After having been closed for 20 years due to serious degradation, one of the city’s cultural jewels now shines in a new light
The City of Nice is generally doing a good job keeping its architectural patrimony in great shape. At least those in the centre… some of the more outlying ones, off the paths of visitors, sometimes don’t get the same attention. One of the oldest churches on the French Riviera, the Abbey of St. Pons on the east side of Nice, sadly fell victim to decay and neglect, and was closed to the public since 1999. In 2016, the City launched a concerted plan to restore St. Pons’ baroque splendor. After three years of top-to-bottom restoration, the historic monument now sparkles in newfound beauty and welcomes visitors again.
The site’s history goes back an astounding 1,300 years. The original abbey was founded here by Charlemagne in 774 and given to the Benedictines. It was destroyed during a failed Saracen attack on Nice in 890. Eighty years later, the abbey was rebuilt and by the twelfth century it had become the richest one in Nice, owning more than half of the city. Many centuries and historic events later, the church was rebuilt in 1724 in the Baroque style that we know today. But again, the building would have to suffer the ravages of time.
Following expert restoration of the enclosure and roof of the building as well as the interior, the church with its Turin-inspired architecture has now regained its 18th and 19th century appearance. Restoration work will continue in 2020 with a second phase, focusing on the furnishings and paintings, many of which are protected as historic monuments. Project costs are close to 2.9m euro, largely financed by private donations.
The abbey’s namesake St. Pontius (or “St. Pons” in French) was a Roman-born martyr who died here in the 3rd century CE for refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods. After several attempts at execution were ineffective, such as being thrown to two bears in the amphitheatre and being burnt at the stake, he was finally beheaded on a rock overlooking the banks of the Paillon; his body was then pushed off a cliff. Pons was buried in a necropolis located at the site of the future abbey. According to a legend, his head rolled into the river and was carried away by sea to Marseille. A multimedia video created by Collectif 8, the premier theatre company in the South of France, tells the story of the holy man’s life.
City councilor Jean-Luc Gagliolo, in charge of heritage and patrimony, explains that while this church is of course a place of worship it will also be one of encounters, concerts, and conferences, completely reintegrated into the fabric of the city.
A guided visit in the company of Jean-Luc Gagliolo and historian Hervé Barelli, adviser to the Mayor for culture and patrimony, is scheduled for Friday, June 7 at 2.30 pm. For details and reservation please visit Vu Pas Vu.
Abbaye de Saint-Pons
30 Voie Romaine
Lead image by Eric Coffinet – Own work, Public Domain, Link; all other photos courtesy Ville de Nice