I sat in a Chicago sidewalk café this week with my face tilted up to bake in the unusually warm October sunshine and felt a pang for the Côte d’Azur I had experienced just a few weeks ago. In September, I took a fast train from Paris to spend three days in the beautiful and historic Villefranche-sur-Mer– almost next door to Nice but much smaller and more intimate.
If you want to enjoy the beautiful climate and beaches of the Côte d’Azur, but you also want a quieter experience than what’s found in the more cosmopolitan towns of Nice, Cannes or Monaco, take the TGV to Nice, or fly into the Nice airport (the third busiest in France with over 11 million passengers a year,) then switch to the local train and continue eastward along the coast for a trip of under 10 minutes. Destination: Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Facing a deep water harbour, this picturesque seaside town is painted in ice cream colors of pink, orange and yellow, with stairways climbing up the hills to terraces and narrow streets sometimes running under house arches. It is just down the road from Nice on one side (the old town in Nice is barely 3 kilometres west) and Monaco on the other (7 kilometres east) so the visitor can easily experience the seaside promenades, architecture, opera house, concert halls and casinos of Nice or the casinos and other features of Monaco – both easily accessible by car, bus or train.
Nice– which with a population of over 300,000 residents is the fifth most populated city in France– is very different than the comparative serenity of Villefranche, which still looks and feels much like the fishing village it once was. There is still a festival in February when the fishermen decorate their fishing boats and throw flowers at each other and the spectators – accompanied by a parade, music and costumes. .
It is a town that Jean Cocteau called “a source of myth and inspiration” – a town that has drawn Cocteau and other artists, film makers, and celebrities, including the Rolling Stones, who recorded Exile on Mainstreet there. It was the location for such films as Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch a Thief’, the James Bond thriller ‘Never Say Never Again’, Robert de Niro’s ‘Ronin’, and the Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner ‘Jewel of the Nile’, and such stars as Tina Turner and Sean Connery have luxurious villas near the town.
Villefranche has been said to be a “natural ampitheatre” formed by Mont Boron to the west and Cap Ferrat to the east, and the Alps as a backdrop–facing he sun ‘as if in a box at the opera’, per Cocteau.
When you arrive by train in Villefranche, walk down an incline and through a small square (the Place due Conseil – at one time the center of the town’s government) onto a narrow street (rue du Poilu – named after the soldiers who left by train for World War I and didn’t have time for shaving on the battlefield (“poil” meaning “hair”)). It’s a 5-10 minute walk, and you will find yourself in the midst of a beautiful Mediterranean town with shops and restaurants and a baroque style church – Eglise Saint-Michel which was built in the 1750s. (It replaced a smaller 14th century church.) Most of the structures on rue du Poilu and the rest of the town were constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Particularly interesting is the rue Obscure – towards the west side of the town – a covered , dark and narrow street harkening back to medieval times. It was dug in about 1220 as a place to protect the town people from bombardment from the sea.
As you leave the train station, look out to the sea across a wall on your left and below you can see see the kilometre-long beach which (unlike the highly populated stone beaches in Nice) is a sand beach and is seldom crowded.
I first stayed in Villefranche-sur-Mer a few years ago – in a mediocre but inexpensive hotel up at the top of the town. (I had to climb a steep street to get there and negotiate somewhat steep downhills and stairs to get back down to the water.) This time I found an also inexpensive hotel right across the street from the water of the old harbor of Le Darse – called Hotel de La Darse. I highly recommend it because of the location, service, and everything-you-can-eat breakfast buffet for only 9 euros- which you eat on the front terrace in view of the water. I paid $295 for three nights through booking.com. A room with a sea view would have been much more expensive, but unnecessary I felt.
The old harbour of la Darse dates back to the 17th century. It was originally opened for the galleys of the Duke of Savoy, and is now a marina with dockyard activities for yachts. It is also the location of the Observatoire Oceanologique de Villefranche, the Pierre and Marie Curie University of Paris, and the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Not far from the hotel, there is a quiet and almost empty small stone beach.
You can reach this part of town by taking a short walk on a narrow stone path along the water around the edge of the imposing stone battlements of the Citadel– built as a fortification after the town’s sacking and occupation by the Franco-Turkish armies in 1543 and now a center for government and art (see below).
The deep water harbor at the foot of the town, sitting between two beautiful peninsulas (Cap Ferrat and Cap de Nice) is one of the deepest natural harbors in the Mediterranean – attracting large cruise ships-and is considered one of the most beautiful in that part of the world. The edge of the harbor features lovely but generally more expensive restaurants than found up the hill in the town itself.
I recall during my first trip to this town being a bit annoyed when I unfortunately elected to sit for a drink on the shore and found a large group of people recently having disembarked from a Disney cruise. The local residents seem to feel the same way. I called my hotel after arriving at the train station to announce my arrival this September and asked where I should eat – and the concierge, a lovely and friendly woman, urged me not to stop on the water’s edge but to climb the stairs to find better and more reasonably priced food up in the town.
She was right.
This time, I stuck to the restaurants up the narrow streets to the old town. I also followed a rule I have used in the past and find very useful – asking for restaurant recommendations from locals. While purchasing a straw fedora in a small shop to ward off a sudden shower, I asked the young woman working in the shop where she would eat. She directed me to the Les Garcons restaurant just up the street, where I had a wonderful meal for a prix fixe of 15 euros, along with friendly and helpful service. This restaurant is at 18 rue du Poilu– Tel:+33 (0)4 93 76 62 40.
The Italian Connection
Villefranche-sur-Mer is only about 30 kilometres from the Italian border and for much of its history was part of the Duchy of Savoy. Final annexation to France didn’t occur until 1860. Although French cuisine is featured everywhere, many of the restaurants also feature pasta – and there are a number of places serving pizza – a very different kind of pizza than we are accustomed to. The pizzas are thin crusted and often rich in cheeses and various kinds of meats and olives and spices– and may have a soft fried egg right in the middle – a feature that surprised me at first but that I found really wonderful.
Descending the stairways from my hotel during my first visit in 2011, I passed by a small raised plaza in an area between a climbing and descending street. On the benches, sat a group of elderly folks speaking Italian – clearly long term residents since the postwoman arrived just as I started to walk by, greeted the resting neighbours, reached into her bag to deliver their mail right then and there without bothering to go to their residences, and then hung around for a bit to converse.
I sat on a bench that day and spoke to the neighbours for a while – in French since I don’t speak Italian – enjoying the small town feeling.
I recently read a Côte d’Azur real estate website where he writer described how a number of her neighbours were of Italian origin – one having been in that town since 1900.
During this trip, I visited the town of Menton not far to the east of Villefranche to see the new Cocteau museum (see below) – about 25 kilometres away (a 26-minute, four-euro train ride). Noticing how many restaurants served such dishes as osso buco, I stopped at one of them to eat and asked the proprietor about the Italian/French population mix. His response was “moitié-moitié” (50-50). He then served me a very Italian after-dinner drink, limoncello, at no charge.
Between the Villefranche harbour and the harbour of the Darse sits the walls, towers and battlements of the Citadel – built for protection from the French and Turks in the 16th century, and now the center of Villefranche’s government, along with the location of both permanent and temporary art collections and art shows, open-air film festivals, and all sorts of other events.
When I was there in September, I found tents set up for a substantial art show, along with an interesting display of a kind of trompe-l’œil art in one of the buildings where I was asked to climb down an unlit staircase and found seats only by feel, from which I observed a kaleidoscope of moving black and white patterns on a screen. In the courtyard a giant rose robed sculpture of what appeared to be a death figure stood next to its artist as Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose played over and over; and around the back, on one of the beautiful lawns near the stone ramparts, several wine companies were having tastings. One of the permanent exhibits is the Volti Foundation sculptures, sitting in a stone walled cave-like venue.
Renowned artist/author/filmmaker Jean Cocteau first moved to Villefranche-sur-Mer in 1925, staying at the Hotel Welcome near the shore while he worked on divesting himself of his addiction to opium. He was intrigued by the small chapel – Chapelle St Pierre – across the street from the hotel, which was at that time used as a storage room for fishermens’ nets – and was and is still owned by a tribunal of the fisherman of Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu, and St Jean Cap Ferrat, who had remained united even after the three towns – once one –were separated.
After a planning period of over 10 years, and monetary contributions by Cocteau’s friend Francine Weisweiller, the chapel was renovated and Jean Cocteau got permission to decorate the chapel (at no charge). He started work in 1956 to create murals covering all of the interior surfaces of the chapel. He finished in 1957. You can visit the chapel for a small fee, but are not allowed to take any photos (they do sell postcards and a couple of interesting books). The murals depict the life of St. Pierre, Patron Saint of fisherman, along with images of the young girls of Villefranche and Saintes Maries de la Mer.
He created similar murals on the Cap Ferrat home of Francine Weisweiller. I found an Internet reference to a tour intended for small groups to privately visit this home (the Santo Sospir Villa). I know nothing about these tours, and therefore cannot recommend them, but I did see some favorable reviews and it does sound intriguing.
Finally, I was advised by the woman who ran the Chapel exhibit that in 2011 a museum was opened in the town of Menton exclusively to house the work of Cocteau, with a donation of 1800 works by the American collector Severin Wunderman. The next day I hopped a train for just a few euros, and 30 minutes later I was in the seaside town of Menton – the last stop before Italy and a town that appears to be almost as much Italian as French.
It is said that Menton is the closest thing to the old Côte d’Azur…
After stopping for my osso buco, pasta and red wine at a local restaurant a few minutes from the train station, I continued the short walk past the seashore to the museum.
The museum is a fascinating modern white structure with what looks like white teeth set into black gums –or perhaps black highlights between white wings – starkly jumping out at you as you walk past the beach hotels and beachgoers along the shore. It was the result of an architectural competition won by Rudy Ricciotti, an exponent of ‘hedonist architecture’ in the 1980s. He described his inspiration as Cocteau’s work, stating that “Black and white no longer serve as colours here… they create an interplay of structural forces calling to mind both the artist’s works on paper and the poet’s personality, his zones of light and darkness, his enigmatic self-mythology fueled by contrasts.”
I had no idea of the depth and breadth of Cocteau’s oeuvre until this visit. On display were scenes from his films, his poetry, line drawings, paintings, photographs, etc. It was fascinating. The receptionist told me the visit would take perhaps 11/2 hours, and I stayed for three.
The Musée Cocteau is open every day from 10am to 6pm, except Tuesday and 01/01, 01/05, 01/11, 25/12. Address: 2, quai de Monléon, 06500 MENTON. Tel.: +33 (0)4 89 81 52 50. Temporary exhibitions: €8; half-price for teachers, seniors (over age 65), large families & groups (10 people or more); free are those under age 18, jobseekers, disabled persons, and everyone on the 1st Sunday of each month.
St. Jean Cap Ferrat – a Walk along a Rocky Shore
The deepwater port attracting ships lies to the west of the beautiful peninsula of St. Jean Cap Ferrat which can be reached on foot by crossing the Villefranche beach and then turning right.
There is much to see and admire on the peninsula. You can pick up walking maps and other information at the tourist office at 59 Avenue Denis-Semeria, or find such information on many Internet sites (two examples are here and here. ) Or simply do what I did the last time I was there – namely, start walking along the eastern shoreline walkway – which is wide and easy- to one of the beaches, head up the center of the peninsula for a while, end up on the Villefranche side (on the west), visit the old cemetery and church, then walk along the narrow stone paths above the crashing surf and rocks at the south end of the peninsula, then head back and end up at one of the beaches for a meal at one of the restaurants hanging over the beaches.
Granted this took most of the day – but it was a wonderful day.
What will you find? Beautiful and natural scenery. A little port town with shops and boutiques and restaurants. A small and old cemetery. A large statue of the Virgin Mary. A lighthouse. The foliage surrounding and hiding the many expensive villas of the rich and famous.
The Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild – which you will want to take some time to explore. Baroness Rothschild built this villa in 1905 and amassed an extensive collection of art and furniture and porcelains. It is now owned by the Académie des beaux-arts.
When I last visited Cap Ferrat, my walk took much of the day, so by the time I arrived at the Villa I was not in the mood to spend time on the museum pieces and instead spent my time exploring the beautiful and unusual gardens, and enjoying the views of the sea – then I had a tea and some wine in the “tea room” looking out at the gardens and water.
There are nine gardens in different themes – designed between 1905 and 1912 – redone by Louis Marchand in 1934 and, again, in 1945 after World War Two.
They are indeed magnificent, with fountains, fish, sculptures, patios, ornamental ponds, rare trees, and include a Florentine garden, a Japanese garden, and a French garden. Next time I will take the time to also visit the museum. You can purchase one ticket for 20 euros for entry to this Villa along with the Greek Villa Kerylos on nearby Beaulieu, or a reduced ticket for 15 euros.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Avenue Ephrussi de Rothschild, 06230 Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Tél : 04 93 01 33 09. The Villa is open 365 day a year from 10 a.m to 6 p.m, except: July and August: from 10 a.m to 7 p.m. From November to February: from Monday to Friday from 2 p.m to 6 p.m. / weekends and holidays from 10 a.m to 6 p.m. Last admission 30 minutes before closing.
I have now taken a round-trip from Paris twice to this beautiful and calming part of the world –and I will do it again. I recommend it as the place on the Côte d’Azur to use as your base camp because of its beauty, antiquity, and relative calm. Not to mention the fact that it has easy access by car, train or bus to the other well-known nearby towns, including Nice, Menton, Eze, and Monaco. You can explore the official tourism website here.
Transportation: TGV trains leave for Nice from the Gare de Lyon in Paris throughout the day. You will need to make a connection in Nice for the short ride to the Villefranche station. Your train ride from Paris will take less than six hours, including the transfer in Nice.