Splendour by the bay

Villefranche's mix of fine dining, fabulous views and friendly locals inspired Andrew L. Urban to make a return visit.

Minutes by scenic train ride from Nice and Monte Carlo, Villefranche is unique on the Cote d'Azur with the charm of a small port, the glory of the Mediterranean, the glamour of the Riviera - and a relaxed pace with friendly locals. Tucked away on a gorgeous bay, the town has a colourful history and a sparkling present.

On our first visit (we've been twice), we opened the door to our room to find a vase of flowers and a card on the little table by the French doors to the corner balcony overlooking the bay of Villefranche. What made this special was that the flower had been hand-picked from the hotel's garden by the manageress for our arrival, to go with the special Mother's Day card she had printed out - from our daughter's email, perfectly timed.

It was an appropriate introduction to Hotel Provencal, whose charm is greater than its modest two-star rating might indicate and is matched by its location at 4 Avenue Marechal Joffre, up the hill from the waterfront. And down the hill by a few metres from the corner ATM where we stocked up on euros (thanks to our handy Travel Money Card) and the local shops where we stocked up on fresh fruit, baguettes, cheese and wine for a picnic with a view, on our balcony.

Not that Villefranche is short of restaurants: the quay is truly eat-street, with a variety of cuisines and prices, all along the cobbled road that has served the waterfront of this mediaeval port for centuries. But our favourite place turned out to be Le Cosmo Bar & Restaurant, set back from the Quai de l'Amiral, with its relaxed atmosphere and great food making up for the lack of a view to the port.

You can pay a lot more and sit by the quay at places such as La Mere Germaine or La Fille du Pecheur, but we kept returning to Le Cosmo, which had enough variety on the menu to keep us satisfied - until we found La Caravelle, hidden up one of the lanes running down to the waterfront. A skull and crossbones hangs at the back and the husband/waiter/owner wears a gold ring in his left ear, but the prices do not raid your wallet: their excellent fish soup (the brown variety served along the entire south coast) is just €10 ($13), compared with €27 at Mere Germaine.

These places became even handier to us when we moved into La Belle Vue apartment, around the snake bend and up the hill a few steps from Le Cosmo, in a commanding position overlooking the bay. The view takes in the port, the large natural harbour and across the other side to the peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

It's a €1 bus ride to the Cap, for a view back towards Villefranche. On the way, the bus trundles along the road above the famous Villa Nellcote, where the Rolling Stones spent some chaotic weeks in 1971 recording their legendary Exile on Main St album. The mansion is mysteriously closed, its large wrought-iron gates padlocked.

The area around the port itself is amply served with shops selling a variety of clothes and tourist merchandise, displayed for cruise passengers who make half-day stops at Villefranche on a regular basis; apparently it's the busiest port of call on the coast. They are all gone by drink o'clock, when we usually get a relaxing pastis at Gaga's Bar, rustic and small, in rue du Poilu.

This old town - established in the 13th century - has a number of remarkable features, not least the Rue Obscure, an underground laneway hidden among the narrow backstreets that run above the quay. The 10-minute walk along the old lane (rue du Poilu) from La Belle Vue to the train station is filled with nooks and crannies, ancient stone walls, a feature fountain with resting benches, and mysterious doorways. Our camera nearly melted down from overuse here.

This is also the lane to find the Patisserie Maritime, where the genial Monsieur Herve Theraud bakes sensational croissants, fruit tarts and baguettes at dawn; our daily bread.

The foreboding Citadel Saint Elme overlooking and protecting Villefranche dates from the 16th century; in summer it holds outdoor movie screenings (it's France, remember). The giant stone fortress houses the town hall and a couple of museums, including the Volti, which can be enjoyed with a guided tour that includes breakfast in the gardens (just €8!). This is only one of several tours offered through the tourist office, including one focused on the artistic heritage of the town, another on its maritime heritage.

Only about five kilometres to the east of Nice, the old port has retained its characteristics - tourists notwithstanding. The train takes us 12 kilometres to Monte Carlo further east - and it will take you too, for a day of designer window shopping, not to mention an extravagant coffee and the world's best millefeuille at the Cafe de Paris next to the famous Casino. Worth it in people perving value alone.


Getting there

Air France has a fare to Nice for about $2490 return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr with Qantas), then to Paris (14hr) and then Nice (1hr 30min); see airfrance.com. A taxi from Nice airport to Villefranche takes 25 minutes for about €60 ($77, recommended if with luggage). There are TGV trains to Nice from Paris several times daily (5hr 40min). Villefranche is four minutes from Nice central station.

Staying there

Hotel Provencal, rates from €72 to €150 in high season, see hotelprovencal.com.

La Belle Vue apartment, rates from €770 to €1400 a week, see holiday-rentals.co.uk, property 68848.

The tourist office lists about 10 hotels, one large holiday apartment complex and many individual apartments to rent.

Touring there

A car is not recommended as parking in Villefranche is nearly impossible. But you can leave your car in the "new" part of town above the port and walk down — about 15 minutes.

The quay is level but there is no wheelchair access elsewhere.

More information