The railway here hugs the Cote d’Azur allowing visitors even on a humble train ride to witness the coast’s magnificence. Villages and towns carved out of rocks. Crystal clear waters. Stretches of coast. Small, protected bays.
Villefranche-sur-mer is no exception. Housing and hotels encircle the sea from east to west, from the sea bed to mountainous heights. The train for Villefranche-sur-mer perches directly above the bay, leaving only some parking and a concrete wall to separate the two. The minute we leave the train we immediately realise that this town is the worst kept secret for English and American tourists. Nick wrestles with our enormous luggage through groups of tourists along cobbled laneways that inevitably lead up and up and up. Despite the ease of the eight minute train ride from Nice, we are not travelling light and the steep cobbled steps loom ahead of us. Two pre-schoolers overwhelmed by the feat, manage in a daze to make it to our apartment in one piece. We enter the apartment to the welcome of a lovely English woman named Donna and the kids make themselves at home, after what felt like the longest hour of our journey thus far. Our apartment overlooks the bay, the town, the lighthouse even winks at us. This will be home. The arduous steps were worth it.
Wait. Someone is missing.
My momentary peace is replaced with alarm. Nick continues the noble battle – two enemies: stairs ahead and the unruly luggage in tow. No smartphone = no contact = no Google maps. Retracing our steps he cannot be found. Has he been swallowed by the old town below? Has he lost the battle? After what feels like a sweaty eternity, the kids and I hear Nick’s holler from the heavens, declaring his victory. Worn out but victorious he manages to find our new abode.
Within no time our blood, sweat and tears have been cleansed by the salty bay that laps the small coast. All drama aside, Villefranche-sur-mer is a gem along this coast line (and certainly not the only one). The village’s coastline starts with fine, soft stones with relatively shallow, clear waters and becomes sandier before returning to larger pebbles as it edges toward Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. The last of the bays, is home to a rich ecosystem. From the beach you can see the peach and orange hotels that give the town it’s timeless appeal and character. Small boats bob along the water’s edge. Looking behind the old town Mount Boron stands proudly and it is clear how much ascent and descent characterises life here. From any given height visitors are greeted with the beautiful vista of the curved bay, terracotta roofs and matching window shutters. Even the town’s bells gently drift up the mount.
Like Tamariu this town has a tranquility and a stillness in the morning before businesses are really underway. Only a few people dotting the shore line, waitresses slowly and carefully prepare their umbrellas and tables. The water moves gently. The laneways are eerily quiet, few souls move through them before nine am.
In the evening though, as the crescent moon shines over the village, the stillness of the night is only a façade. There are still at least a few thrill-seeking children bobbing in the water, parents and couples enjoying picnics along the beach. The walkways while lively during the day seem to come to life at night. Wine bars with small tables and crates offer Provencal wine. Restaurants big and small still serving delicious delights.Villefranche-sur-mer is a charming town that, even when it is over-run by visitors from cruise-liners, maintains an authenticity few tourists spots can. Its tight spaces and compact layout captivates you from bonjour to au revoir. As the sun sets on our last night in Villefranch-sur-mer, it is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to this beautiful place. In true VF style our last day was glorious, with a a capital G! The day was warm, the market was bustling, and the fish danced through the crystal clear bay. Well done vf what a send-off, sunshine, laughter and small pebbles clinging to every inch of our bodies refusing to be washed away. It has felt as though time stood still here, but the insistent church bells are a reminder that time has been passing and we now say goodbye to VF and the Côte d’Azur.
A trip down Côte d’Azur’s memory lane
The Niçois play experiences and long walks along the promenade.
We survived the unforgiving rocks of the Plages of Nice that can only be conquered by 5 Euro plastic sandals.
The unforgiving attendants at the public toilets should you not have half a Euro.
The sound-sensitive gentle Italian lady living beneath us in our apartment.
Oh the excitement of the trams!
The thrill and delight of the water-play square in the centre of Nice.
The near-death experience (for me) and grand achievement of scaling Mount Boron, only to realise the waterfall we were searching was on a much smaller mountain in the distance. We were rewarded when we cast our eyes over the view of Cap Ferrat and Villefranche-sur-mer from Mount Boron.
Monte Carlo surprised us for its ease with children.
The oceanographic museum encasing magnificent creatures from the sea – big and small – including a tank filled with baby Clown fish (Nemo) and interesting activities for the kids too.
The small train that departs from the museum was a delight for us all – Audrey still recalls it hoping to return to the miniature train.
The Princess’ playground that offers small playgrounds that are built into the cliff-like nature of the terrain.
Thank you to http://www.familytraveller.com for many of the suggestions.
If VFsM is characterised by charm, Beaulieu (it’s neighbour) is characterised by luxury. Luxury boats, luxury brands, luxury hotels. Despite Beaulieu’s reputation for luxury the beaches are family friendly, Le Catalan restaurant was a wonderful find and Audrey witnessed her own fairy sighting in the trees that line the Jardin.
Saint Jean Cap Ferrat
This area is adjacent to Villefranche-sur-mer making it a lovely walk or simple bus ride from the town. While it is not as cosy and compact as Villefranche-sur-mer it hosts many azure bays perfect for swimming and snorkelling, a lovely port lined with restaurants and luxury boutiques, excellent paths for witnessing the resplendence of the coastline along the cape. Passable beach was a highlight for its protected and tiny bay, particularly with Bradley who is not confident in the water. Palomas beach was another highlight for the playful and varied fish darting through its pebbly base.
How could I forget our meandering through Antibes? As Nick’s grey Nike shoes were transformed to clay, we were acquainting ourselves with the winding streets of Antibes’ old town. Patisseries filled with delectable delights, buskers playing the piano accordion to avid audiences through corridors of space, brasseries designed for lunch and an aperitif at four. Once Audrey, Bradley and I had made our way through the quaint streets with only a few macarons in hand we were met by the wall of the town. The wall both leads to the port and separates the town from small beaches designed for floating. Soft, fine white sand, a rarity in these parts, and shallow clear waters for us to drift away a few hours.
I cast my eye to the moon once more, and realise we have spent a month in France and three weeks along the French Rivera. What have we learnt on our way? For me the French way is still somewhat of a mystery. While it was easy to adjust to the Mediterranean slow mornings and siesta, other parts were a little less accommodating (that is to suit our current stage with a four and almost three old)
Even after a month in France I experienced far less of the French cuisine then I would have liked. Partly due to home-cooked meals in our apartment. Eating out with our children was not without its challenges – most places started serving dinner at 6:30 or 7pm which was a difficult time to get our son to eat or sit for prolonged periods of time. Some days we chose to eat out and the children were mostly good. Other days we had to eat out because we were too far from home. On both good and bad days, the overt stares we regularly received from patrons should our children not be Michelin-star trained for dining out was a enough to affect one’s appetite. In addition to this, along the Cote d’Azur it was very common to find generic Western/Mediterranean menus on offer in many of the places we chose to eat at. Pizza, pasta, veal escalope alla Milanese seemed to be staples.
The French language is still a mighty challenge for me. Though, unlike my visit nine years ago, English seems to be almost preferred with obvious non-French speakers (like myself). Surprisingly many of my most genuine interactions were with non-English speakers as we danced through our communication – gesticulating and shrugging.
Culture is difficult to define and ever-changing. The landscape and environment people live in shapes the qualities prevalent in a place. This was noticeable as we travelled from Montpellier, Paris, Nice and Villefranche-sur-mer.
The most memorable moments are the simplest. Bradley’s face covered in chocolate ice creams. Audrey’s delight at seeing her first fish while snorkeling. Water fights at the beach.