Visiting Villefranche on the Côte d’Azur in France With a Small Dog
To the East of Nice and West of Monaco at the foot of Mont Boron, Mont Alban and Mont Vinaigrier is the small town of Villefranche. It’s been gobbled up as a suburb of Nice but you would never know. It’s still very much its own little town. Insisting that it be referred to by its proper name. And so it should be.
Villefranche has a fantastic history and all of it related to the fact that it has the deepest natural harbour in the region… what am I saying, not just the region, no no no – the Mediterranean Sea! So it’s all about safe anchorage for large ships, fishing and of course a good dose of pirates too! Oh and why is it called Villefranche you ask? So gald you did! Well you see, in 1295, Charles II, Duke of Anjou, then Count of Provence, enticed the inhabitants of the surrounding villages in the hills and such to settle closer to the coastline in order to secure the area from those pesky pirates! By charter, he established Villefranche as a “free port”, thus the name, granting tax privileges and port fee rights that lasted well into the 18th century. Nothing like a freebee right?
By 1388, the area became part of the Duchy of Savoy as a result of the disputed succession to the heirless Queen Joan I of Naples. For the next 400 years, the area was hotly disputed. And Because humans can’t just stop there with this silliness; in 1543, the Franco-Turkish armies sacked and occupied the city after the siege of Nice, prompting Duke Emmanuel Philibert to secure the site by building an impressive citadel and a fort on nearby Mont Alban. In the late 17th century, the area finally fell to the French but was returned to Savoy after the Peace of Utrecht. And back and forth this human war nonsense continued.*le sigh*
But what does that mean for the area? It’s a hot bed of fun discoveries and long toothed tales! And you know what? That story telling is still in full swing because Villfranche has been the set for many many a Hollywood movie! Here are a few Dear Reader, see if you know any of them ok?
- Raoul Walsh’s Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.
- Adventures of Captain Fabian with Errol Flynn
- Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief
- Leo McCarey‘s An Affair to Remember
- The Madwoman of Chaillot with Katharine Hepburn
- Never Say Never Again with Sean Connery
- The Jewel of the Nile with Michael Douglas
- The Bourne Identity with Richard Chamberlain
- Killers with Ashton Kutcher,
- Maximum Risk with Jean-Claude Van Damme
- Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Steve Martin and Michael Caine
- Ronin with Robert De Niro
- Amy Plum‘s “Revenants” trilogy (some scenes)
But the movie that got my attention? The movie that resonated the most with me? Can you guess Dear Reader… can you? The Count of Monte Cristo with Louis Jourdan. An old version certainly, but hey it’s still my name sake story! AND if that wasn’t enough for you… It was also at Villefranche-Sur-Mer that The Rolling Stones recorded their 1972 album Exile on Main St.
Oh AND in case all that still wasn’t enough coolness for you – Tina Turner is in town at least one weekend a month. YEP! She has a house there. Neat right? So if you are into that, well there is certainly plenty of star power to go around. Personally I just found the town absolutely lovely. Perhaps because we had an exceptionally good meal at Le Cosmo where Mom enjoyed a real Salad Niçoise the way it should be made, where the calamari were fresh and yet crispy, and where the bipeds discovered the café gourmand for the first time (a huge hit with them). Good food is always a nice way to set the tone for a visit don’t you think?
The highlight for the bipeds, was the Chapelle Saint-Pierre (Saint Peter’s Chapel) that dates back to the sixteenth century. It’s a funny, unassuming little thing that used to be a storeroom for local fishermen’s nets and equipment for most of the 19th and early part of the 20th century. But them in 1957, French novelist, poet, designer, playwright, film maker and famous artist Jean Cocteau decided to reclaim it and restore it. You see Dear Reader, Jean Cocteau discovered the little town years earlier, in 1924. He would stay at the Hotel Welcome (Ok – I am laughing!) opposite the little chapel. Then in 1957, he had this idea for a new pet project, and with the agreement of the local fishermen, he decorated the chapel with great swirling powerful scenes of the life of St Peter (the patron saint of fishermen) and local scenes as well as designing the stained glass windows showing scenes of the Apocalypse (dumm dumm dumm!)
It’s a paid “guided” tour, with a maximum of 13 people at a time inside the Chapel to safeguard the important fresco. It takes about 25 minutes and the cost was less than 5 Euro per person. It’s a tiny thing, but the guide is really great at giving you all the “juicy” details. Be careful, opening hours vary depending on the time of year (always closed around lunch) and its closed on Tuesdays (seems like a random day of the week to me but there you have it!) and its completely shut down to the public from mid-November to mid-December. Sadly, I was not allowed inside, but our visit happen to coincide with the weekly market. So doing the usual hand-off was possible but instead the bipeds opted to hand me over to our host and hostess who had already seen it more than once – I was … not amused. Not… amused.
I recommend you give yourself time to enjoy the really lovely old town and its big Church and Oooh oooh oooh before I forget!! The most extreme example I have ever seen anywhere of a vaulted passage!! It is called Rue Obscura, a street about a block in from the seafront that’s completely covered for about half its length. Lighted only by white, wire-gridded lamps in the roof, the “obscure” street reminded me of the days when the town’s population sheltered there from pirates and later on from bombardments. Cross streets open out onto the sunny upper village or the even brighter seafront below. Seriously fun experience! Oh and the SMELLS! *swoons*
In review: A great town to spend a day or two… or three! There are loads of pet friendly cafes, restaurants, and bakeries to indulge your inner gourmet. There is an abundance of history and art and a beautiful old town to wonder around and get lost in – all uphill of course! There are also some really amazing hikes to be had and a lovely beach. Do note that the main beach is not pet friendly BUT if you go just past it – on the other side and next village over – there is a pet friendly beach. Technically no longer Villefranche but you’d be hard pressed to know the difference. And the view you have of Villefranche proper and its beach from that side is really rather lovely.