It must have been nearly fifteen years ago. I was in France attending a management course, and had squeezed in a few days holiday before coming home. I’d planned to spend that time in Paris, but out of the blue I got a call from our friend Josephine Ridge, who told me she was joining a cruise ship in Nice, and so I thought why not go down and catch up with her and at the same time have a few days on the Riviera. While I was waiting for Jo to arrive, I took a trip along the coast by train to Menton for lunch (as you do), and on the way back hopped off in the little village of Villefranche-Sur-Mer for a couple of hours. I remember thinking it was one of the prettiest harbours and loveliest towns I had ever seen, and that I must come back someday for a proper visit. Well, needless to say, I never did go back. Though we have visited so many places in Europe over the intervening years, for some reason a visit to the Riviera never made it onto the agenda – until now.
As everyone who has been following this blog will know, our first year in Italy came to an end in mid December last year, when we took a cruise ship from Genoa to Dubai, and from there flew home on Christmas Day. But we had already decided that this travelling lark was too much fun to give up, so we rented our house out for another year, planning to come back to Europe after spending some time back in Melbourne and our other favourite haunt, Bali. The question was – where? In the end after much debate we settled on a return to Italy. First, though, we thought it would be interesting to spend a bit of time in the south of France, and particularly Nice, which is probably the most Italian of all French cities. That was when the idea of returning to Villefranche came into my mind, and so in early July we arrived at our charmingly idiosyncratic little apartment perched above the harbour which would be our home for almost two weeks.
The glory of Villefranche is its harbour. It is a deep bay, overlooked by the dramatic mountains of the Riviera to the north, and enclosed by the peninsula of Cap Ferrat to the east and the rugged heights of Mount Boron to the west. The harbour is capacious enough to have hosted the American Sixth Fleet in the 1950’s and 60’s, and the town still has an annual Fourth of July party to celebrate that fact. Today, during the summer cruising season, the port is visited by cruise ships almost every day, often two at a time, disgorging thousands of passengers who, for the most part, make a beeline for Nice or Monaco. And of course, this being the Riviera, there is always a fascinating collection of flashy yachts dotting the harbour, some large enough almost to qualify as cruise ships themselves.
The old town occupies the western shore of the bay, nestled beneath Mount Boron, which separates Villefranche from Nice proper, and overlooked by the fourteenth century Citadel, whose forbidding ramparts today are home to the town hall and a clutch of small and little-visited museums. It’s a charming place, a warren of narrow streets and steep lanes that climb up the hill from the restaurant-lined harbour front. There is just one laid-back little grocery store, a boulangerie that opens for half a day so you can buy your fresh bread, a tabac-presse supplying cigarettes, newspapers and the usual oddities that such establishments provide, a few beachwear shops, a clutch of moderately priced restaurants and bars clustered along the main street, and that’s about it. Naturally we sampled a few of the restaurants, and our favourite bar was Le Phare, a narrow little place with a dozen tables out front on the street, run by a tall, handsome and blonde young Belgian named Sebastian who manages his occasionally cantankerous customers with unflappable good humour.
The harbour forms a kind of natural amphitheatre, overlooked by serried ranks of apartment buildings that have been built wherever a flat space could be found in the surrounding hills, and it seemed that almost every night someone found an excuse to entertain the lucky residents of those apartments by lighting up the sky with firework displays. It seemed that every rich dude getting married or having a birthday just had to celebrate with pyrotechnics, and at the sound of the first bang all the kids (and many of their parents) would go hurtling down the lanes to the harbour so that they could watch with the simple and child-like joy that fireworks evoke in even the most cynical and hard-hearted of breasts. And then there were the official occasions like Bastille Day, when the harbour was lined with crowds for a half hour long extravaganza choreographed to the music that was broadcast throughout the town.
The Riviera is synonymous, of course, with the rich and famous, who have made it their playground for at least the last hundred years. The place is littered with villas small and large, most of which you can merely glimpse through the gates as you walk past. But you can certainly get a feel for the opulent lifestyles of the past by visiting those villas that have been preserved and turned into museums. Within easy walking distance of Villefranche there are two of these beauties – the Villa Kerylos and the Villa Ephrussi di Rothschild. The former was built in the early 1900’s by Theodore Reinach, a wealthy polymath. Wikipedia lists his occupation(s) as Archaeologist, Mathematician, Lawyer, Papyrologist, Philologist, Epigrapher, Historian, Numismatist, Historian, Musicologist and, finally, Politician – one wonders how he had time for lunch, let alone to supervise the building of a grand villa. Reinach was fascinated by ancient Greek architecture, and so he built the house, which occupies a spectacular promontory on the edge of the bay of Beaulieu-Sur-Mer, as a faithful replica of a wealthy Greek villa, complete with furnishings and decoration in the Greek style. Mind you, though none of the furniture looked all that comfortable, the house did incorporate some very modern conveniences, including an early type of multi-jet shower.
Atop the ridge of Cap Ferrat, the villa built by Baroness Beatrice de Rothschild is on an even grander scale. Constructed a few years after the Villa Kerylos in the belle-epoque style, it is an elegant pink pile with commanding views across the sea on either side. But, splendid though the house is, it is the gardens that are the real attraction. There are nine of them, each with a different theme, beautifully conceived and laid out, and one easily loses track of time wandering from one to the other. The tour path eventually leads you back to a long rectangular pool that connects the house to the gardens, complete with fountains that erupt into action to the sound of slightly cheesy classical music, broadcast through speakers hidden in the shrubbery. Mind you, that’s the least of the eccentricities of this place. Evidently the the garden was conceived in the form of a ship, meant to be viewed from the loggia of the house, which was like the bridge of a vessel. It was inspired by a voyage the baroness made on the liner Ile de France and so the thirty gardeners who maintained the garden just had to be dressed as sailors, complete with berets with red pop-poms! Sometimes the rich really are quite daffy.
Both those sights were easily reached on foot, but Villefranche’s railway station, conveniently located a short walk from our apartment, also gave us easy access to sights further afield. Nice is just a seven minute trip and two stops away, which made popping into town a breeze, for shopping and sightseeing. Away from the frenetic traffic of the seafront, where the elegance of the Promenade des Anglais is rather spoilt by the fact that it is separated from the town by a four lane highway, Nice is an elegant and refined city, its uniform and harmonious apartment buildings making it reminiscent of Paris, though with a distinctly Italian feel, perhaps because of the ubiquitous shutters on the windows. We had one lovely day just wandering through the old part of town, where narrow lanes open unexpectedly onto charming squares, before heading up to the pretty Parc du Chateau that occupies the headland separating the old town from the harbour, with its ranks of parked yachts and bustling ferries going back and forth to Corfu.
In the opposite direction, perhaps twenty minutes away by train, is Monte Carlo, the city that occupies virtually all of the micro-state that is the Principality of Monaco. There’s not a lot to occupy your time there, except walking around and gasping at the extraordinary displays of wealth represented by the yachts moored in the harbour, the expensive cars that roar around the city as if it were a permanent Grand Prix circuit, the ostentatious arrivals and departures at the casino, and the absurd prices demanded for a cappuccino and a croissant delivered by surly waiters at otherwise nondescript cafes. Still, the walk up into the old town was worth it for the views and a look at the outside of the Royal Palace, where the guard marches up and down with all the pomp usually associated with kingdoms much more grand than this 2 square kilometre pipsqueak.
Apart from the very wealthy, the Riviera is also famous for having attracted over the years more than its fair share of artists, for whom the brilliance of the sunlight and the ruggedness of the landscape must have provided an extraordinary visual stimulus. Auguste Renoir owned a lovely house just out of Nice, at Cagnes-Sur-Mer, which is today a very nice museum dedicated to his life. Henri Matisse also had a house in the suburbs of Nice – when we visited, there was a fascinating exhibition on the parallel careers of Matisse and Picasso, who were friends and great admirers of each other’s work. And up in the hills above Nice there is the artistic colony that was established at St-Paul-de-Vence, which today is a bit of a tourist town in which every second doorway harbours a commercial art gallery or atelier. And a little further away, in the oft-neglected but charming town of Vence, there is the quite marvellous chapel that Matisse decorated in the Dominican convent there.
But our stay in Villefranche wasn’t entirely devoted to sightseeing. Right at the head of the bay, and just below us, there is the expanse of beach called the Plage des Marinieres, very popular with locals and visitors alike, not least because it is for the most part sandy rather than pebbly, and it is entirely free (also a rarity in France). Here we spent several pleasant mornings enjoying the cool water and early sun before it got too hot.
So there you are. After two weeks, we were neither rich nor famous, but we had fun playing around in their sandpit.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the return of the Two Gents, and that you’ll stick with me for my next post, for which we will venture deeper into southern France, to the city of Arles and the lovely surrounds of Provence.