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La Citadelle St-Elme

Villefranche-sur-Mer: French Riviera’s Charming Hidden Cove

Villfranche-sur-Mer
Villefranche-sur-Mer

Pirates and raiders were the frequenters of this naturally harbored coast during the Barbaric invasions of Europe. Now ships boards tourists, not pirates. But the invasion is so much more than it is comparable. With its excellent location between Nice and Monaco, Villefranche sur-Mer is unmissable to tourists. It has a delightful local atmosphere that everyone will love. Beautiful landscapes all around are eye candies. The clear water of the Mediterranean is made more wonderful by the scenes of colorful houses and the bobbing boats in the harbor.

The deep harbor serves as a safe haven for large ships who want to escape the easterly winds. Historical buildings provide a cultural experience to tourists. The Queen of Rock and Roll Tina Turner owns a villa here. This easy-to-tour resorts town in French Riviera has a total package for every tourists and traveler. Discover this dreamy hidden cove here in this Iconic Riviera’s travel guide.

Deep harbor and scenic slopes

The Harbor
The Harbor

Sitting on its west is the dainty town of Nice. Luxurious Monaco is on the west, but not before one passes the towns of Éze and Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Mount Boron dominates the large part of Villefranche. A corniche (cliffside) road connects it to the other resorts town. It has an ideal position that is close to everything in Côte d’Azur. It is once a fishing village. Now, because of its naturally deep harbor, it attracts cruise ships from almost everywhere. Between the Cape of Nice and Cap Ferrat, it reaches a depth of 320 ft (95 m). The hills serve as the limits of the town inward the Riviera, with a height of 1 893 ft (577 m). The brick and stucco houses of its Old Town resides in the hills and beautifies it. Along the corniche, the roofs of the houses against the bay offer a picturesque view.

What to see in Villefranche sur-Mer

Red roofs of the stucco or brick houses and the campanile of the Église St-Michel, Villefranche-sur-Mer
The scenic view of the campanile of Église St-Michel among the houses, Villefranche

From dreamy sceneries, exquisite dining places, heritage sites, and even local village peculiarities, Villefranche gives all the delight that everyone seeks. The idyllic lifestyle retains the authentic Mediterranean feels in it, typical of the Riviera. But it is more of Italian than French to many. The locals call themselves Villefranchoise, and they are mostly of Italian origin. It has around 5 000 residence (2016 figure) and the solidarity of its local residents make it more a community compare to the rest of Riviera. The town prides itself with many stunning attractions that every visitors will definitely love.

La Citadelle
La Citadelle St-Elme
La Citadelle St-Elme

The Duke of Savoie, Philibert, built this massive structure in 1557 after the Turkish fleet’s attack of the port in 1543. It is also called Citadelle de St-Elme. Now it serves as the town hall and a congress center. It also houses the police station, a summer outdoor theater, and four minor art museums.

  • One is dedicated to the sculptures of Antoniucci Volti. It has the carvings of four voluptuous female. Some of the carvings decorate the fountain outside of the citadel;
  • A collection of modern paintings can be found in Museé Goetz-Boumeester;
  • Medieval life enthusiasts will find it pleasant to see the model scenes and ceramic figurines of the Roux Collection;
  • another room is dedicated to the regiment Chasseur-Alpins, the elite mountain infantry of the French Army.
Chapelle de St-Pierre
Chapelle St-Pierre
Chapelle St-Pierre

This ecclesiastical building is in a place near where it is good for overlooking the fishing harbor. Artist Jean Cocteau decorated it 1957, hence the name Cocteau Chapel. The decoration has a “ghost of colors” theme and shades. The illustrations have ghostly colors, strong contours, and simple lines. No wonder the guide written by Cocteau itself invites the visitors to observe without any artistic prejudice. The art decor shows the biblical life of St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. It is also dedicated to Villefranche women and gypsies. On the space above the altar, St Peter walks the sea while angels guide him. The fishermen’s eyes on the entire scenes are of the fishes”. There are ceramic eyes on the side of the doors that portrays the flames of Armageddon.

Old Town
Old Town street
A street in the Old Town

Most of its building dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The houses are painted with genuinely provençal colors. Flowers beautifies the balconies and facades. It cascades down the hill to the sea into the waterfront quay. A little history: the town was a ville franche sur mer or “customs free-port in the sea” established by Charles II d’Anjou, Count of Provence and King of Naples (reigned 1285-1309). Many of the houses are of Italian design. Common among the houses are trompe l’oeil wall paintings mainly on their windows. Most have large arched loggias on the ground floor and have been filled in. Narrow cobblestone and brick streets slope steeply down, some passages have vaults beneath the houses.

rue du Pollu is the main street of the town and leads to Place du Conseil. The square has a good view of the harbor and Cap Ferrat peninsula. From this point starts rue Obscure. It has covered passageways. Built to make soldiers of old times shuffle quick, it resembles more of a tunnel than a street. Some businesses use the space there as makeshift wine cellars or places for donkeys. It goes parallel to the quayside and leads down to the sea. On the western end of rue de Obscure lies rue de l’Église. It is where the 18th-century Église St-Michel is and where one can see a craving of the Dead Christ made of a single block of figwood. The church also has a fine baroque organ inside, which is rare and is a national monument. The church’s tall campanile dominates the scene. 

The Quay
The quay
Colorful houses lines the quays

It must be the highlight of the town. Terrace café and restaurants line the harbor front. Lovely pastel-colored village houses beautify the place. The villagers pointus, small fishing boats, line the dock. The port serves as the base for fisherfolks and tourists. Numerous cruises arrive in summer times. Along the fishing wharves, one can wander and have refreshments on many dining spots. On February, there is a celebration of the fishermen called Bataille des Fleurs (Battle of the Flowers). They decorate their pointus with flowers on which they later use to “attack” other boats. There is also a parade of the boats with music and costumes for the enjoyment of the locals and spectators. There are lively fish restaurants in quai Courbet. Place Pollonais has a flea market on Sundays, a craft market on Mondays, and a pleasant brasserie.

Port La Darse
Port La Darse
Port La Darse

It is once an important defensive port built by the Duke of Savoie in 1550s. In 1770, it was a fortified structure to improve the counter-invasion from the Mediterranean. It is now a marina and a place for yacht dockyard activities. The Observatoire Oceanologique de Villefranche is here, as well as the French National Center for Scientific Research, which has three laboratories: Oceanology, marine geoscience, and cell biology. It also has a lighthouse, a single surviving tower, and there was once a rope factory.

And Finally, The Beaches

The beach of Villefranche
Villefranche’s beach

The beaches in Villefranche has a sand and pebble mix. They never fill up like the others on nearby towns. No tourists clog the bay due to the small size of the town. But still, it gets very busy in high season. One can have an ice cream from a stall nearby. Or take a cup of coffee while sitting out staring at the glittery waters in the bays. It may have a small beach, but the calmness that the other Riviera place is what makes it a different one. Plage des Marinières is the main beach. It is in the north end of the bay. Plage de la Darse is the one with pebbles. It is behind the jetty of the harbor La Darse. But of course, no need to add further details. All beaches in the Riviera are enticing and wonderful.

Destination: Villefranche sur-Mer!

By car: One can access the town by from Nice by the corniche road (Lower Corniche or Corniche Inférieure). It goes along the coastline and encircles Mount Boron.

By bus: Take the #100 Nice-Menton bus and the local #81 bus from Nice.

By train: The railway station is in the Nice-Ventimiglia TER line with regular service. Villefranche’s gare SNCF is a short distance from the port and right above the beach.

By air:  Nice Airport is only 12 kilometers from Villefranche sur-Mer.

The quietness and quaintness of this town make up for its size. No wonder many find it worthy for a visit the second time around. 

Click this link to see the Tourism Offices information.

Please visit the Villefranche-sur-Mer Tourism website for additional details.