Villefranche-Sur-Mer, a little port town on the French Riviera has been a source of inspiration for many people over the decades, and has been luring visitors to it for many years, myself included. The history of the town has been recorded back as far as 130AD, but it was in 1245, that Charles 11 of Anjou tried to encourage people to go and live there by offering tax relief to them, thus the name, Villefranche, meaning ‘free town’. No such incentives are needed today. It is home, or holiday home to the rich and famous, and the not so rich and famous, and still attracts writers, poets, artists and musicians to its shores as it has done for many years.
Nestled in a magnificent bay, with Mont Baron to its west, and St. Jean Cap Ferrat to its east, and sheltered by the Alpes Maritimes, it is probably the prettiest, and most romantic spot along the entire coast. The bay curves around in a semi circle, and the quaint harbour is dotted with pretty coloured little fishing boats bobbing about on the water, where fishermen unload their daily catch and sell it directly from their boats to the locals and tourists alike.
Beside the harbour, there is a little medieval chapel called Chapell-St-Pierre, built originally for the local fishermen. It was decorated throughout by the famous artists Jean Cocteau. Across the street from the chapel is the famous Welcome Hotel, accommodating guests for many years, some very famous writers and artists have stayed there including Evelyn and Alec Waugh. The hotel was much used by the sailors from the Sixth fleet when it docked in the harbour over the years, and it apparently took on a rather different feel during those times!
The harbor at Villefranche is very deep, thus allowing over 250 giant cruise ships to dock there each year, bringing more than a quarter of a million visitors, particularly Americans. The bay used to be the Mediteranean base for the American Sixth fleet, until 1967.
The facades of the 18th century buildings lining the quayside are a sublime sight, of ocher, terracotta and reds. There is a distinct Italian influence in the town, as it once belonged to Italy, yet Villefrance is truly and very typically Provencal. Perfectly placed on the quayside with lovely views to the bay is the famous La Mère Germaine restaurant, opened in 1938 and not to be missed. It’s a great pleasure to sit at one of its tables on the quayside by the waters’ edge, enjoy a meal under the stars, and to hear the sea water lapping against the boats in the harbour.
The old town rises above the seafront steeply, and is reached by steps bisecting the little narrow streets at different levels. At the very top of the town you reach the lovely L’Eglise St. Michel. When the church bells toll, it adds a certain something to the ambiance of the town. The Rue Obscure, essentially a medieval vaulted passageway is a rather eerie place, rumoured to be haunted, which is something I would vouch for myself! The passageway has acted as shelter for the inhabitants of the town from attacks as far back as the 14th century. The rest of the town is a warren of little streets lined with cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops. It is a busy place all year round, but in summer its population of 8,000, triples.
To the west of the town is an old 16th century castle. Crossing the drawbridge you enter the big wooden gates, and can walk the ramparts. There are several museums in the grounds of the castle, and an open air cinema with great views out to the sea.
Further along the quayside towards the east of the town is a little beach, rather stony, but much used none the less. In summertime it is common to see French families, from grandparents to babies, picnicking on the beach up to and beyond midnight, with children swimming in the sea , and adults enjoying a glass of wine in the balmy summer heat.
Apart from its lovely position in the bay, Villefranche-Sur-Mer is also perfectly placed as a base to tour the Mediterranean coast in general. It is about 5km from Nice and 13km from Monaco, and is very well served by public transport. Local buses can be taken from the main road above the town, and a railway line runs high above the town all along the coast. The beautiful elegant town of Beaulieu is a fifteen minute walk from Villefranche, and the famous St. Jean Cap Ferrat can be reached on foot in perhaps 40 minutes.
The charm of Villefrance-Sur-Mer is so enticing, it has a movie like quality to it, in fact many movies have been shot there. It has not changed much at all over the years, and I doubt it ever will, it is pretty perfect as it is. It has a uniqueness and quality all of its own, and it certainly draws me back to it time and time again.