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It’s the most popular cruise ship destination in the Mediterranean, but by drink o’clock, Villefranche is all yours. And the locals are friendly, as Andrew L. Urban discovered staying at the aptly named Belle Vue apartment in the old and charming Medieval port within easy reach of all the glam spots on the Riviera.

Minutes by scenic train ride from Nice and Monte Carlo, Villefranche is unique on the Cote d’Azure with the charm of a small port, the glory of the Mediterranean, the glamour of the Riviera – and a relaxed pace with friendly locals. Tucked away on a gorgeous bay, the town has a colourful history and a sparkling present.

Pic. Tourism Office

On our first visit (we’ve been twice), we opened the door to our room to find a vase of flowers and a card on the little table by the French doors to the corner balcony overlooking the bay of Villefranche. What made this special was that the flower had been handpicked from the hotel’s garden by the manageress for our arrival, to go with the special Mother’s Day card she had printed out – from our daughter’s email, perfectly timed.

"we stocked up on fresh fruit, baguettes, cheese and wine, for a picnic with a view"

It was an appropriate introduction to Hotel Provencal, whose charm is greater than its modest 2-star rating might indicate and is matched by its location at 4, Avenue Marechal Joffre, up the hill from the waterfront. And down the hill by a few metres from the corner ATM where we stocked up on Euros (thanks to our handy Travel Money Card) and the local shops where we stocked up on fresh fruit, baguettes, cheese and wine, for a picnic with a view, on our balcony.

Not that Villefranche is short of restaurants: the quay is truly eat-street, with a variety of cuisines and prices, all along the cobbled road that has served the waterfront of this Medieval port for centuries. But our favourite place turned out to be Le Cosmo Bar & Restaurant, set back from the Quai de l’Amiral, with its relaxed atmosphere and great food making up for the lack of a view to the port.

You can pay a lot more and sit by the quay at places like Mère Germaine or La Fille du Pêcheur, but we kept returning to Le Cosmo, which had enough variety on the menu to keep us satisfied - until we found La Caravelle, hidden up one of the lanes running down to the waterfront. A skull and crossbones hangs at the back and the husband/waiter/owner wears a gold ring in his left ear, but the prices do not raid your wallet: their excellent fish soup (the brown variety served along the entire South coast) is just 10 euros, compared to 27 at Mère Germaine.

Photo by Louise Keller

These places soon became even handier to us when we moved into La Belle Vue apartment, around the snake bend and up the hill a few steps from Le Cosmo, in a commanding position overlooking the bay. La Belle Vue is the penthouse of a duplex which boasts spectacular views through a set of six archways in the living area three along each of two walls forming an L. When you open the floor to ceiling sliding glass doors and slump onto the day bed, nothing much seems wrong with your world. The view takes in the port, the large natural harbour and across the other side to the peninsula of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. 

"the famous Villa Nellcôte"

It’s a one euro bus ride to the Cap, for a view back towards Villefranche. On the way, the bus trundles along the road above the famous Villa Nellcôte, where The Rolling Stones spent some chaotic weeks in 1971 recording their legendary Exile on Main Street album. The mansion is mysteriously closed, its large wrought iron gates padlocked.

The Belle Vue apartment is spacious with a high pitched ceiling and a second window looking up the hill towards the lovely old (surprisingly large) St Michel church – and down towards the (surprisingly small) Chapel St Pierre, famous for its wall to wall interior artwork by French Renaissance artist Jean Cocteau, (1889-1963). You can also find both churches by ear: their tower bells – charmingly out of synch by a minute or so - are still in use, as possibly all 6,800 inhabitants of the town can confirm.

Photo by Louise Keller

We could also hear the infectious and seductively rhythmic sounds of a Latin street band just out of sight from the apartment; a 2 minute walk took us into the small square opposite the Chapel St Pierre, where the band was getting it on – and the instant crowd was dancing to the irresistible beat. We walked across the road to the terrace of a small waterfront restaurant where we sat and watched and listened – and drank watermelon mojitos.

"a relaxing pastis at Gaga’s Bar"

The area around the port itself is amply served with shops selling a variety of clothes and tourist merchandise, displayed for the eager cruise passengers who make half day stops at Villefranche on a regular basis; apparently it’s the busiest port of call on the coast. They are all gone by drink o’clock, when we usually get a relaxing pastis at Gaga’s Bar, rustic and small, in rue du Poilu.

This old town – established in the 13th century - has a number of remarkable features, not least the rue Obscure, an underground laneway hidden among the narrow backstreets that run above the quay. The 10 minute walk along the old lane (rue du Poilu) from La Belle Vue to the train station is filled with nooks and crannies, ancient stone walls, a feature fountain with resting benches and mysterious doorways. Our camera nearly melted down from overuse here.

This is also the lane to find the Patisserie Maritime, where the genial Monsieur Hervé Theraud bakes sensational croissants, fruit tarts and baguettes at dawn; our daily bread.

The Citadel Saint Elme - photo by Louise Keller

The foreboding Citadel Saint Elme overlooking and protecting Villefranche dates from the 16th century; in summer it holds outdoor movie screenings (it’s France, remember). The giant stone fortress houses the Town Hall and a couple of museums, including the Volti, which can be enjoyed with a guided tour that includes breakfast in the gardens (just 8 euros!). This is only one of several tours offered through the tourist office, including one focused on the artistic heritage of the town, another on its maritime heritage.

"the world’s best millefeuille at the Café de Paris"

Only some 5kms to the East of Nice the old port has retained its characteristics – tourists notwithstanding. The train takes us 12 kms to Monte Carlo further East - and it will take you too, for a day of designer window shopping, not to mention an extravagant coffee and the world’s best millefeuille at the Café de Paris next to the famous Casino. Worth it in people perving value alone.

Photo by Louise Keller

First published in SMH February 23, 2013 & other Fairfax newspapers
Published February 28, 2013

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The view from Belle Vue, Villefranche
(Photo by Louise Keller)

Getting there:
Air France flies to Nice from Paris several times daily. 

Nice to Villefranche:
- taxi from Nice airport 25 minutes, approx 60 Euros (recommended if with luggage)
- TGV trains to Nice from Paris several times daily (5hrs 40mins)
- by train from Nice central station – 4 minutes

Staying there:
* Hotel La Provencal:
Rates from Є72 to Є135 in high season

* La Belle Vue apartment:
Rates from Є780 – Є1,400 per week
full info and availability at www.holiday-rentals.co.uk Property 68848

* Other: the tourist office lists about 10 hotels, one large holiday apartment complex and many individual apartments to rent.

Touring there:
* A car is not recommended as parking in Villefranche is nearly impossible. But you can leave your car in the ‘new’ part of town above the port and walk down – about 15 minutes.

* The quay is level but there is no wheelchair access elsewhere.

More information:
Tourist office:

(Photo Tourism Office)

Pastis at Gaga's Bar (Photo by Andrew L. Urban)

Millefeuille at Cafe de Paris, Monte Carlo (Photo by Louise Keller)

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