Out of season, but definitely in style, Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Riviera should be on everyone’s bucket list…
There’s something indelibly romantic about out-of-season seaside towns. The long stretches of deserted beaches, devoid of tourists and with a few deliriously happy dogs retrieving bits of washed up driftwood, the calm clear waters transformed into noisy, foamy waves bashing against the rocks where it seems just a few weeks ago, little children lined up to launch themselves into the warm, safe waters. Now, a few rather brave men in wetsuits are busy turning the waves into their own personal playground, the bracing waters still warm by comparison to Northern Europe’s freezing seas.
The Vieille Ville, or Old Town of Villefranche dates back to the 1600s, and the narrow, cobbled streets offer shelter for those who like to potter about, peering into courtyards or stopping to admire the fascinating collection of old doorways, often carved with ancient symbols and dates. There are restaurants open, too. You get the feeling that whilst they welcome the few tourists, the locals have taken back their town. Old men sit around on the tables and benches, chatting and playing cards, or sipping a drink, the frantic pace of ‘the season’ slowed to the mellow, thoughtful feel of a fishing village enjoying some time to appreciate its divine gifts. Many of these old men have lived here all their life, and in a changing world, Villefranche has stayed surprisingly unchanged – a few more villas up on the hill maybe, the traditional shops have given way to real estate agencies more than you’d like, but you can still buy your daily bread from a choice of boulangeries that resemble a family run business rather than a designer chain.
If you’re looking for unrivalled views over the bay and out to sea, The restaurant Mayssa Beach offers outdoor lunch and supper, with fresh fish and tasty starters, excellent service and plenty of midday sun – there’s even a vip table for two down on the water’s edge, perched on a private quay (you’ll need to reserve well in advance, but it’s well worth the effort). For a more chilled lunch, the Mayssa’s sister restaurant, La Corderie, nestles on the edge of the Port de la Darse, where diners sit underneath the beautiful plane trees quietly watching the bustle of the local port dwellers as they go about their business – under the arches at the water’s edge there are little boat workshops and sailing clubs that look like they’ve been there forever.
Even in the winter, the quays at the bottom of the old town are often bathed in warm sunlight at lunchtime, and there’s always a selection of restaurants open. La Mere Germaine, probably the most famous in the town, became legendary in the 1950s and 60s when the US 6th Fleet were based in the bay, and well-healed American visitors make a beeline for this elegant establishment to eat alongside the Italian and Niçois diners who’ve made the short journey out to Villefranche especially. The Lobster salad starter is to die for, and the fresh fish served in butter, with roasted local vegetables on the side simply has to be finished off with the delicate Grand Marnier soufflé.
For a more relaxed lunch, Lou Bantry is a bustling brasserie-style affair with tables right at the water’s edge, serving local specialities such as stuffed roasted vegetables, pissaladiere (onion tart), and morue Niçoise (traditional local cod), as well as tasty hamburgers, pizzas and a selection of meat and fish. In the main square, Les Palmiers serve a decent menu all day – pizzas, cocktails, burgers, plenty of pasta and even special breakfasts, and they’re open late, all year round.
For visitors and locals looking for a tasty supper in relaxed surroundings, up by the old church at the top of the Old Town, Le Serre is just the ticket. Tasty daube de boeuf (traditional beef stew), escalope a la Milanese, daily specials and pizza are the order of the day, with old fashioned fixed price menus offering exceptional value for money. A warm atmosphere and friendly service keeps those that know coming back year after year – there’s often a small glass of limoncello to finish off the evening, and a charming walk back home through the quiet streets.
As you walk past the Hotel Welcome, down at the water’s edge just past the chapel where Jean Cocteau painted the walls in honour of the local fishermen, you’ll be tempted to stop and join the relaxed-looking couples seated on the pavement, sipping a glass of wine or a cocktail, watching the world go by, before heading off for their supper, a stylish interlude that sets just the right tone for the evening. It’s a great place to stay, too, with lovely balconies looking out across the bay to Cap Ferrat. For those who prefer to drop a star or two, the Hotel de la Darse looks like it could be The Welcome’s sister, overlooking the Port de la Darse, just the other side of the fortified Citadel, with a stone coastal pathway that takes you to the Old Town in a few minutes – plus the time spent stopping to take in the lovely views out to sea.
With the tourist gone, you feel fortunate to glimpse a bit of ‘real’ life in Villefranche. The town never feels deserted or lifeless, more like a place for those that know. When the season begins again, its always a pleasant, more gradual awakening – around Easter you’ll feel the vibe change, the perfumed smell of spring on the gentle wind, the pleasure boats come in for the weekends and an array of impressive super yachts start to appear just out to sea, but even then Villefranche is never too busy.
But at this moment, all that seems someway off, and the joys of the town in winter – or what passes as such – is perhaps one of the Riviera’s best kept secrets.