The Village of Vence –
Alpes Maritimes and the French Rivier
Paris is 10 hours from Los Angeles and a 9 hour time change. It is less than two hours from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris to Nice Airport on the French Riviera. The Riveria – from Monte Carlo to Nice, Cannes to St. Tropez - is hype and old glamour, crowds and horrific parking. There are lots of expensive stores and expensive baubles draping locals and tourists alike. The beaches are beautiful albeit a bit pebbly. So, if you’re into the glittering allure of this millionaire’s getaway, stay on the Riviera. But if you want to see what drew Matisse and Picasso, Chagall and Renoir to the south of France, head for the hills and the dramatic hillside villages of Vence, St. Paul de Vence, Grasse, Gourdon, and Mougins.
My wife and I drove a rental Renault, west on coastal highway A8. She drove, I navigated. A half hour from Nice airport, we turned off at Cagnes Sur Mer. Ten minutes later, we entered the village of Vence. Parking was a little tight in the driveway of our picturesque bed-and-breakfast, Hotel Villa Roseraie on Avenue Henri Girard. It was a bit exhausting carrying ourselves and luggage up fifteen steps to the hotel’s lobby and our room. I wondered if I should have stayed at one of the many more “ground level” hotels and B&B’s we had passed driving into town. But out my window, I discovered a rewarding view of hillside homes with red tiled roofs and wide french windows draped in lush red bouganvilla. The room was small but wonderfully quaint with a lace canopy over the bed, unique sconce lighting, and a painted tiled bathroom. The Rosaeraie was modestly priced for the region, about $120/night with breakfast served in a poolside garden. It was a five minute walk to the center of Vence.
The Vielle Ville, Vence’s old town, is entered through a 15th century arch, the Porte de Peyra, with an urn shaped fountain beside it that describes the source of local waters. A few turns down several old-world narrow streets led us to the Auberge de Seigniers, a quaint restaurant below a small hotel with the same name, with about ten tables set around a large stone fireplace.
We sat next to a couple who coincidentally used to live in Westlake Village but were now retired to Maine. They were staying in the hotel above the restaurant and described their room as being one formerly occupied by Renoir. The hotel advertised its rooms by its former occupants - Renoir, Mogdiliani, Dufy, Chagall. It’s nice to know that if you achieve fame, someone will name your old hotel room after you.
We started with a bottle of the wonderful local wine, Cote de Provence Vin. As I perused the menu, the owner’s large, old and hairy dog, Tim, passively watched me. Tim found a rose and began traipsing about the dining room studying patrons with the rose in its mouth and a plaintive look in its eyes. A dog in a restaurant. This place would certainly not be hanging an “A” on its window in southern California.
I ordered the prix fix menu at 220 F “service compris” (about $35, tip included). Considering I couldn’t read much of the french menu, it was an excellent choice and not less than a million calories. But I’m talking about a “meal” here, not just “food.” First came the fish soup with giant croutons covered with a magic dollop of mustard, mayonnaise, and garlic Then came an “oh-my-god, you’re gonna have a heart attack” baked cheese quiche. After, a main course of grilled beef, boiled potatoes, and all-too buttered zucchini, came a salad. Then, an asortment of cheeses. And finally, an apple torte with café au lait. I don’t know who gives out the restaurant stars in the south of France, but this meal deserved at least four. It was a complete joy – except for my wife’s constant, but deserved, nagging about my eating too much. After dinner, I had no doubts as to why Chagall and Renoir stayed here. But I question whether they dined with their wives.