Taking it Easy in Villefranche-Sur-Mer

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Most tourists visiting the French Riviera flock to the seaside playgrounds of Nice, Cannes, Saint Tropez and Monaco. Full of glitz, glamour, celebrities, buzzing promenades and azure blue water, visitors can enjoy exquisite cuisine washed down with delicious red wine under the warm Mediterranean sun. As wonderful as these cities may seem, they can become tiring – traffic snarls through narrow streets, emitting choking fumes, while an air of arrogance often reveals itself through unfriendly service and highly inflated prices.

Away from the French Riviera, this is also particulary evident in Paris, which has twice as many residents as the country’s next largest city. This makes for crowded metros, stations, buses and museums. When combined with the French capital’s sometimes smug nature, it can really make for a stressful visit. The pace of life is much calmer in the south of France but it can prove tiresome, especially during the holiday months of July and August.
When it all becomes too much on the Côte d’Azur, it is important to find a nice haven where you can escape the crowded restaurants and packed beaches of Cannes, Saint Tropez and the other cities around this jetsetter’s paradise. Where better than Villefranche-Sur-Mer, a small and charming harbour town perfectly nestled nicely between Nice and Monaco?

Located just six kilometres from Nice and 10 kilometres from Monaco, Villefranche is nicely positioned on the train line between the two cities. Although the region is often justifiably criticised for its high prices, public transport including train tickets sold by SNCF are excellent value. It is also possible to cycle to Villefranche from Nice, a delightful though somewhat tiring experience.

The high hills of Mont Boron, Mont Alban and Mont Vinaigrie surround Villefranche and provide welcome shelter from the elements. The bay stretching out from the town’s promenades has often been considered one of the finest natural harbours in the Mediterranean, reaching a depth of 95 metres. It provides safe anchorage for large ships and it is not uncommon to see massive cruise ships and naval vessels passing through. Much more common are innumerable snow white yachts and sailboats dotted around the pristine blue bay.

Even though they are stunning to behold, the visiting yachts have led to a price hike in Villefranche’s shops and restaurants, which have become increasingly tourist-orientated. This does not take away from the town’s wonderfully picturesque qualities, however. The very heart of the town is its promenade. Though it cannot compete with Nice’s renowned Promenade des Anglais, Villefranche’s Promenade des Mariniers is far less crowded and much more intimate.
As you stroll along the dockside, multicoloured canopies jut out from restaurants and stretch as far as the eye can see. Red, green, yellow – delightful restaurants thrive beneath the canopies and their tables have spread across the road to the waterside. It is the epitome of French summer. Flamboyant waiters dash back and forth, carrying mouth-watering meals and, naturally, countless bottles of wine.
Flower boxes full of lavender add even more colour to the scene, not to mention a fantastic smell, as do the green palm trees that amplify the summer atmosphere. Away from its wonderful restaurant scene, Villefranche is also home to an impressive collection of historic buildings including the pale yellow and pink Église Saint-Michel. Built during the 1750s in a baroque Italian style, this charming church houses several famous works of art and an organ built in the 1790s. The Chapelle Saint-Pierre is also well worth a visit. This delightful little chapel dates from the 16th century and was used to store fishermen’s nets for many years. It was restored in 1957 and contains famous murals created by Jean Cocteau.

The Rue Obscure or literally “Dark Street” is also well worth exploring. This passage dates from as far back as 1260 and passes underneath some of the houses at the harbour. It was originally a core component of a labyrinth of old laneways running alongside the medieval ramparts of Villefranche. The subterranean passageway was intended to protect the town’s inhabitants from attack, a function it continued to fulfil as recently as the Second World War.

The stone walls of the Citadel provided even more protection to the people of Villefranche over the years. This structure dominates the view over the harbour and contains some free museums in addition to the town hall and a chapel. Walking along the old walls and ramparts, visitors are presented with wonderful views over Villefranche and the surrounding landscape. If all the exploration becomes too much, it is definitely worthwhile walking towards the north side of the bay in order to sample more of the laid back lifestyle Villefranche is renowned for.

While the Plage de la Darse forms a pleasant beachside haven behind the harbour’s main jetty, the Plage des Marinières has to be considered the very best beach in Villefranche. It stretches for one kilometre beneath that same train line connecting Nice with Monaco. It is a very relaxing place (but quite busy during the summer months), though the tranquillity is often interrupted by a train thundering along the tracks above. Nevertheless, it is an excellent sandy beach, far removed from Nice’s overcrowded pebble filled shoreline.

Villefranche-Sur-Mer is well connected to all major cities in the region and its size is ideal for a short break. A car is completely unnecessary in the town’s medieval cobblestone streets. Its sheltered bay forms a safe haven for ships attempting to escape stormy waters over the horizon. In the same way, Villefranche-Sur-Mer provides a safe haven for tourists attempting to escape the chaotic bustle of the Côte d’Azur’s major cities, packed with the rich and famous.

Still, you may encounter the odd celebrity in Villefranche. Film makers are often attracted by the region’s rich scenery with Robert De Niro memorably strolling through the city’s harbour district in Ronin. It is also well known that Bono, the lead singer of U2, owns a house just up the coast from Villefranche-Sur-Mer and is a frequent visitor to the town. Watch out for him and other celebrities in the restaurants by the dockside!

Seamus Murphy writes for Trenditionist


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