Located between the bustling city of Nice and the uber-opulence of Monaco, Villefranche-sur-Mer is a little corner of paradise. Pretty as a picture, in this ancient village visitors can experience history, culture and the glorious Mediterranean. Susan Macdonald from Australia says it’s the perfect place for a holiday when you’re travelling solo.
Fashion icon, Coco Chanel once said that the sun is sexy. And in this part of the world, relaxing on the beach certainly is a good activity. But there’s also a plethora of museums, fascinating history to discover and fabulous restaurants.
Most visitors arrive via the international airport at Nice. As France’s fourth largest city, Nice is an excellent weekend getaway or a great action-packed week. There is so much on offer: stroll the market in Cours Saleya, visit the Matisse and Chagall museums, churches and shop at Galleries Layfayette. The restaurants of Nice are outstanding. Bistrot d’Antoine (rue de la Prefecture) in Vieux Nice is superb. Sitting on the terrace for lunch to watch the world walk by is soothing for the soul.
Nearby, Villefranche-sur-Mer feels like a secret place amidst the hectic glamour and glitz of the French Riviera. A combination of modern and ancient, it is nestled against the steep villa-clad hillside overlooking the Bay of Angels. There’s a terrific variety of accommodation on offer, from eye-wateringly expensive hotels to more reasonably priced rentals – studios and villas. I like to choose a base that feels like home from home and the studios rented by lovely locals, Shelley and Riccardo of Riviera Experience are superb.
The famous painter and avant-garde intellectual, Jean Cocteau stayed in this village when he was painting his exquisite murals in the nearby tiny Chapel of St Pierre. And it’s a magnet still for celebrities who love sunshine-filed seaside holidays.
Living the high life
You can get a taste of the high life easily here. Just drop in on some of those fine hotels like La Reserve in Beaulieu, Grand Hotel Cap du Ferrat, Hotel Cap Estel and the Hotel Hermitage in Monte-Carlo. These places are worth a visit if only to pretend for an hour or two that you’re living the life of the rich and famous. My advice is to assume the persona of a celebrity from head to toe and order a coffee in the foyer or the terrace if possible. The most expensive coffee of my experience was at Hotel Chateau Eze in the pretty hilltop village of Eze – amazing terrace views and haughty service of distinction.
Authentic French Riviera
But staying close to home, there’s plenty to entertain. Wandering the waterfront of Villefranche is delightful. Meet crusty fishermen and spot the fish in the water as you dodge the terraced tables.
In the modern centre of town you’ll find the tourist information office, shops, banks and local bus services buses. On Wednesday mornings there’s a lovely food market.
Explore the colossal 16th century Citadel which guards the natural harbor of Villefranche, the deepest on the Riviera, called La Port de la Darse. Thick slanted walls evoke a sense of impregnability. It’s from here that the Italian Duke of Savoy protected his duchy against the French in the 1500’s. Inside, there is a quaint museum and art exhibition space and a pretty shaded rose garden.
The old town is picturesque with excellent shopping on Rue de Poilu. This “street of hairy soldiers” harks back to when the village was gated against pirate invasions in the 17th century. It’s the main street in the town and runs from Villefranche train station to the shops. Stop for a glass of chilled rosé, or a handcrafted ice cream at Glacier Solea. The tiny Casino supermarket is great for buying supplies and bottles of water after a busy day of exploring.
Gastronomy of Villefranche-sur-Mer
The French take many things seriously – smoking, dogs, sunbathing… But their obsession with the dining experience is on another level. Villefranche-sur-Mer has lots of excellent restaurants that tease the taste buds.
On the waterfront, the classy La Mère Germaine, named after the current owner’s grandmother whose dishes were popular with American soldiers during the Second World War, is great. Sipping a chilled rosé on the terrace and enjoying a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse, the local fish stew, is living your best life.
For romantic occasions though, it’s hard to beat the fountain-side setting of Les Garcons in the old town.
My favourite dining experience for food and mood is L’Aparte. Here I never feel awkward at a table for one and the food is fresh and very French. Located at the end of the 13th century Rue Obscure, it was in this covered alleyway, one of the oldest in France, that the villagers sought safety from marauding invaders.
For casual coffee and the local specialty pan bagnat, a southern French sandwich, take a slow walk along the beach front on Promenade des Marinières where there are plenty of cafés.
Take a day trip from Villefranche-sur-Mer
Going further afield is easy from your Villefranche base. Cannes, Antibes and Vence to name a few are within easy reach. Private beaches are dotted along the coast. Some are expensive. However, I opt for Cap d’Ail where you can spend the day at the fabulous La Mala Beach Club which has excellent service. The 227 steps to the beach are worth it for the chance to dine in the great beach-side restaurant. Have the fish. It is filleted at table. Utterly delicious. And the walk from the train station is spectacular.
There is much to be said for a solo holiday in a place as safe and as friendly as Villefranche-sur-Mer. Take a leap of faith. It comes highly recommended.
Susan McDonald is an Australian schoolteacher who loves to spend her holidays in Villefranche-sur-Mer for the lifestyle, history and sun.