Provence’s Ironwork Bell Towers

Aix-en-Provence

Provence is windy.  During our trips to Provence, we saw a large number of wrought-iron bell towers.  Produced in Provence since the 16th century, they are unique to the region.   Once I saw my first one with The Luger on our trip to Avignon, I noticed them everywhere.

Near Les Baux

Their light and open framework allows the area’s strong winds, Le Mistral, to blow through them instead of blowing them over.  Their sound carries for miles.  They usually top the town hall or church, but can even top  a rampart gate.  Many of the towers have a strong Italian influence (which isn’t too surprising given Provence’s proximity to France and considering parts of the Côte d’Azur belonged to France at one time).

Vaison-la-Romaine

Aix-en-Provence

from the highway

Near Pont du Gard

The bellowers date from different eras, but most were built in the 17th and 19th centuries.  They were typically produced by local craftsmen.  Each designed and crafted the tower in their own particular style.  As a result, they vary dramatically in style.  Cool huh?

City Hall in Aix-en-Provence

St-Paul-de-Vence

On the way to Gap

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Everyone Loves St.-Paul-de-Vence

St.-Paul-de-Vence has been discovered.  Around 2.5 million people visit the tiny, 16th century medieval hilltop village each year.  It is filled with art galleries, boutiques and cafes.  The picturesque walk along the Rue Grande (aka Main Street) from Vence Gate to the Nice Gate, is way more beautiful and much more enjoyable than any shopping mall. Tourists love to photograph magnificent old medieval and baroque facades for good reason.  It is beautiful.   Scenic and charming, it is hard to take a bad picture here (unless other tourists photo-bomb you).

We found ourselves ducking into side streets and back alleys to avoid the hoards of tour bus passengers and students on field trips gushing down the streets like a lava stream.  St.-Paul-de-Vence is quaint and its backstreets are enchanting.  These who only shop the main drag are missing out.

I loved the potted plants outside doors, vine-covered stone walls, weathered squares, trickling fountains, narrow alleys, statues tucked into nooks, wrought iron gates, intricate door knockers and delicately worked wrought-iron shop signs .  It seemed as though there were adorable details everywhere I looked.  For example, the sidewalk stones are laid in patterns.  I’m just lucky to keep my floor relatively clean, forget about tiling flowers into it.

St.-Paul-de-Vence is built on a natural defensible spot, a rock outcropping in the Alps Maritimes on the Cote d’Azur.  French king Francis 1st made it a stronghold and ordered the construction of massive defensive walls.  Good call Frankie.  I wouldn’t want to lose this town to the enemy either.  Paul’s medieval fortress walls surround the town and are some of the most intact in the region.  We walked the perimeter taking in the breathtaking views of mountains and sea.

Yep. That’s the Mediterranean in the distance

The cemetery is just outside the city walls on the Mediterranean side.  The painter, Mark Chagall, is buried in the Saint Paul-de-Vence cemetery. His simple white tomb has small stones on top.  They are added by visitors as tributes pursuant to both Russian and Jewish tradition.

In case you were wondering, St.-Paul-de-Vence is also known as St. Paul.  Since there are a lot of other towns named St. Paul in France, it is typically referred to as the one by Vence.

Villefranche, Oui, S’Il Vous Plaît

Villefranche-sur-Mer is carved into a hillside on a bay between Nice and Monaco.  We chose to stay in Villefranche because it is smaller and more residential than many of the towns on the water.   That’s not to say that they don’t have the tourism thing down pat.  Cruise ships regularly put down anchor in the harbor and we paid more to park our car overnight here than we did in New York City!  As cheap as I am, I didn’t care.  The views were worth it.

I loved the pastel colored houses and church.  On the left is the Baroque Eglise St-Michel church.  While it seems as though every town here has impressive, serene churches, this one had interesting objects that appeared magical with the light streaming in on them.  The statue of Christ below was carved out of olive wood by a convict.

We fed our coffee addiction and had breakfast at a café on the docks.  People were readying their boats for a sailing competition that weekend and seeing fisherman returning with their catch provided great entertainment.  After gorging on fish the night before, we learned that the Mediterranean is almost fished out and most of the fish served in restaurants is imported from the Atlantic.  Many of the towns on the Côte d’Azur started as fishing villages.  Today, tourism is the number one industry, but Villefranche is still has a few people who still earn a living fishing.

Villefranche has been a port since Roman times and is strategically important because it could be used as a base from which to attack the port of Nice.  After the fall of the Roman empire, residents fled and built the hill towns that dot the mountains behind the water.  In the 13th century, the Duke of Provence wanted to defend the port from Saracen Turks and strengthen their hold on the coastline.  To get them to move, he made living there tax-free.  Gotta love tax-free.  The Duke of Savoy constructed the fort to defend the port and bay in the 16th century.

The vaulted Rue Obscure (dark street) provided shelter from bombardment.  Rue Obscure is a passage way under the harbor front houses dating from 1260.

Narrow, steep lanes climb up from the harbor.  They were blissfully quiet and relatively deserted until the cruise ship started ferrying passengers ashore.

We decided to pull the plug and head out to the Grand Cornishe.  Before we left, we stopped to check out this church.  Villefranche is known for the Chapelle St.-Pierre in which Jean Cocteau (a famous French artist, poet and filmmaker) painted lavish frescos with heavy black lines and pastel colors.

Oops, I almost forgot.  In Villefranche, we found a new use for a bidet.  It came in really handy to clean the mud off of his Dunks.

So I Got That Goin’ For Me, Which Is Nice

After Cannes and Antibes on our giant whirlwind tour of the Côte d’Azur, we checked into our hotel in Villefranche.  After dropping off our bags and trying to find a parking spot in the very steep and very crowded streets of Villefranche, we walked along the Boulevard Princess Grace de Monaco to Vieux Nice (old town Nice).

After so much time in the car, it was great to walk and move around.  It was a beautiful evening and the scenery was amazing.  These were the views we’d been hoping for in the south of France, a rocky coast with clear water and a gorgeous blue sea.

We stopped and watched this boxer workout.  It’s not a bad spot for a workout, I’d probably be distracted by the view.  I’m not sure who he is, but his t-shirt was in Russian.  Any ideas?

Nice’s harbor was peaceful and the boats were a bit more modest than in Antibes.

Being from the US, I’ve never really understood the concept of renting a space on the beach.  It’s common in the south of France.  Most of the beaches are rocky so I guess it’s nice to have a lawn chair that you don’t have to lug around and waiters who will bring you cold drinks.  Notice they even put down aisle-like mats so that you don’t have to touch the rocks!  I guess everyone has different ways they like to experience nature.  We have friends who like to tube down rivers with coolers tied to their tubes.  To each their own.

We so busy sightseeing that we missed lunch and hadn’t eaten more than an apple since breakfast 12 hours earlier.  Oops.  By the time we arrived in Vieux Nice, we were ravenous.  We headed to the Cours Saleya which has been Nice’s main market square since the middle ages.  Filled with cafes that spill out onto the square, there were plenty of options so that we didn’t have to wait for a table.

Luckily for us, France is a great place to be hungry.  We had a wonderful meal and gorged ourselves on French specialities.  I had salad (Niçoise, how could I not when in Nice), oysters (they don’t serve them with Tabasco Sauce), and bouillabaisse.  Near the sea, I felt pretty confident that the seafood would be good.  It was better than good.

Vieux Nice is a tangled mishmash of ancient streets and alleyways.  Strolling through them was a perfect way to end our amazing day in the south of France.

Picasso, Yachts And Ramparts In Antibes

You could drive the entire Côte d’Azur (aka the French Rivera) and see all the towns along it, but it would take you forever and all the traffic would drive you crazy.  We didn’t have the time (or stamina) to do it all.  Instead, we picked a few of the best towns on the coast: Antibes, Nice and Villefranche-sur-Mer.  Antibes has sandy beaches (many on the Côte d’Azur are rocky), an agreeable old town, and a nice Picasso Museum.

When we get a yacht, we want one with a helicopter too.

Antibes’s port is filled with enormous luxury yachts.  We watched crews getting the yachts ready for the start of the season.  We didn’t see anyone famous, but in the past few days Jennifer Connelly, Princess Beatrice, Hayden Panettiere and Petra Nemcova have all been sighted there.

Before joining France in 1860, nearby Nice was under Italian rule. Antibes was the last French town before the Italian border. As a result, the French built a fort and some major ramparts.  From the harbor, you can see Fort Carre, in the center of the port.    We strolled the ramparts, enjoying the sun and the beautiful views.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote one of his best known works, Tender is the Night, based on life in Antibes.  Judging from the story, we thought Antibes wouldn’t be too laid back or plebeian.  Nevertheless, Antibes has a down-to-earth ambience.  Well, at least it’s more down to earth than many of the neighboring towns (Cannes, I’m looking at you).  Ramparts and towers wrap the old town and guard its medieval streets.

It’s not some dour medieval town.  Party animals like Rudolf Valentino and Charlie Chaplin partied here in the roaring 20’s.  Legend has it that water skiing was invented in Antibes in the 1920s.  In 1946 after World War II, 65-year-old Pablo Picasso moved there with 23-year-old lady friend, Françoise Gilot.  He experienced a surge in creativity, painting like a madman and partying hard.  The merry, festive atmosphere continues.  We saw lots of Brits enjoying a pint in the sun.

The 12th century Chateau Grimaldi, an old town mansion on the edge of the Mediterranean, houses the Picasso Museum (it’s where he stayed while in Antibes) and has stunning views.  We took a minute to enjoy the sculpture garden on the terrace before checking out the museum’s paintings, sketches, and ceramics.

Picasso said that if you wanted to see work from his Antibes period, you’d have to do it in Antibes.  Picasso was prolific.  One of the best parts about the museum was being able to see several versions of a painting or idea.  For example, we saw about 10 platters on which he’d painted bulls.  You could see his experimentation with styles and subjects.  Fascinating.

The old town is charming, sunny, relaxed and filled with Brits.  We wandered the craft market and the antique sales.  I know, I am such a sucker.

On the way back to the car, we noticed the yacht store had a Che painting on the door.  Where do I begin?