Villefranche sur mer is a beautiful town situated on the glitzy French riviera, east of Nice. Its picturesque harbour is protected by Cap Ferrat on the left as you look out to sea, and the Cap of Nice on the right. It’s usually dotted with colourful fishing boats, and looks beautiful when all lit up at night. Strolling around the old town and port is a joy, and there’s no shortage of tempting restaurants and cafes where you can watch the world go by. Behind the town centre, the hills rise steeply, and if you’re lucky enough to be staying at a property on the hill – as we did – the view across to Cap Ferrat and around the Mediterranean coastline is breathtaking. Here are my favourite things about Villefranche which led me to fall in love with the place:
1. Location: it’s the riviera!
Much as I love other areas of France, there is nowhere quite like the Côte D’Azur. It has the warm Mediterranean sunshine, the colourful houses, tiled roofs and terracotta pots full of flowers that make me feel that I’m truly on holiday. Admittedly it does draw a wealthy crowd which can push up prices in certain areas, but it’s usually possible to divert from the main tourist trail and find a great family-run restaurant or artisan shop with prices you can afford. What’s more it’s easy to get to, with regular flights to Nice from Paris and international destinations, and a train service into town (although the train station is a little bit of a walk from the airport, and not exactly easy to find).
2. The food
This being Provence, there is lots of delicious fresh local produce to enjoy in the restaurants. Olives, lemons, garlic, peppers, wild herbs, tomatoes and seafood feature strongly in Provençal cuisine. Typical dishes include ratatouille, bouillabaise, salade Niçoise, tapenade and boeuf à la Gordienne. The proximity of Italy is evident in the local cuisine too, with plenty of pasta dishes on offer.
One of my favourite snacks was the delicious pan bagnat, which consisted of a Niçoise salad (tuna, olives, sweet onion, tomato, olive oil and lemon juice) tucked inside a crusty bread bun. The dressing soaks into the bread, hence ‘bagnat’ – bathed. When it comes to wine, local is usually the most affordable when you’re anywhere in France, and Provençal wines are pretty good.
3. The beach
The sandy beach at Villefranche sur mer isn’t huge, at around 1 km long. Nevertheless, it’s the perfect place to soak up the sun and take a dip in the warm Mediterranean waters, at least if you’re there in summer! It’s overlooked by the town, the railway and the hills, so there’s plenty of interest and activity going on around you if you forgot to take your book. There are some friendly beachside bars where you can buy your pan bagnat for lunch.
4. You don’t need a car
Any town with a railway station gets top marks from me, not only because I love trains but because it makes getting around easy and pleasurable. There are direct trains from Villefranche sur mer to Cannes (54 min), Antibes (40 min), Juan les Pins (43 min), Menton (30 min), Grasse (1 hour 21 min) and of course Nice (8 min), from where you can get to many other places. You can even visit Italy for the day. Ventimiglia takes about 50 min by direct train.
I went to the station one day to buy our tickets back to Nice airport for the journey home, and decided to practise my French with the young man serving at the ticket office. After asking for my tickets, I added that Villefranche sur mer was so beautiful that we didn’t want to leave. At this point, he raised his eyebrows, and threw his arms wide in exasperation, in that very French way. “Well, now I am confused. One moment you tell me you want tickets for your departure and now you are telling me you don’t want to leave! Madame, it seems you cannot make up your mind! Do I now have to give you a refund?” As I desperately searched for the right words to explain that alors, no, no, I was simply expressing my appreciation of his beautiful town, his eyes twinkled and a smile slowly spread across his face. I was being teased. What a relief!
5. Boat trips
A number of boat trips operate from the port, including one along the coast to Monte Carlo. This is a very enjoyable and relaxing way to see more of the beautiful coastline, and to glimpse the famous casino, royal palace and super-yachts moored in the harbour of this wealthy principality.
One thing to be aware of is that the Mediterranean can be surprisingly rough sometimes, even in summer. So if you’re not a good sailor, don’t go on a windy day. I don’t suffer from seasickness, luckily, but we went out on a particularly rough day and in retrospect, I would have left it for another day.
6. The arts
Villefranche is a great base from which to explore the many artistic and literary associations of the Côte D’Azur. It’s not hard to see why so many artists have been drawn to this area over the years. Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso all loved the landscapes, colours and luminescence of the riviera. As you walk around, you are likely to see plenty of contemporary artists painting the same scenes. If you enjoy painting, why not take your sketchbook and paints with you? And if you want to be inspired, you can visit the Matisse museum in Nice, or the Renoir museum at the Château-Musée Grimaldi in Cagnes-sur-mer. The Château also has a collection of contemporary art. The pretty village of St Paul de Vence is another venue for modern art, notably the Fondation Maeght and the Hotel La Colombe d’Or. The hotel’s owner allowed struggling artists such as Picasso to eat in the restaurant, in exchange for artworks which can still be seen there today.
Nearby Menton has literary associations with Robert Louis Stevenson, Aubrey Beardsley and Katherine Mansfield. The latter has had a street named after her, and an annual fellowship is offered to New Zealand writers in her memory. The successful applicant spends 3 months or more living and working in Katherine’s former home, the Villa Isola Bella. Antibes is associated with Jules Verne and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Nice with Anton Chekhov and Louisa May Alcott. The beautiful Negresco Hotel, along the Promenade des Anglais, hosted luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway and H.G. Wells.
Being a small town, you won’t find anything like the Negresco in Villefranche. But there’s a decent range of hotels and private rentals to suit all budgets. You can choose to be down town by the water’s edge, or up on the hill, which might require a steep walk up flights of many steps, but the reward is the spectacular view.
We loved to relax on the terrace of our villa, enjoying a wine and some snacks while taking in the beautiful views of the town and coastline. If we didn’t feel like descending into town, we had the option of heading further up instead, to Col de Villefranche where there were a couple of small supermarkets and cafes.
We rented our gorgeous villa from Riviera Experience. The owner, American businesswoman Shelley Dobyns, has a portfolio of 9 properties in and around the town. Shelley was helpful, friendly, a great communicator, and a mine of information about Villefranche and how to get the best out of our holiday. Much as we enjoy staying in hotels, sometimes it’s good to support local businesses, and we’d have no hesitation in recommending Riviera Experience. (And I’m not being paid by them to say that!)
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