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Pretty villages of the French Riviera

View from the gardens of Eze over the French Riviera

Explore three contrasting coastal communities near Nice. Take it easy in Eze, enjoy laidback Villefranche-sur-Mer and chill in Cap-Ferrat – three truly pretty villages of the French Riviera..

Stand amongst the cacti and exotic blooms of Les Jardins d’Eze and you’re treated to one of the most glorious views on the French Riviera. From this hilltop garden high above the Mediterranean, I’m looking westward over the stone walls and terracotta roofs of medieval Eze towards Nice. On a sparkling morning like this, breath-taking doesn’t even come close. And with 300 sunshine days a year, it’s a view that can be enjoyed all year round.

Villas tumble down the steep hillside in front of me and beyond a wooded headland. The slim peninsula of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat marks the eastern boundary of Villefranche Bay, the pretty resort tantalisingly hidden from view. The city of Nice is out of sight too behind the southern tip of the Alpes Maritimes. But its coastal airport is clearly visible in the far distance, a reminder that UNESCO’s ‘Winter Resort of the Riviera’ is only a bus ride away.

Take a city break in Nice and it’s easy to spend your time exploring the quaint streets of Vieux Nice, the Baroque churches, tempting boutiques and eclectic mix of museums. But the Greater Nice area includes a huge variety of picturesque locations from the mountain villages of the Mercantour to a clutch of coastal communities that lie east of the city. A stunning combination that just begs to be explored.

Take it easy in Eze

Cobbled street in Eze, French Riviera

Classified as an elite ‘Jardin Remarquable’, the Exotic Garden of Eze features succulent plants from arid areas across the globe. The cacti, aloes and agaves sit besides sculptures in terracotta and bronze. This magical plot stands at the highest point of the medieval village, 1400 feet above the modern town centre at sea level. Today, the steep streets of the showpiece medieval village are beautifully maintained and manicured. This is a popular place with cruise ship passengers.  And there is atmospheric accommodation that includes three  5-star hotels.

Cobbled steps of Eze, French Riviera

For a special occasion, treat yourself to a meal at La Chèvre d’Or restaurant with its two coveted Michelin stars. But it’s still easy to feel the atmosphere of ancient stones in Eze, especially if you can visit early or late in the day, or in low season. There’s a real sense of time gone by as you pass beneath medieval gateways. Walk beside walls that date back to the Bronze Age.  And contemplate the Riquier Mansion, home to the powerful Lords of Eze from the 12th to 15th centuries.

It’s also easy just to soak up the view over a refreshing glass on a café terrace. But to see a different side of the village, take one of the marked hiking routes along winding paths fringed with bougainvillea and jasmine. There’s plenty of Riviera fragrance to be had too on a free tour and workshop at Parfumerie Gallimard and at the Fragonard factory. Plus a wealth of small craft boutiques for that special present to give away, or even keep yourself.

Laidback in Villefranche

View over Villefranche-sur-Mer

With its sheltered harbour and calm waters, Villefranche-sur-Mer is one of the major cruise ports of the Côte d’Azur, despite numbering just 5,000 residents. In the 13th century, local people preferred to live in the hills away from the threat of pirates. So in 1295, Charles Duke of Anjou and Count of Provence, established a ‘free port’ – ville franche. It offered various tax privileges in a bid to persuade them to relocate to sea level, concessions that largely remained until the 18th century.

Today the pretty fishing port is also home to a flotilla of yachts and traditional fishing boats known as pointus. Yet Villefranche still manages to retain an air of laidback loveliness with its seafront cafes, colourful facades and quaint 16th century back streets. It’s hard not to smile in a place where every narrow street has houses painted in a palette of lemon and apricot, russet and terracotta. And I loved the stylish, upbeat feel of the baroque bell towers, painted shutters, and wrought-iron balconies overlooking the harbour.

View over Villefranche-sur-Mer from a quayside restaurant

Cultural and delicious

Even my lunch at Le Cosmo bar was ablaze with Mediterranean atmosphere. Fresh white fish, scarlet tomato salsa, bright green rocket, and a wedge of lemon, all presented with a swirl of balsamic vinegar on a speckled blue and white plate. Just add a glass of chilled local rosé and some crisp baguette for the perfect light lunch. I even had a front row view of the 16th century Chapel of Saint-Pierre. It was used as a storeroom for fishermen until artist Jean Cocteau restored it in 1957. He adorned the interior with murals of St Peter and local fishermen.

Stroll through the citadel built in 1554, eleven years after the town was burned to the ground following the siege of Nice by combined French and Ottoman forces. With sweeping views over the harbour, it served as a military base after Nice and Savoie became part of France in 1860. It was bought by the city council in 1965 and transformed into a City Hall and cultural centre.

Chilled in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

Bay of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on a sunny dayIf I had money – lots of money – a holiday home in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat would be high on my wish list. This slim peninsula between Villefranche-sur-Mer to the west and neighbouring Beaulieu-sur-Mer fans out into a wooded Y-shape where luxury homes nestle discreetly in the pine trees behind high fences.

But there appears to be no envy on the part of less well-off residents. They insist that the wealthy don’t flash their cash here unless it is to support local businesses, albeit on the way to their luxury yachts in the harbour. But compared to many wealthy enclaves around the Mediterranean, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is amongst the most discreet.

This once small fishing village flourished as a resort in the Belle Epoque era. The first luxury hotel opened in 1904 – now the Hotel Royal-Riviera. In the 1950s, it attracted artists like Jean Cocteau and Henri Matisse, as well as movie stars such as Roger Moore and Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin and Tony Curtis. Today you can still spot famous faces sipping coffee by the quayside.

My tip is to follow one of the marked trails with a free leaflet from the Tourist Office. Explore the village centre and the hidden beaches and monuments around the headlands. You could even walk the 9km-trail to Nice and catch a No 15 bus back.

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild

Garden in bloom with pink and purple flowers at Villa Ephrussi

But don’t leave without visiting the outstanding Villa and Gardens of Ephrussi de Rothschild. Another Jardin Remarquable as well as a Monument Historique. This extraordinary property with sea views on both sides offers nine themed gardens, musical fountains, and an opulent interior, plus the irresistible story of the extraordinary Béatrice de Rothschild who created it. Well, maybe not all local residents have been low key, but she did leave something for us all to enjoy!

Getting Around

Catch a train from Nice to the seafront station at Villefranche, or hop off the Nice Grand Tour sightseeing bus. Eze is also accessible by train – sea level station beneath the medieval village – or by public bus from Nice (Line 82) or by train. www.nicetourisme.com

The French Riviera Pass gives free access to a wide range of attractions and activities in Nice, as well as Villefranche, Eze and Cap-Ferrat. Choose from 12, 48 or 72 hours (www.frenchrivierapass.com).

Alternatively, do as I did and take a bespoke tour by car with Villefranche resident Sandra Ottaviani. Particularly good if time is short or you are travelling in a small group. (www.inspiring-cotedazur.com).

Gillian Thornton is a writer who specialises in France and lifestyle.

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