Villefranche Sur Mer : Within
Please note that the following is as of the end of 2019.
In this first of 2 sets of Travel notes, I am providing my thoughts regarding my favorite part of the world in the summer months. This first set of travel notes will be solely about the village of Villefranche sur Mer, which is just East of Nice. The following set will cover the other villages and terrain in this region of the Côte d’Azur that resides in the shadows between Nice and Monaco, including Beaulieu sur Mer, Saint-Jean-Cap- Ferrat, Eze, and Cap d’Ail. Following a brief introduction below, the material is separated into 7 sections: Village, While There, To Stay, Food, Entertainment, Travel to/from and Personal Note.
For the last 15 years, save this one due to French travel restrictions for U.S. citizens, I have spent several weeks in May / June in this village on the Eastern end of the Côte d’Azur, aka the French Rivera. This village/port is relatively unknown compared to its massive neighbor Nice just around Mont Boron via a sea-side elevated highway by only 4 km.
For me, Villefranche sur Mer has the ideal characteristics for beach vacationing: brasseries to a few fine restaurants, live music, marina, great beach (Rivera style. i.e., pebbled), a modest old town with several respectable boutique shops, old world picturesque charm ... and NOT SLAMMED with non-European tourists. In addition to the 30,000 inhabitants of the village, there is a frequent summer pass-through surge of cruise ships inmates that arrive 3-4 days each week when their ship anchors in the bay. Fortunately, these transients arrive early in the morning by boat shuttle to the village on their way to the train station to visit along the coast between Cannes and Monaco. In the late afternoon the ‘adventurers’ return to board their ship for their paid-for meals /drinks shamefully passing by what the village has to offer.
The village is on the Western side of a U- shaped bay that is among the deepest in the Mediterranean and correspondingly of extraordinary, sapphire blue color. The arch- shaped beach with 30 feet curtains of purple bougainvillea, caps off the beauty of the northern end of the village before giving into the mountainside infused with houses and estates with a grand view of the Mediterranean to the South. On the Eastern shore of the bay is the peninsula Saint-Jean- Cap-Ferrat with its estates and its secluded shore line, including that of Elton John.
The village has several stacked, enchanting narrow walkways that parallel the shoreline between the train station / the beach entrance and a modest town square.
Ascending the considerable hillside above the village
proper, there is a main thoroughfare through the
village, Bd Princess Grace de Monaco (M6098), so
named due to Princess Grace Kelly’s deadly auto accident in 1982. The Bd proceeds along the cliffs on both sides of the village to go West to Nice and Eest towards Monaco. Between the village and the mountain top, there is a free mini-bus that runs that route perhaps every 30-45 minutes between 8 AM and 6 PM.
The weather on the beach is consistently sunny with temperatures in the high 80s to mid 90s. The infrequent forecasts of rain are usually in the mountain range and thereby not affecting the beach. Even Nice, again just around the corner, does not seem to receive the abundance of such good weather as does Villefranche.
Unquestionably, the main draw to Villefranche sur Mer is the arch-shaped beach. The water in the bay is sparkling clear with reflections of the sun upon the ripples with patches of blue and green. However, the water
is a quite cold, 70° F in May/June. In September the temperature is a still an intimidating 79°F for spoiled Americans that enjoy the Gulf of Mexico.
While there, I swim 1-2 miles every day which has always been a prime objective of going there. I must admit that on the first day I have to dive into the water (avoiding several known, observable major boulders just below the surface). Just walking into the water on the first day is pure torture. I am in and out of the water 5-6 times each day. By the second day, I can pull off a quick walk into the water. So! You may ask: Ron, why do you go in May and June if the water is so cold? Two points: 1. The rental rates are LOW season (I am self- employed after all) ... and because 2. July and August are the months of vacations for the French nationwide, and the village becomes saturated with these folks. Lastly, swimming in that jeweled water with its encompassing surrounding is so exhilarating and mentally transformative for me.
Occasionally, there is an unnoticeable on-coming wave that sweeps up onto the beach wiping out the mats/towels within 20 feet of the shore. I do not know the source of these waves, but I expect a sizeable cargo ship passing. Nonetheless, I place my mat along the sea wall 40 feet from the water line.
I suggest that you purchase a double-wide plastic (not straw) mat as well as an umbrella if you are not good with intensive sun. Those items are readily obtained from the kiosks as you walk along the waterfront on the way to the beach.
La Voile Bleue is a petite restaurant at that beach that serves great salads and unexceptional sandwiches. The Chevre Chaud salad is excellent and reasonably price as well as the refreshing cantaloupe and prosciutto plat.
On the water front bordering town square is Citadel Saint Elem, an ancient fort from1562 with a history of exchanging ownership several times. It has tours, a movie ‘cave’ and provides the Hotel de Ville functions for the village.
At the top of the mountain overlooking the village, there are the ruins of the Fort du Mont Alban. I have not explored it and have no desire to spend such precious beach time to do so. To get there requires a 1⁄2 hour staggering up the relatively steep mountain, except for the aforementioned bus if you can figure out where and when to catch it. If you have the ability to cook while there, then check out the thick, well-seasoned, pork sausages at the boucherie near the road that goes to the castle.
For Swashbucklers amongst you, there is Rue Obscure, so properly named in that it is a short cave- like alley 1/2 level above the waterfront. One can imagine Errol Flynn fighting off a band of pirates with a sword in his right hand and a lovely mademoiselle held securely around the waist by his left arm.
In addition to the bay for those individuals, who like my 48-year old son, are into a wider category of physical activities and not just swimming, there is Mont Boron that separates Nice from the village. The Parc de Mont Boron consists of 141 acres of gardens and hiking paths, From this Leisure Parkone can view the expanse of Nice on one side, and the saturated blue of the bay captive between Villefranche and the peninsula, Saint-Jean-Cap- Ferrat, on the other side.
One thing that I have noticed in the last several years is that if you are not staying near the waterfront and are only in moderate shape, you will be huffing and puffing as you walk up the hillside for the evening, especially after being over-served at the bars. However, after 4-5 days you WILL notice a lighter step, I promise.
You may want to check out the price of some of the medicines / ointments that you use, prescription or not, at several of pharmacies found by a green cross sign outside. For example,Voltaren for stiff muscles etc. is about 1/3 of the price in the U.S. Another favorite is nutralGIC / muscle that you cannot buy in the states, although there may be some chemical equivalent here (basically turmeric I believe). I have never been challenged as to bringing those into the U.S. from France.
One of the more charming petite shops in the village is Le Shopping de Nat that is on one of the vertical alleys, at the top of which there is one of 3 patisseries in the village.
There is a quaint perfume/soap shop just above the Citadel, Terres Dorées, that makes great soaps and sell a variety of high-grade oils and perfumes, if you are so inclined for yourself and/or a loved one. Teenage daughters undoubtedly will be most appreciative, and for at least a week forgetting how little you understand them.
There are a number of excellent hotel rooms, condominium rentals as well as houses (some with pools) in Villefranche as well as the marina around the Citadel to the marina. Hotel Welcome bordering the town square and the waterfront is the most prestigious, and the most expensive, e.g., $450 per night prior to the pandemic. On the Bd Princess Grace de Monaco overlooking the entire bay is the Hotel Le Versailles. I imagine it is quite expensive as well, save for the pandemic rates. In the marina there is a charming establishment, Hotel de la Darse, that is quite small, but with rooms just above sea level overlooking the marina. I have never stayed there, but the ratings are great. However, at that location it is a bit of a walk up the hill to catch the busses for trips elsewhere as well as to the train station at the other end of the village.
Being of a bohemian nature, not by choice, I have often stayed at the Hotel Provencal, but only when I could reserve chambre trois cent quatre (room 304) even with its pair of somewhat uncomfortable single beds. (A first activity when I get back in the States is to see my most excellent chiropractor.) This room is in a turret at the corner of the hotel with 2 sets of French doors, one towards the sea and the other towards the village. Opening both of those sets of doors provides the most delightful flow of air during your sleep – but only to be rudely awakened in the morning by a swarm of swallows that swoop towards the room and then dart away squawking the whole time. That particular room also has a narrow walkway to step outside of the room for an even better vista. If interested, it is never too early to make reservations for July / August given the invasion of the Parisians.
The restaurants in the village range from ‘hallways’ with several tables outside ... to ... basic brasseries that one enjoys and expects across France... to ... tourist-oriented restaurants along the waterfront ... to several cozy, but absolutely great gourmet experiences. My favorite is La Belle Étoile which is on a passageway several levels up from the waterfront, Its menu includes traditional French cuisine and what the young, but well experienced chef, Emanuel, delivers of plats of fish that were “swimming that morning in the bay.” I have had great meals there that also included wonderful conversations with Emanuel and his wife Tamara regarding my cooking experiences. Be sure to ask him about his thoughts on sous vide. He straightened me out on several basics. If you are not familiar with sous vide, then you NEED to be. It will make your life less stressful and more delicious. Lastly, he will recommend the most appropriate wine for your taste and plat selection, regardless of price. I appreciate his integrity.
SIDEPOINT: I have 3 primary criteria in evaluating a restaurant: 1. The quality of the bread served demonstrating the dedication to a total meal experience. 2. The Price/Quality of the wine selection, and 3. The excellence of the sauce served when applicable. I cannot use this evaluation universally of course, for various reasons, but as to La Belle Etoile, it comes out on top.
Several additional restaurants to consider in the village include the following:
- La garcons is an open-air restaurant that consists of both a wine bar with incredible country bread-wide brochettes as well as an excellent French style restaurant. My favorite plat is the beef steak in a Marchand de Vin sauce;
- Les Palmiers / Le Cosmo are two standard brasseries bordering the town square;
- Mayssa Beach is a fine restaurant across from the town square, perhaps a bit pretentious, directly overlooking the water;
- Hotel Le Versailles has an open-air deck that overlooks the entire bay. I have had both good and mediocre meals there. While a great place for cocktails, I would not go there before June due the lack of adequate staff.
There are several mediocre ‘hallway’ restaurants on a level up from the waterfront. While you will still have memorable experiences, including a number of pizzerias near the square, I have to ask “WHY?” You are in Villefranche sur Mer. “Splurge!” I say.
There are 3, somewhat limited, patisseries in the village. As true across all of France where the pastries for each partisserie are of the same excellent taste and presentation as one would find in Paris. For me, that is a truly amazing point of France with my 30 years of crossing the country.
As an alternative to the classic baguette avec fromage et jambon for le déjeuner, Croque Monsieur is arguably the 2nd most notable sandwich across France for breakfast and snacking as well. It consists of ham and Gruyere covered on a fine bread of your choice (sourdough is lovely) followed by a layer of béchamel sauce and then toasted. it is so delicious hot, and even cold later during the day when I take one to the beach. There are a lot of pathetic versions of this sandwich out there. So. if what you see doesn’t look like this picture, then you will likely be disappointed. At least 2 of the 3 patisseries sell formidable Croque Monsieur, which you can request to be provided ‘chaud” to go. And for the feminists, the French are so considerate, i.e., there is a Croque Madame which consists of adding a fry egg on top.
A sandwich that is exclusive to Nice is Pan Bagnat. The best I have tasted is from the The Good Mood Café that is along the sea wall as approaching the beach entrance. Beware, they run out of the sandwich in the early afternoon at the latest.
For do-it-yourselfers, there are 2 “Casino” grocery
stores that are very small but great for snacks /
general items. One is in old town, and the other is on Bd Princess Grace de Monaco.
My favorite after dinner drinking spot to resign to the evening is the bar attached to the Welcome Hotel. This waterfront establishment provides a great bay view (water level) of the Eastern horizon, including the lights of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat framing the medium to dark blue gradation of the sky beyond. My nightcap of choice is green Chartreus on the rocks, an extraordinary herb-based liquor. You may find yourself wanting to take off your sandals and cross the cobblestone street to dip your feet into the clear water - hoping for fish that will nibble at your feet to free you from your scales. Actually, that won’t happen, but the chill of the water will be quite refreshing nonetheless.
If you order duck breast anywhere, never go with medium rare – it is still rubbery. Medium (140° F) is a slight pink and the most tender;
As to language, the waiters of the village speak at least French, Italian and English: No problem there;
One point that I learned in Paris is that “pâtes” is not multiple pates. It is pasta;
Although seemingly changing across parts of France, the price is “service compris”,
meaning the tip is included. Look for that phrase on the bottom of the menu. But, as
with Americans with an anticipated lack of “Continental knowledge”, we are expected to tip something which may be only the change remaining after paying in €s;
I should also note that it is important when entering, and leaving, an establishment to
always say “Bon jour” or “Bon soir, Monsiuer (and/or) Madame” in a relaxed fastion. The French expect this courtesy, plus they will automatically know that French need not be used further. Only say “Bon Nuit” if you are entering the hotel to sleep for the evening;
The use of “mademoisselle” is frowned on, as well as declared so by the French President several years ago. Mademoisselle is not permitted in legal documents due to the suggestion of age descrimination, as I understand it;
In the summer months it is most common to drink rose’ which is often served with a bowl of ice (glacon-an important word in the summer). Given the lack of complexity of rose’, and the warm temperatures for outside sitting, adding ice is perfectly OK and not considered an insult.
In the evening, there are often various minstrels, as well as an occasional band of acrobats, that perform along the waterfront for those restaurants, and up to the town square for the brasseries there. At the marina, again just a 5 minute walk from the center of the village, around the Citadel, there is one particular “dinner show” that I recommend for a Friday / Saturday night: La Trinquette. For a modest price, the food is quite reasonable, and I have never been disappointed in the live music. Note: Make reservations to sit outside (only 6-8 seats) to be the most comfortable in the evening if it is teddy-bear-coziness outside.
Bars for sports and general beer guzzling are just on the edge of the town square, which can be readily located by the cheers and the shouting of French words that I don’t know. Sports in France is only soccer, of course, except during the Tour de France.
On Saturday mornings, at least, there is a quaint market along Bd Princess Grace de Monaco with kiosks offering silver, antiques, paintings / posters, university-student qualified clothing, and sometimes farmer/baker products. This takes place in the small park outside of the Tourist Center.
Additionally, on those numerous days that cruise ships are in the bay, there are a number of kiosks in the town square with reputable offerings of posters, jewelry, clothes, hats, antiques, etc,
The Citadel has a schedule of movies in the evenings under the stars on some basis that I don’t know since, again, I only speak “menu French”
- A most enjoyable evening walk is along the seafront that stretches from old city around the Citadel to the marina. BTW, the marina has its own public beach, Plage de la Darse. Few people go there due to both its inconvenient location as well as a very rough beach of sizable stones. I should note that I buy “water shoes” on Amazon for as little as $13 that can barely handle the surface without restricting your swimming. Living in Florida, I wear this footwear continuously now. Sound arches are a recommended prerequisite.
I clearly have not touched on all characteristics that may be of interest to you. But what I have provided is a decent start for your own exploration of that village. The following set
of notes, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Without, will take you further as to exploring the attractions beyond Villefranche towards Monaco.
Given my personal airline advantages, I have most often taken the Delta nonstop JFK- NCE flight. However, that is not always available, especially now during the pandemic. When necessary I have connected in CDG, BRU, and FRA for airlines there. In one situation, I flew to Milan and took an Italian train to Genoa, and then a combination of Italian and French trains interchanging in Ventimiglia, Italy. But, be beware of trains in those 2 countries that go on strike for absolutely no rationale reason. Taking the Milan alternative one time, I was presented with 2 railroad strikes back-to-back that resulted in me becoming a homeless person in Ventimiglia until 2 AM until I grabbed a taxi for 90€ fare to Villefranche. But it was well worth the difficulty. Point to note here is that I always take a retractable ski-lock cable for securing my luggage when necessary, and even my laptop when sitting outside at a café.
If you can fly to Nice, directly, you can purchase a one-day pass, probably 6€ for a bus that exchanges in Nice to the “100” or “81” bus. Make sure you ask the driver for his/her advise as how to do that. Two years ago, a metro was in construction between the airport and city Nice, I suspect it is now complete, and you can then catch either the “100” or “81” to Villefranche. Uber between the airport and Villefranche is likely 70-80€ at this point. Once you are comfortable with pubic transport in and around Nice, the one-day, 6€ pass is the best deal. There is an alternative to taking the train to Villefranche from the airport, but you need to be experienced or properly guided with that alternative in my opinion.
The only taxi stand that I know of in the village is at the town square. Taxis by phone and Uber are also available.
Upon returning to the airport, the “100’ or “81” buses are inexpensive, but you need to interchange in Nice for the airport bus, again using a one-day pass. A total of less than 8€.
The “100” bus has several stops on the Bd Princess Grace de Monaco with a frequency of every 20 minutes or so until 8:00 PM. There is also an “81” bus that travels between Nice and the next eastern village of Beaulieu-sur-Mer (discussed in the next set of notes). Also. ALWAYS HOLD ONTO YOUR BUS TICKET until you are off the bus. There are occasional checkpoints where those individuals without authenticated tickets are taken off the bus. The unofficial story is that these individuals are turned into sausages if they are Germans, otherwise dry dog food ... just saying!
In my life there have been 3 specific areas across the globe that have been transformative in my life, and I have travelled extensively both domestically and internationally.
Over the past 3 decades, I have traveled to Paris many times. In the later years I would go there specifically to simply write at the cafés in the Spring / Summer time having already experienced so many of the “must sees”, as demonstrated in my story on this blog: A Parasol in Paris. That city has a morning scent that relaxes me, followed later with much wine during the evening especially along the Seine. It has transformed me to exploring my imagination and creativity via writing. Just as Southern France has that ‘light’ that attracted the creativity of Impressionists, Paris has been that for me as to writing.
The second was 8 years in New Orleans where I started my self-employed consulting career 30 some years ago. As a “Damn Yankee” with a Northeast mindset, I experienced so much about being myself and enjoying life while struggling to make a living: phenomenal friends, food, music, and dance.
- Villefranche-sur-Mer is the third transformation of getting away from everything, albeit doing some writing for my professional blog and quarterly journal, with excellent swimming, food and wine and no notice of the outside world. Villefranche however, perhaps would not even have been enough to escape the lunacy of Trump. The French would have been continuously pushing that in my face.
Aligned with this TRAVEL posting, there is a revealing, if not charming, story posted on this blog, FANTASIES EXPLORED, of 2 young American girls and their parents attempting to step beyond their America-based mores in Nice / Villefranche sur Mer.