Exploring Vence, France

France welcomes more visitors each year than anywhere else in the world. Mediterranean beaches and alpine ski resorts ensure year-round popularity, whilst beautiful scenery and exquisite cuisine repeatedly draw people back. Red Savannah’s French villas expert, Nick Westwood, explores the popularity of the South of France and, in particular, the area of Vence in the Alpes-Maritimes.

Located between Nice and Antibes, Medieval Vence is one of the oldest French towns on the Riviera (much of its architecture dates from the 13th century). Artists have long been drawn to paint under its cobalt blue light – Picasso, Ernst and Chagall all came here – but it is Matisse that the town of Vence is most closely associated with. For an ailing Henri Matisse moved here in 1943 with his nurse and model, who had since become a nun. For her community he designed the Chapelle De Rosaire; from the outside a small white and blue affair, but within a restful house of serenity, its stark white walls aglow with soothing blues, greens and yellows cast from its stained glass windows; while the minimalist murals and even the priests’ robes were designed by the artist in a span of four intensely busy years.

On arrival head for the old town with its labyrinth of cobbled streets Romanesque arches, galleries, aromatic boulangeries and electric-pink bougainvillea. Several times each week a fruit and veg market adorns the Place Du Jardin, with an antiques market each Wednesday. Half the fun is getting lost in the maze of streets. For food on the hop buy a baguette and some flavoursome paté or stop for déjeuner at earthy Restaurant Le Pigeonnier, which serves French food typical of the region.

Aesthetes can get their art fix at the Fondation Émile Hugues (a contemporary art museum housed in Vence’s imposing Château de Villeneuve), while at nearby village, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the Fondation Maeght has one of Europe’s largest collections of 20th-century works and is scattered with Miró sculptures and mosaics by Chagall. While you’re here take lunch or dinner at La Colombe d’Or, celebrated for its walls hung with Picassos and Modigliani sketches (these impoverished maestros used to paint for free dinner), its sunny terrace and a menu of traditional fare that has become a Provençal institution.

Where to Stay

Luxury hotel in France

Hotel Le Saint Paul

For village intimacy, stay in Saint-Paul de Vence’s eponymous hotel, Le St Paul, an historic painter’s house with Chagall originals adorning the walls. Meanwhile, situated in the heights of the Mercantour National Park and with breath-taking views across the Alpes-Maritimes to the Riviera coastline far below, newly-renovated private villa Les Hauts de Vence is as inviting as it is imposing. The gardens embrace a stunning infinity pool and a terrace perfect for al fresco dining.

Luxury villa in France

Les Hauts de Vence

Finally, nestled in an olive grove in fragrant gardens at the foothills of the Alpes-Maritimes, the enchanting Mas de Pierre; exudes chateau chic charm, has a glittering pool, Anne Sémonin spa and stately restaurant. Mas de Pierre is also a terrific family option with family-friendly activities, an excellent children’s menu and a baby-sitting service.

Luxury hotel in France

Mas de Pierre

Nick is the Director of Product for the Villas and Ski division at Red Savannah. A linguist who has lived and studied in France and Italy, Nick’s entire career has been devoted to seeking out Europe’s most beautiful private homes and hotels. His specialist area is the South of France. For advice on South of France villas and hotels, contact Nick Westwood at Red Savannah on +44 1242 787800, www.redsavannah.com