Villefranche: An Idle Isle for Mellow Travelers

For those who have already experienced or are simply not attracted to the fast pace, glitz, glamour and gambling of Nice, Cannes, or Monte Carlo, but still want to experience all of the things that make the French Riviera uniquely desirable, the quaint fishing village of Villefranche will prove a dream destination. A tiny village two miles east of Nice and bordered by Monte Carlo to the west, Villefranche rests on a steep hillside overlooking one of the world’s most magnificent bays. Due to the limited space and urbanization, this town’s narrow winding streets may be some of the most “authentic” to be had on the Cote d’Azur. Lending to the feel that one has stepped into the past are the traditional vibrant colours of the local homes, many of which have trompe l’oeil paintings adorning their already cheery walls and windows. Though those who enjoy clubbing, casino-hopping, and darting in and out of every available high-end boutique may find Villefranche’s pace disconcertingly slow, anyone seeking a mellow haven from the modern world should take up residence and never leave.

Walking along the quayside, one is afforded a view of a harbour that seems almost untouched by time, occupied as it is mainly by modest fishing skiffs and fibreglass day boats, with nary an ocean-going modern vessel in sight, although a yacht or two is not an uncommon sight from time to time during the vacation season from April to September. This lack of luxury liners should seem particularly strange in light of the fact that Villefranche’s bay is one of the deepest in the Mediterranean, but somehow it seems to make perfect sense, as though such things have simply not been allowed in this quiet Eden since the hustle and bustle that once crowded this former major military port was successfully shifted to Nice after the construction of its port in the eighteenth century. Indeed, there is an air of tired wisdom surrounding the bay, suggesting that it learned more than enough about the price of modernization during its stints as a base for American and French warships, and now prefers to remain a largely overlooked gem of the Riviera.

In keeping with this feeling is the fact that many of Villefranche’s main attractions are related to its long and surprisingly illustrious history. Of particular note is the Citadelle, or Forte Sainte Elme, which was constructed to protect the bay and has been lucky enough to withstand the scourge of four hundred years of war and wear. This fortress, dating back to the 14th century, now houses the town’s main buildings, including two art museums and the town hall, plus Villefranche’s lovely gardens. The first of the museums, the Volti museum, is named after the famous artist of the same name and is home to many of his important sculptures, while the second, the Goetz-Boumeester museum, has works by artists such as Miro and Picasso. The summer months in Villefranche are spiced up by the concerts and open air cinema showings held in the courtyards of the museums. Though both the day and nightlife in Villefranche can hardly said to be fast-paced, there is a great deal of fun to be had by those who like to soak up a little history along with the plentiful sunshine.

By further touring around la Darse, the old harboir surrounding the walls of the Citadelle, visitors can also take in such sights as the University of Paris oceanography institute, several beautiful beaches, most of which are composed of fine sand, but a few of which are pebbly, and Villefranche’s working boatyard. Hikers will also spot the marked and quite beautiful Italian influence in the architecture of the buildings surrounding the port, including the Hotel Welcome, a long ago favorite of famed French artist Jean Cocteau, who himself restored the abandoned Chapelle Saint Pierre, another eye-catching local attraction. Since Villefranche is much less crowded than Nice and other more touristy cities, the beaches here are ideal for those who prefer to do their sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling and so on in relative peace. It is also noteworthy that the dearth of beachgoers hurtling themselves in and out of the water also makes Villefranche an excellent place to spot many varieties of fish, which cluster here in the clear waters of the Mediterranean, unconcerned about being overwhelmed by humans. While there aren’t as many seaside cafes and other such services to be had here, there are enough that no one should end up feeling deprived. For example, at the far end of the boatyard lies the Baleine Joyeuse, or Happy Whale, a fairly deluxe little seaside café with shaded tables and a friendly staff serving up coffee, sandwiches, and other typical seaside fare seven days a week. For beach-goers who don’t mind trading in an endless array of shop options and deckchair rental kiosks for the ability to enjoy the Riviera’s beaches in a less cramped setting, Villefranche is a sandy heaven.

After enjoying the amenities afforded by the quiet beaches, visitors should consider touring Villefranche’s old town, though they should be prepared for a slightly strenuous hike, as the old town rises in one steep wave up from the seafront and includes some streets which seem positively vertical. In fact, the only way to freely enjoy all the nooks and crannies of the old town is to abandon all modes of transportation except one’s own feet, as even attempting to drag a bicycle along these streets will sharply limit mobility. For those who don’t mind the walk, a real live trip down memory lane is to be had for those strolling down rue Obscure. Built as a shelter for the townspeople in the thirteenth century during the first of many wars, it is still almost completely covered from end to end, lit only by lamps from above, an enchanting but eerie reminder of this quiet town’s more turbulent past.

While those seeking expensive frou-frou boutiques should take a day trip to Monte Carlo or Nice, as Villefranche’s old town offers limited shopping of this sort, visitors in search of simple beach items, collectibles, and tourist style souvenirs will have no problem finding what they desire in one of the little shops lining the streets. Visitors who are more worried with experiencing the culinary specialities of the Riviera than plumping out their wardrobes can visit any of the wonderful cafes crowding old town, as the majority offer superior service and cuisine. True fish lovers, however, should consider heading back to any of the restaurants lining the port, as all offer the priceless dining experience of having their chosen catch almost literally lifted directly from the ocean and onto their plates—with a short stop in the kitchen, of course. If visitors prefer to assemble and cook their own meals, there are several small open air markets filled with the usual fresh French fare—meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, and the like. The only thing that must be noted by visitors wishing to interact with the locals is that very little English is spoken here in comparison to other cities on the Mediterranean, and that those without at least a basic grasp of French would do well to arm themselves with a phrasebook.

While all of this calming sea air, access to ancient attractions and rich history may prove to be too droll for those expecting the up-tempo rhythms of Monte Carlo, Cannes, and Nice, Villefranche may be just the ticket for vacationers who prefer their holidays to include a bit more solitude and a bit less stress. Villefranche is also an excellent choice for anyone wishing to visit the Riviera on a budget, as its cafes and hotels are usually less expensive in accordance with its relative obscurity, and it also does not include the temptations offered by the world-famous shops and high-rolling casinos so omnipresent in the rest of the Cote d’Azur. Villefranche may not offer the sweeping highs and lows of other cities, but nor will it empty wallets and jangle nerves, and in the end, it may well be one of the few suitable choices for those wishing to tap into the heart of the region’s past.