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Modern Masters

Miro and margaritas

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The tiny French village of St Paul de Vence was home to an astonishing number of modern masters, from Picasso and Chagall to Matisse and Dufy - and they're still alive in every cafê, wall and street corner

On the famed Cote d'Azur, around 20km from Nice, is the tiny village of St Paul de Vence, enclosing within itself centuries of history, high art and arresting architecture. Sitting proud and pretty on a spur high up in the hills, it looms invitingly from afar as you leave the azure Mediterranean Sea behind and take the meandering road up. Closer, the 16th century fortifications come into view, evidence of the ravage of wars and the need to secure the village.

Enter the imposing gates and you are greeted by cobbled paths, snaking around the village and its quaint buildings - an art gallery here, a cafê there, a designer boutique, an artist's studio.

Hamish Wallace, a travel director with Trafalgar Tours who brings groups here, says the destination is great for people who want to discover those hidden places not on guidebooks. "St Paul de Vence represents a genuine piece of living history. It's a French village from the past yet also a functioning village, with the French Alps behind you and the Mediterranean in front. It's a real delight;small, but very beautiful and unspoilt, " says Wallace, whose tour company specialises in small European gems like this one.

It's the galleries and museums that draw tourists today, but the medieval village has long been a magnet for the famous with generations of artists living here.

The first ones started to arrive around the 1920s. Raoul Dufy, Paul Signac and Chaim Soutine were attracted by the abundant light, greenery, vibrant colours and somnolent charm of the sleepy village. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were frequent visitors too.

American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin lived for years in the village. Perhaps, the most famous of all St Paul residents was Marc Chagall, who dropped anchor here after wandering around Europe and the US for years. He lies buried in the cemetery at the end of the village.

The artists have left their mark on the village in every way. One of the more famous spots is the Colombe d'Or, a restaurant that was started out modestly as the Robinson just after World War I. It soon became a favourite with the artists. The owner Paul Roux, a painter, and his wife Baptistine 'Titine' were said to be generous hosts, and the artists came in droves.

Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, Signac and Dufy came and went as they pleased, and settled their bills with a painting or two. The unorthodox barter resulted in an eclectic private collection, with paintings, sculptures and other art pieces strewn around the place almost casually.

The inn was expanded, more rooms built and an outdoor terrace added for dining as the love affair with the artists continued. They kept coming and the collection grew, boasting of works by Chagall, Calder, Soutine, Cesar, Leger and Modigliani among others. It's easy to see what attracted the artists. Houses with orange groves, flowers bursting out of brightly painted windows and walls draped in ivy. Floral designs in the cobbled paths and statues embedded in the walls. Valleys fall away in all directions, the bright sea beckons in the distance, and the snowy Alps glisten in under the sun on the far side.

The entire village looks a bit like a giant art installation. As Choy Wan Teh, an Australian working in Singapore and on her first visit, said, "Grazing my fingers over old bricks and enjoying the beautiful scenery, its easy to see why Matisse, Chagall and the rest fell in love with this town and stayed here. Its surroundings provide a palette of inspiration for all who want to seek beauty in nature and times gone by. "

Another St Paul showpiece is the Maeght Foundation, a private museum and gallery which has a formidable collection of modern and contemporary European art with paintings, sculptures, drawings and graphic works from the 20th century and contemporary artists.

The writer travelled on an invitation from Trafalgar Tours

 

 

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