Photo of St. Paul de Vence cemetery, France

The magic of Vence

There’s an old Celtic saying that heaven and earth are about three feet apart but that in thin places the distance is even less. The term “thin place” is thought to have come from Ireland, a country never short of a wild, mystical landscape or two. Clinging to a hillside a few miles back from the Mediterranean, though, there’s a place where the gap between this world and the next seems just that little bit closer.

A bright light blankets the medieval town of Vence — nestled at the foot of the Baous mountain range about 15 minutes drive from Nice airport — throughout the year. Perched above the town sits Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary shared by Dominican nuns and thousands of visitors from all over the world. Matisse, an atheist, said he’d like visitors to the chapel, even if they weren’t believers, to feel that they were in an environment “in which the spirit rises up, where thought grows clearer and where emotion itself is made lighter”. According to the director of London’s Tate art galleries, Nicholas Serota, anyone walking into the Chapel of the Rosary who doesn’t feel great emotion is incapable of feeling.

Matisse took four years to create this chapel, the culmination and the masterpiece of his career, and he said the project eventually awakened him to his own nature.

The sun streams through large stained-glass windows throwing ultramarine blue, lemon yellow and bottle green reflections on the floor. Yellow represents the sun and God, green is for nature and blue is for the Mediterranean sky. Together, they mingle to produce a magenta glow, while the play of light and colours constantly changes all around you.

Behind the high altar, the double-arched Tree of Life stained-glass window shows a prickly-pear cactus in the shape of a draped curtain with blue leaves and yellow flowers, symbolising the way life resists drought and death. Matisse wanted the opaque yellow to help focus the viewer’s mind inside the chapel, before the transparent green and blue drew the viewer towards the landscape outside. Contrasting with the brightly coloured stained-glass windows are black line drawings on panels of large white ceramic tiles.

Light and its relationship to colour was, for Matisse, the chapel’s most important feature. He thought the spiritual elevation of hearts and minds would come from his lines and colours. The roof is decorated with blue and white tiles and a 13-metre-high cross. Because Matisse designed the whole chapel, from the architecture to the ornaments inside, you’re not distracted by the work of a mix of artists and the effect is more powerful.

Thin places don’t have to be religious sites. What makes a place seem to transcend this world and offer a glimpse of whatever lies beyond it is pretty subjective. One person’s thin place can be someone else’s run-of-the-mill place. But Matisse took four years to create this chapel, the culmination and the masterpiece of his career, and he said the project eventually awakened him to his own nature. So it has to be worth a look, at least.

Taking the waters

It was a very earthly problem that led the French artist to design the Chapel of the Rosary: ill-health. After a botched operation for intestinal cancer in 1941, he was nursed in Nice by Monique Bourgeois, who became his muse. He never properly recovered and spent most of his time bedridden or in a wheelchair.

The pair crossed paths again when Matisse moved to Vence, in case his Nice apartment was bombed, and discovered that his former nurse was recuperating from tuberculosis at a Dominican rest Home across the street from his house. She later became a Dominican nun, Sister Jacques-Marie, and asked for his help in designing a new chapel planned for the town. Matisse began work on the Chapel of the Rosary in 1948, inspired by the nuns, his bond with Sister Jacques-Marie, his research and his illness.

Legend has it that Nero’s wife Poppaea was cured of ill health by taking the waters of Vence.

Vence has been something of a magnet for the ailing because of its famous water. The spring of the Foux has been used for drinking, washing and irrigation since Roman times. Legend has it that Nero’s wife Poppaea was cured of ill-health by taking the waters of Vence. In the third century, the emperor Gallienus sent his son to the region for the same reason. Exactly what troubled these famous figures from the past isn’t clear, but the water of the Foux, the spring that provides all of Vence’s fountains with water, is low in sodium and is thought to have diuretic benefits. It tastes cold and mild and even comes with a label of sorts: a plaque in the Place du Peyra lists how much of each mineral the water contains.

You certainly won’t go thirsty — on the official tourist map there are 12 little blue-and-white fountain symbols clustered around the old town centre alongside the more mundane necessities like parking, bus stops and public toilets — but be prepared to queue up behind locals with their empty bottles and jars. The fountains have their own festival every year, when they are adorned with flowers and celebrated with dancing and music.

There’s even one of those tactile, interactive artworks based around the water of the Foux. The rectangular stone pool of water in the middle of the cafes and restaurants of the Place du Grand Jardin has a thick, flat edge that adults sit on and children skip around. The edge is decorated with a continual stream of water-related words in steel letters: Eau Pure Eau Vive Eau Precieuse Eau Claire Eau Fraiche Eau Cristalline and so on. Sculptor Henri Olivier wanted the water of the Foux, which has sustained the town for centuries, to be seen again in the heart of the city, so his creation reflects the town literally and symbolically.

A circular Vence Water Walk takes in fountains fashioned from objects as diverse as a Provençal pottery jar and a 9th century baptismal font. A 19th century fountain, the Fontaine Basse in Place Antony Mars, was captured by painter Raoul Dufy. The fountain has a column cut from a single piece of stone and four jets of water that spill into a basin in the shape of a four-leaf clover. Its predecessor was built in the 16th century to provide the people outside the old town walls with water. This fountain, another that has since disappeared and the Fontaine du Peyra, inspired by the ornate style of Louis XIV, were the only sources of drinking water until the waters of the Riou were piped in 1886. You’ll find the Fontaine du Peyra just inside the old town walls in the Place du Peyra, the ancient marketplace and Forums.

Transcendent art

All around Vence, the heavenly and the earthly seem to mingle. Russian painter Chaim Soutine likened a large ash tree in the Place du Frȇne that was donated by King François I to a cathedral. Planted in 1538 by the king himself (or so the story goes), its trunk branches into three huge boughs, symbolising the king of France, Charles V and Pope Paul III. Soutine featured the tree numerous times in 1929 in a small series of paintings. He didn’t like to be watched while he was working, so he found himself a hidden spot on Rue du Docteur Binet.

The French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet came to Vence in 1955 and used everything around him — the ground, earth, grass, water and stones — in his art. He created works with butterfly wings, which he used to depict figures and landscapes so that the “objects represented would meld into everything around them, so that the result would be a sort of continuous, universal soup with an intense flavour of life”.

Planted in 1538 by the king himself (or so the story goes), [the tree’s] trunk branches into three huge boughs, symbolising the king of France, Charles V and Pope Paul III.

Many other artists have been inspired by Vence’s natural Beauty. There are olive and orange trees, all sorts of colourful flowers and dramatic landscapes around the foothills of the Alps. A tree walk starting at the royal ash tree at Place du Frêne takes you on a loop around the main roads of the newer parts of Vence, before returning to circle around the cathedral at the heart of the old town.

Along the way are several varieties of lime, oaks that are common in the wild beyond the city limits, tall cypress trees that can live for 500 years and symbolise immortality, figs that like to spring from old stone walls and towers, Judas trees with their purple blossom in spring and yellow leaves in autumn, and carob trees. Forerunners of the carat, carob seeds were once used as a unit of weight by jewellers.

There are trees from China, the Canary Islands, Japan, the Balkans Peninsula and North America, including a row of palm trees known as “Heaven’s dusters” at the entrance to the Lycée. Half of Vence’s key tree varieties can be seen in one go at the northernmost tip of this walk clustered around the Villa le Rêve, off the appropriately named Avenue Henri Matisse. Villa le Rêve, Matisse’s residence from 1943 to 1949, is now a self-catering artists’ retreat.

Leave the crowds

Vence is better known for its artistic than its literary connections, but a personal interest in DH Lawrence led me to take some friendly directions from the Tourism Office to a rather forlorn and sun-bleached plaque above shrubbery in the local cemetery, marking the spot where the writer once rested. The French Riviera was a popular destination for consumptive writers from colder climes in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Vence has a mix of Mediterranean warmth and fresher inland breezes. Lawrence came here in early 1930 in the grip of tuberculosis and died not long afterwards. Five years after he was buried in the town’s cemetery, his remains were moved to New Mexico.

Vence is one of the lesser-known stops on the literary tourism trail in France and it’s sometimes confused with a more famous place across the border in Italy: even late into last century, some books still claimed Lawrence passed away in Venice.

It’s a quick and easy journey from Nice airport to join the throng of Côte d’Azur tourists. But Vence, a short way inland, still offers a typical South of France experience. There are charming cafes and restaurants, boutique art galleries and jewellery shops, local produce markets, shops selling bags of Provence lavender. And the town’s still a handy base for day trips to mix with the French Riviera’s smart set in Monaco, Cannes or Saint Trope

Lydia Monin

Lydia Monin

Lydia Monin is a Dublin-based freelance journalist and author, who travels extensively. She’s written three non-fiction books including a literary travel guide to New Zealand, From The Writer’s Notebook.

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