If I had to recommend one spot to stay for someone visiting Cote d’Azur for three or four days, it would be Villefranche. It combines physical beauty, great walking tours, fine dining and location better than anywhere else in Cote d’Azur. It is fifteen minutes east of Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, fifteen minutes west of Monaco, and you can visit both by car, bus or train; and yes Villefranche has its own train station. The problem is that once in Villefranche, it is hard to leave.
Like most people, my first view of this area came driving east from Nice along the Basse Corniche heading to Monaco. This road clings to the cliffs along the sea when leaving Nice, and for the first couple of miles it is little more than an easy-to-drive shore road overlooking the Mediterranean. Then comes a bend to the left and suddenly appearing below is a natural harbor with breathtaking blue water filled with yachts, a citadel and a seaside village. The village is Villefranche, and stretching out beyond it and creating the harbor is St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, or as it is more commonly called, Cap F
Needless to say, with the view and proximity to Nice and Monaco, this is some of Cote d’Azur’s most expensive real estate as well as an attraction for “in-the-know” travelers and locals looking for fine dining with much of it along the water. This area has a long history going back to Roman times, but no one is visiting here because of the history. Having a 15th century citadel within easy walking distance and a fort from the same era looking down upon you adds to the appeal, but it is eating, drinking, walking and quick trips to Nice and Monaco that are the draws – and there is a beach for those that want to swim or sunbathe.
There are many places to stay in the area, but there is really only one place to be and that is the Welcome Hotel, which is the only hotel on the waterfront. It has an un-French name, but it comes with its share of local history as a favorite hang-out for Jacques Cousteau and his friends in the years between the wars. It is unpretentious and without a restaurant, but it is well-kept, and most imporant, well-located. It also shares the waterfront with two Michelin-rated restaurants, La Mere Germaine and L’Oursin Bleu, and many less expensive alternatives.
For affluent visitors, it might be hard to pass up staying at the fabled Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, but for most of us that is a better place to visit, perhaps for a drink, than stay. It is a wonderful hotel, but well-removed from the action, which has its advantages, but not for those who want the “feel” of Cote d’Azur to extend beyond a single hotel and its property.
Once upon a time being isolated applied to Villefranche and Cap Ferrat, not just the Grand Hotel. In the olden days, being located where the Southern Alps hit the Mediterranean created access problems by land and limited the harbor’s usage to stop-overs for boats going elsewhere. This was true in Roman times, and when they were gone, the harbor was taken over by Saracen raiders, which certainly was not conducive to settlements.
It was not until the end of the 13th century under Provencal Anjevin rule that Villefranche was settled, and even that took tax incentives to draw people onto the shores that are so appealing today. Then in 1388, Villefranche followed Nice out from under Provencal rule and became part of the Duchy of Savoy. In 1543, the harbor’s isolation came to an unhappy end when the combined French and Turkish navy used it as a staging base for the siege and sacking of Nice. This attack was the catalyst for Savoy building the Villefranche citadel and Fort Mont Alban.
For visitors to Villefranche, most of what one sees dates back to the mid-18th century. That is when the Eglise St.-Michel and the buildings immediately above the waterfront were built. Two exceptions, besides the citadel and Fort Mont Alban, are the cave-like passageway a block back from the sea that was built in the 13th century and the 16th century Chapelle St.-Pierre on the waterfront that includes Cousteau’s murals on the life of the saint and the local fisherman.
Cap Ferrat is an extension of Villefranche, but development did not occur there until the early 20th century when it became the home to royalty and the very wealthy. Among the earliest to live there were King Leopold II of Belgium and Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothchild. The King’s residence is now part of the Les Cedres botanical garden and the Baroness de Rothchild’s palace is part of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothchild museum that is open to the public. In 1908, the Grand Hotel opened to begin serving its elite clientele.
Between the two wars arguably the most popular British writer of the times, Somerset Maugham added his luster to Cap Ferrat. He wrote two of his most famous books, Of Human Bondage and Moon and a Sixpence, a decade before arriving, but after buying the Villa Mauresque on CapFerrat in 1926, he was there, except for the war years, until he died 40 years later. Today, many of these villas have been purchased by wealthy Russians.
Whether wandering around Cap Ferrat’s villas – it takes about an hour to circle the cap on the hiking trails – or just strolling around Villefranche, the citadel grounds, and, perhaps, spending time at the beach, in the evening it is time to enjoy some fine dining. When it comes to eating, it is hard not to sit by the water at La Mere Germaine and L’Oursin Bleu absorbing the view and watching the “beautiful people” arrive – particularly for lunch, but the best eating is a block above the waterfront, particularly at my favorite restaurant in all of Cote d’Azur, Les Garcon, with its charming seating area on the plaza in front of the restaurant. The d’agneau souris is magnificent. La Grignotiere ands an Asian restaurant, Le Mekong, are also good choices in the same area area..
Enjoying Villefranche and Cap Ferrat is a pleasant way to spend a couple days, but the added appeal of Villefranche is its access to Nice and Monaco. As mentioned above, if you are driving, it is about 15 minutes to either by the shore road, but cars are not necessary. It is a bit of hike up the hill to the main road, but it is doable in about 15 minutes, and from there the bus is about a 20 minute trip to Nice and/or Monaco. The bus runs every 20 minutes and costs only a euro each way.
The train station is a shorter walk from the waterfront, but it does not run as frequently as the buses, and in Nice, the train station is a bus ride away from where people want to be, but the train is not without its advantages. It provides a round trip to Cannes that takes about 30 minutes each way adding to the convenience of Villefranche as a gateway to the Cote d’Azur.
This post includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.