Follow Tristan Rutherford as he soaks up the stunning views and rich cultural heritage of this beach resort on the French Riviera
The resort of Villefranche-sur-Mer is a fairy-tale vision from whichever direction you arrive. If you come on the €1.50 bus from Monaco or Nice, it appears Disney-like astride the Mediterranean. Two castles sandwich one historic resort that melts like a pastel-shaded glacier into a clear blue sea.
To start the history lesson jump off the bus at the top of town. First up is the capaciously cool interior of the Église Saint-Michel. A church was founded here in 1303, along with Villefranche itself. It was then rebuilt in the 18th century in the baroque style.
By the end of the 1300s, Villefranche had become part of the House of Savoy, straddling parts of modern-day France and Italy. Its overlords spoke Piedmontese Latin, not Parisian French. On streets such as Rue Amiral Albini expect window boxes, washing lines and discarded copies of Gazzetta dello Sport. It reminds you that Italy is just a 30-kilometre trip, while Paris is nearly 1,000 kilometres away.
You can thank the Turks for the Citadelle that sits across the portcullis bridge. In 1543 Barbarossa Pasha (the famous ‘Red Beard’ of the Mediterranean) rowed 110 galleys into Villefranche’s perfect natural harbour in an orgy of looting and burning. By 1570, the Dukes of Savoy had built this impregnable castle in response.
Follow the seaside trail under the Citadelle to Quai de l’Amiral Courbet. During the 1940s and 1950s, the US Sixth Fleet used Villefranche’s 95-metre-deep harbour as a second home. Homesick sailors found solace in the alfresco restaurant of Mère (or Mom) Germaine, who would dish up seafood and sympathy to those missing their families. Like much of Villefranche, it’s now a ritzy place. Order carpaccio of scallops and a glass of Bandol and you won’t get much change from €50.
Nearby stands a bust of hedonistic writer and artist Jean Cocteau who lived in the Hôtel Welcome across the road for eight years. He painted the Chapelle de Saint-Pierre just up the road, breakfasted in the local cafés and still found time to paint the frescoes in the Villa Santo Sospir across the water in Cap Ferrat, which now welcomes fans on guided tours.
VILLEFRANCHE AT A GLANCE
Stay for a night at… The four-star Hôtel Welcome (tel: (Fr) 4 93 76 27 62, www.welcomehotel.com), which first welcomed Jean Cocteau in 1924. It’s now Villefranche’s finest hostelry. Every room has both a balcony and sea views. Doubles from €151, breakfast €17.50.
Stop for a coffee at… Cosmo (tel: (Fr) 4 93 01 84 05, www.restaurant-lecosmo.fr) on the buzzing Place Amélie Pollonais. Sit outside and admire the Chapelle de Saint-Pierre across the road.
Stop for lunch at… La Baleine Joyeuse (tel: (Fr) 6 22 28 09 57), which is the place to escape the tourists. This lunch-only seafood shack on Quai de la Corderie overlooking the marina dishes up two daily chalkboard specials. Order a glass of Provençal red, grab a plastic chair and join the club.
WHAT TO SEE
– The Chapelle Saint-Pierre (tel: (Fr) 4 93 76 90 70, admission €2) opposite the Hôtel Welcome had tempted Jean Cocteau since he moved to Villefranche in the 1920s. In 1957 he finally received permission to paint the interior with frescoes in honour of St Peter, patron saint of the sea.
– Villefranche’s many markets are stunningly sited. Sunday’s brocante is held in Place Amélie Pollonais, a square ringed by pavement cafés, the Citadelle and the shimmering sea. For local produce visit Saturday morning’s Marché Provençal in Place Octroi.
IN THE AREA
Feeling energetic? Soldiers of the House of Savoy used to hike 220 metres up from the Citadelle to Mont Alban every day. From the 15th-century fort at the top (admission free), one can signal down to the seafront, or across to Italy and Cap d’Antibes. It is now a bucolic picnic spot backed by crumbling ruins.
More castle ruins are visible just a kilometre away, above Nice’s Vieux Port. Like Villefranche, Nice became part of the House of Savoy in 1388, and was besieged in 1543 by French troops and a Turkish fleet. The Colline du Château is now a panoramic public park scattered with cafés (http://en.nicetourisme.com).
Villefranche is hemmed in by Cap Ferrat, one of the richest stretches of land on the planet. The oh-so-chic Plage de Passable was a favourite of Pablo Picasso. From the beach, the Sentier des Douaniers (customs officers’ trail) loops for six kilometres around the peninsula. It takes in four secret beaches and passes the ultra-glamorous Grand-Hôtel du Cap Ferrat.
The road east leads to the Principality of Monaco, ruled by the Grimaldi family since 1297. The current prince, Albert II, resides in the Palais Princier (open 10am to 6pm daily, Apr-Oct, €8, tel: (Mon) 93 25 18 31, www.palais.mc). The free changing of the guard ceremony takes place every day at 11.55am.
Back in France, the town of Menton, the last stop before the Italian border, has a new museum dedicated to Jean Cocteau (open 10am to 6pm, exc Tue, €8, tel: (Fr) 4 89 81 52 50, www.museecocteaumenton.fr).
Nice Airport has direct flights from New York and Montreal; the train from Paris to Nice takes 5hr 40min (fares from $88 return, www.raileurope.com) – Villefranche is another five minutes down the line.
Villefranche-sur-Mer tourist office, tel: (Fr) 4 93 01 73 68, www.villefranche-sur-mer.org