Our original plan was to tour Saint Paul-de-Vence early on in our trip before the touristy village became too busy. We wanted to have lunch at the famous Columbe d'Or restaurant, which is renowned for its extensive modern art collection. Unfortunately there is apparently no low season in this village and the restaurant was booked up for weeks in advance. We secured a reservation for mid June and anxiously awaited our visit. Saint Paul-de-Vence is one of the oldest medieval villages in the French Riveria and was fortified in the 13th century. Major portions of this fortification are still intact including the Porte (door) to the old town, still guarded by a cannon, and long stretches of ramparts that overlook the countryside.
Walking along the ramparts to the south end of the village leads you to the cemetery, which is the final resting place of Russian painter Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and his second wife Vava (1905-1993). Visitors pay their respects to the grave by leaving small stones, which is both a Jewish and a Russian tradition. I still marvel at the beautiful settings for the cemeteries in this area, with the rolling hills in the background.
There is quite the collection of contemporary sculptures scattered throughout Saint Paul-de-Vence. It seems like everywhere you turn, there's another one to admire. The green metal sculpture called "Le Chat" by Guilano Mancini looked more like a bird than a cat to me. It stands adjacent a quaint little stone chapel that has been converted into a restaurant. The most dramatically positioned sculpture stands at edge of one of the rampart walls–a human form poised to dive into the valley below.
There is also no shortage of touristy shops and art galleries lining the cobblestone streets. It was fun peering through the windows and doorways of the galleries and looking at all the various art pieces, which again had a high concentration of sculptures. One place had works by Tolla Inbar, whose bronze sculptures of figures climbing ladders or coils of thick rope are also on display at the Distillery District in Toronto and have always been a favourite of mine.
The major art museum in Saint Paul-de-Vence is called Fondation Maeght, which houses modern art by major 20th century artists. The building was designed by Spanish architect Josep Lluís Sert, who also created Joan Miró's museum in Barcelona. Financed by Marguerite and Aimé Maeght and opened in 1964, the foundation is a result of collaboration by the architect Sert, and a group of artists who created art specifically for the site. There is the Alberto Giacometti courtyard and sculptures, a mosaic wall mural by Chagall, a fish-designed mosaic pool and chapel stained glass windows by George Braque, as well as a garden labyrinth by Miró which features many of his sculptures, murals and mosaics.
After spending the morning at the Fondation Maeght, we were finally ready for our lunch at the Columbe D'Or, a restaurant and inn open since the 1920s and a frequent stopping place for artists who traded works of art for a meal or overnight lodgings. Part of the reason that it took so long to get a reservation was that we wanted to sit out in the garden area, and was it ever worth the wait. Our table was nestled in between some greenery, with a scenic view overlooking the hills. Directly in front of us was the commissioned Fernand Léger ceramic in vibrant colours, that was based on the monochrome one that we saw at his museum in Biot.
Bargeme but at a fraction of the cost. For his main, he had the filet of sea bass with a mousseline sauce, which is hollandaise sauce mixed with whipped cream. For my appetizer and main, I ordered white asparagus served with the same mousseline sauce, and a lobster salad. The white asparagus was very sweet and went well with the sauce, which was lighter in texture than regular hollandaise.
After lunch, we took a stroll through the inside dining room and hotel area to see more of the art. We weren't sure that we were actually allowed in these areas since we were not guests of the hotel, but figured after the price that we paid for lunch, we were entitled. If caught, we had the ready-made excuse that we were looking for the washrooms. We saw photos of and works by Picasso, a Calder sculpture, and many other paintings by artists that we did not recognize.
It was a bit scary not knowing where we were or where the GPS was taking us, but the breathtaking views made the extra-long drive home worth it. We were getting our first tastes of what it would be like to drive to the Gorge du Verdon, which would be the destination of our next road trip.