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Villefranche-sur-Mer

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It all began as a fishing port (like so many French Riviera resorts) and now Villefranche-sur-Mer is one of the region's most elegant and sought-after resorts. For pleasure-seekers, nothing beats a day at Villefranche's splendid bay, studded with yachts and bordered by a wide, sandy beach.

Bay of Villefranche

The shallow drop-off makes the Villefranche's Marinieres beach an ideal family beach. A day at the Villefranche beach is just the thing to chase away winter blues. The water is sparkling clean and the gravelly sand is easy on the feet.

Plage Marinieres, Villefranche-sur-Mer

Villefranche-sur-Mer is a major stop for cruises (250,000 passengers yearly) which means that the tiny old town can be crammed with tourists several times a week from April to October. I strongly recommend checking out the cruise ship schedule which you can do here.

In addition to its charming but touristy medieval centre, Villefranche is known for its markets. The Saturday morning market (8am to 1pm) is a good place to pick up local produce and crafts and second-hand dealers organize a day-long Sunday market to sell various odds & ends. The markets are at the Octroi bus stop.

Things to See & Do

Strolling the streets of the Old Town is one of the greatest pleasures of Villefranche. The pastel-colored houses bordering the fishing port beg to be photographed and you'll have gorgeous views of Villefranche's bay.

Villefranche-sur-Mer

Just a few steps up from the port (just follow the signs) is the unusual arcaded rue Obscure.

This ancient 130m-long street was built in 1260 as a path for soldiers to traverse the town. At that time it was uncovered. It lost its military function in the 14th century and in the 16th century residents began building houses over the street. Illuminated by lamps, the street has a magical appeal that attracted Jean Cocteau who filmed Le Testament d'Orphie (The Testament of Orpheus) there in 1959.

Leave the rue Obsure at the end and turn left, climbing up to the 18th-century rue du Poilu.

Rue du Poilu, Villefranche-sur-Mer

 

St-Peter Chapel (Chapelle Saint Pierre)

Chapelle Saint Pierre, Villefranche

The artist Jean Cocteau lived in Villefranche-sur-Mer between the first and second World Wars and in 1956 decided to redecorate this 14th-century chapel dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen. Cocteau's two murals depict the life of St Peter as well as various religious and local scenes. St-Peter's feast day on June 29 is celebrated with a special mass. (closed lunchtime, Monday, Tuesday and mid-November to mid-December).

The Citadelle

La Citadelle of Villefranche


In 1557 the Duke of Savoy constructed this fort to defend the Villefranche port and bay. It was part of a defensive system that included Fort Alban in Nice. After admiring the imposing facade, venture inside to discover the Volti Museum, the Goetz-Boumeester Museum (currently closed for renovation) and beautifully-tended gardens. The fortress includes the Hotel de Ville (town hall), a conference center and Saint Elmo chapel which frequently hosts art exhibitions. It's open all day and entrance is free.

History of Villefranche-sur-Mer

Romans

The history of Villefranche is closely linked with the history of Nice its closest neighbor. Like other places on the Cote d'Azur, it was the Romans who brought the territory into their empire. They called their new acquisition Montolivio and used the wide harbour as a stopover en route to other parts of their empire. They later linked it to other parts of France (Gaul) by building the Via Aurelia road.

After the fall of the Roman empire it was beset by Sarrasin raids in the 10th century and was later used as a refuge from pirates.

The Free City

The name Villefranche means "free city" and refers to its status as a duty-free port which was established in the 13th century and lasted until the 18th century. For the entirety of that period Villefranche was part of the Duchy of Savoy along with Nice. Its port was the only outlet to the sea for the Duchy which was based in Turin, Italy.

War and French Rule

The wide, deep harbour of Villefranche was greatly coveted by France. In 1543 a Franco-Turkish alliance captured and occupied the city. In response the Duke of Savoy built the Citadelle which lasted until 1705 when it fell to the French. The city bounced back and forth between Savoy and French rule but it lost its strategic importance when Nice's Port Lympia was built in the 18th century. Along with Nice, Villefranche became part of France in 1860.

The Naval Base

In the late 19th century the harbour became an important naval base for Russia. By that time, wealthy visitors from the north were making their way to the Cote d'Azur for warm, sunny winter holidays. An embryonic tourist business developed.

Beginning in 1870 the United States Navy was allowed to use the Darse port as a supply depot. Throughout the early 20th century the Navy 6th Fleet was calling regularly at Villefranche. In 1948 the 6th Fleet made Villefranche their European home port which lasted until 1967 when French President Charles de Gaulle made them leave. During those years the American presence exerted a strong influence on Villefranche's social and cultural life. Many locals struck up lasting friendships and even marriages with the sailors.

Plaque commemorating the 6th fleet presence

Plaque commemorating the 6th fleet

Villefranche's American connection is celebrated enthusiastically each July 4th with parades and remembrances.

Where to Eat

Villefranche harbour

The seafood-themed restaurants along the harbour are good but pricey. Try Carpaccio near the beach, or the sprawling La Mere Germaine closer to the Old Town. I like Lou Bantry on the harbour for its varied menu and the authentic regional specialties. Orsin Blue is another good choice. For cheaper and more casual dining, try one of the pizza, snack or mussels eateries on rue du Poilu.

Where to Stay

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Three-star Hotels
Hotel La Flore
Welcome Hotel
Hotel Le Versailles
Hotel La Fiancee du Pirate

Two-star Hotels
Hotel Riviera Villefranche
Hotel Provencal

Getting to Villefranche-sur-Mer

By Car
Villefranche-sur-Mer is easily accessible by car along the Moyenne or Basse Corniche. It's easier to walk around the old town than drive as many of the sinuous, roads are one-way only and come to sudden dead ends.

By Train
Villefranche-sur-Mer is on the TER line 4 that runs from Nice to Menton. The train runs frequently and it takes less than a half-hour to get to Villefranche from Nice.

Check schedules and buy tickets on thetrainline.

See more on travelling the French Riviera by train.

By Bus
Buses 15 from the Promenade des Arts and 80 run from Nice to Villefranche-sur-Mer. The best choice for frequency is bus 607 from Nice to Menton which stops at the Octroi bus stop in Villefranche. See more on travelling the French Riviera by bus.

See how to do a day trip to Villefranche-sur-Mer from Nice

Tourist Information

The helpful Villefranche-sur-Mer tourist office is in the Jardins François Binon near the Octroi bus stop. In addition to an agenda of local events, the tourist office publishes a brochure (in French) of local walks.

 

Recommended Experiences

 

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