In June 2012, Margaret Clare and her partner found themselves with a spare weekend. The north of England had its usual early summer wet weather and wishing for a dose of sunshine – they flew to Nice, hired a car and drove up into the hills. They were going to the medieval, walled town of Vence Provence, a French Town to fall in love with…
Vence is a small town of 16,000 inhabitants nestling in the limestone hills called the Baous. Seated high above Nice it offers fabulous vistas down to the Mediterranean which lies at its feet. It is fittingly in the Department of Alpes Maritimes – where the mountains come down to the sea.
As we drove up the winding hillside road and past the last Roundabout leading in to Vence, we saw that it was covered in flowers – all in the shape of musical instruments. A grand piano, a musician playing a saxophone, a drum kit. They like their music & flowers here, we surmised.
Next morning after warm croissants and coffee in the café on the Grand Place we strolled around the old walls of the town. Vence is steeped in history – from Roman times to the Middle Ages. The ramparts encircle the old town and contain its many treasures. This weekend the treasures were added to by the musical kind…
On our way to lunch, we turned a corner to head for an outdoor restaurant near the Cathedral – almost to collide with eight cellists setting up to play. It transpired that it was a class, with their music teacher, from the Conservatoire in Nice. We discovered that there were concerts at various points in the town. A happy accident that we had arrived on the weekend of the Festival de la Musique called Festi’Vence. Later we were treated to the Musique de les Pompiers de Nice. Much brass in evidence – the sun glinted off the rows of bugles, trumpets, trombones as well as the epaulettes of the Musical Director.
After lunch a formal orchestra led by a conductor played under a large umbrella which shielded them from the strong, Mediterranean sunshine.
We walked to the Chapelle du Rosaire, designed entirely by Henri Matisse and the setting for a Chamber music quartet. The beautiful sounds resonated around the tiny Chapelle and I think Matisse would have approved of such a use for his creation.
We had only booked for two days in Vence and with much reluctance we had to leave this musical cornucopia and return to Nice, but vowed we would return to sample more musical delights in this small town.
In fact we returned just two months later as we had fallen in love with Vence. This time we were there to buy a property enabling us to sample the offerings of the town for a longer time.
In 2013 we arrived in plenty of time for the festival and determined not to miss a moment of this musical bounty. There were 22 free concerts over three days – mostly in the open air. We revisited the Matisse Chapelle where a guitar duet played played a variety of classical and contemporary music – including les Feuilles Mortes (Autumn Leaves) made popular by Yves Montand who lived in the nearby town of St Paul de Vence. The gentle sounds of the guitars in the little Chapelle produced was magical. The white tiles upon which Matisse had painted the Dominican figures, the stations of the Cross and the Madonna and child gave the setting an acoustic quality and tone which resonated within the little building and produced enchanting notes of tranquility which left the audience spellbound.
A concert was held in the town’s Cathedral – the smallest in France which contains a mosaic by Marc Chagall. Outside on a raised stage in the Passage Cahours, 17 year old Leo Pensel played jazz piano. The sun was fading as he played his last notes and was reluctantly allowed to finish his act by the audience who gave him deservedly, rapturous applause.
All over France every midsummer – on the 21st June, there are music festivals. In Vence though they have extended the festival to run for three days and each year there are more concerts. Every musical genre can be heard, from Mozart to the sound of Glen Miller’s Big Band.
It is a lovely way to spend a weekend in the sunshine, steeping oneself in music and art in one of the most wonderful places there is…
Magical, musical, Vence.
Margaret Clare is a musician with a home in Vence and a late life Francophile with a partner who has been a lifelong Francophile.
Read more about the Fete de La Musique, held all over France on 21 June