly realistic, if more than a bit cheesy in their dioramas.
We have toured the Musée du Chapeau between Carcasonne and Narbonne in the southwest of France, and the St.Paul de Vence museum ranks with that exalted level of historical display. By comparison, the Musée du Chapeau is 5 euros, so St.Paul de Vence is a relative bargain.
Actually, the Chapel of the White Penitents is worth the price of admission. It is simple and unadorned, but the mosaic at the front is a work of wonder, more than 100 square meters of mosaic comprised of tiles that average one centimeter square each. Do the arithmetic.
After our visit to the center of historic St.Paul de Vence, we made our way down to the cemetery (where else would I go?) in a fruitless effort to find Marc Chagall’s final resting place. But walking through, I found perhaps a more famous family name. Maybe the Honey Badger’s ancestors?