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Villefranche-sur-mer

Situated on the ‘basse corniche’ of the French Riviera, that is on the coastal road which follows the shore all the way from Nice to Menton, the charming town of Villefranche-sur-Mer was strategically important in the past, as it is first and foremost a port. It has one of the most impressive natural harbours in the world, with an incredible depth, between 60 and 150 metres.


Villefranche-sur-mer



It was this feature that, as early as 130 BC, before the Greeks and the Romans, led to not only a fishing port but also a military port being established here, at the time known as Olivula. Later, in the 13th century, the town was expanded by Charles II of Anjou, Count of Provence and the nephew of Saint Louis, and he established it as a free port with tax privileges – hence the name Villefranche, which means free town. The town passed next into the hands of the Comté de Savoy in 1388, and it has sheltered seafarers from around the world ever since, notably the Turks, allies of François I in the war against Charles Quint. Later, in 1557, the citadel was built by the Duke of Savoy Emmanuel-Philibert, along with the Mont Alban fort and the historic port, La Darse, reinforcing the military role of the town and the necessity to protect the harbour. This impressed even Vauban, and led Louis XIV to spare it during his conquest of the Comté de Nice.



Villefranche-sur-mer
Small port at the foot of the Citadel



Next it was the Russians, from the end of the 18th century and following their imperial fleet, who moored in the bay, thanks to the King of Sardinia, who ruled over these parts, and to whom they paid substantial rents. This was because the Russians found themselves without access to the Mediterranean via the Bosphorus, due to the Crimean war in 1856 and incessant conflicts with the Ottoman Empire. They would remain here until the First World War. During the time it was a supply and maintenance base for the Russian fleet, Villefranche-sur-Mer became a holiday spot for the Imperial Russian nobility, who would give the name ‘Riviera’ to this part of the Côte d’Azur, a word of Italian origin signifying a place where mountains and sea meet.



Villefranche-sur-mer



After 1945, it was the Allies, the English but particularly the Americans of the 6th fleet, who occupied the harbour with their naval base, until 1962 when France left NATO.

Today, it is still a fishing port, but also an important stop-off for cruise ships travelling around the Mediterranean Sea, for large liners and of course big yachts, as well as other more modest pleasure boats which nevertheless come to moor up in its deep and transparent water, blue azure in colour and bristling with cetaceans.

Take a wander around Villefranche’s old town, and its alleyways, often twisting and sometimes more like staircases, will take you towards the port and the main street, Rue du Poilu. The street was given this name after the First World War, ‘poilu’ being a word for a WWI French soldier. Note the tall colourful houses in this street, whose windows decrease in size on the upper floors. Be plunged back into the 13th century at the Rue Obscure, which is like a tunnel, due to its 130-metre-long vaulted ceiling; it was a place of refuge for the population during wartime bombardments. This pretty port town really has retained all its charm and is ideally situated between the Cap Ferrat peninsula and the Mont Boron hillside.




Villefranche-sur-mer



In 1924, Jean Cocteau came to live here, taking up residence at the Welcome Hotel, a magnificent building with a view to match! He wrote ‘Orphée’ here. He was fascinated at the time by a little 14th century Romanesque chapel which the fishermen were using as a warehouse… and he ended up creating his masterpiece here! In 1956-7, he undertook to deck it with murals telling the life of St Peter, an early apostle and founder of the Church as well as the patron saint of fishermen. From then and to this day, the chapel is used for fishermen’s weddings, and for St Peter’s Day celebrations on the 29th of June each year.

Visitors will also naturally want to spend time at the citadel, demilitarised in 1965 and since classified as a Historic Monument, with its gardens and its four museums, notably the Volti Museum honouring ‘local’ artist Volti, whose work is a celebration of the female form, its grace and voluptuousness. The citadel also houses a convention centre and, since 1981, the town hall with its superb courtyard, and the St Elme chapel with its temporary exhibitions. You can walk along the citadel’s walls, overlooking the sea, until you reach La Darse, and from here admire the view across to the wooded hillsides of Cap Ferrat.

Another museum worthy of note is the Goetz Boumeester collection, donated contemporary works ranging from figurative to abstract, housed in former barracks, which have been completely and prestigiously renovated.




Eze
Eze
 

At 429 metres above sea level, the elevated position of the hilltop village of Eze on the ‘moyenne corniche’ allows full appreciation of the bay and Cap Ferrat directly below, and further afield to the Lérins islands and all the way to Italy.