Villefranche-sur-mer, once a preferred playground of high-society, still charms.
Enticing visitors with its centuries old architecture, sunny French Riviera disposition and charms, Villefranche-sur-mer, is still high on the leisurely-travel to-do list.
It took three different trains to get from Ile sur la Sorgue to Villefranche-sur-mer, on the French Riviera. The scene which greeted us was one of a harbor awash with sailboats, schooners and a city-sized Celebrity cruise ship.
Our sizable room in the Hotel Provencal wasn’t reflected in a miniscule balcony looking out to the Mediterranean Sea. With a small load of laundry underway we set out in search of dinner.
Back up the hill to our hotel through a maze of narrow walkways and stairs had us questioning the wisdom of why we had eaten so much.
Rinsed and hung our laundry to dry (staying in one place for a couple of nights gives us a chance to wash some clothes), climbed into a comfortable bed and drifted into sleep.
Woke later than usual, thrilled to see the Mediterranean still outside our French-door windows. The cruise ship had left during the night. (At dinner last evening our waiter indicated cruise ships arrive almost daily.)
Villefranche-sur-Mer was originally built by the Romans. In the fifth century the town was attacked by barbarians and its people fled inland to safety. There they farmed and grew olives. In 1295, the Turks had their eye on Provence. In preparation for invasion the Duke of Provence requested the offspring of the original occupants move back to the coast and help defend Nice from a possible attack from the sea; if they did so, he promised they would be able to live tax free. The idea was appealing and the olive farming families returned to the coast.
Villefranche-sur-Mer means ‘Village free of taxes on the sea’. At present the population is about 8,000 but that number is swelled by tourists, especially when cruise ships with thousands of passengers plus crews are in port.
Albert owns the Souris Gourmande [Gourmet Mouse] sandwich shop that measures approximately 1 meter by 3 meters. He’s Italian and grew up in a small Italian village about twenty kilometers to the east. He once owned a restaurant in Nice (one which had been written up in Foder’s guide book). When it was sold half the proceeds “went to the woman,” Albert informed, with a knowing ‘man-to-man look’ and a ‘what-can-a-guy-do shrug’. After that, Albert came to Villefranche and had a look around. He saw a little sign on the shop’s door frame “For Sale.” “The place was only big enough for two and a half chickens,” exclaimed Albert in his excellent English (he also speaks Italian and French), indicating with a restricted gesture the minimal size of the shop. The owner told Albert how much he wanted for the place and asked, “You have that much?” “Yeah, I have that much.” Albert continued, “When I paid him the money he handed me the keys and left. After the first year I told myself I was going to leave … but I stayed around. I told myself I would leave at the end of the second year.” When asked how long he had been serving sandwiches, Albert said, “Fourteen years, but I think this is my last year. I think I would like to go to an island in the Indian Ocean, or maybe Tahiti or Argentina. Somewhere where my money would mean more. Somewhere nice. Somewhere warm.” We glanced over our shoulders to the terracotta framed vistas of the twinkling ‘sought-after-playground-of-the-rich’ … the Mediterranean – the French Riviera. With another shrug and a dismissive wave of his hand he indicated “Nice, but no big deal” (as so many do when confronted with the beauty that has forever surrounded them).
Albert went back to talking about his thoughts of leaving. “One man was interested in buying. He even took out his check book. He was a tall man,” said Albert looking upward from his five foot two inch frame. “When he came inside to have a look, he bumped his head on the shelf,” Albert indicated reaching up. “And the table, it is too low. It would make his back ache in a short time. He didn’t want to buy anymore.”
The “Pan Bagnat” sandwiches he made for us (tuna, egg, lettuce, cucumbers, tomato, onion, radish and olive oil) were delicious but it was our time with Albert that was memorable. (If there is a lineup, both the sandwich and time chatting with Albert are worth the wait.)
HOTEL LE PROVENCAL
A lovely two-star boutique hotel ideally located 10 minutes’ walk from train station or beach. Rooms are clean and the staff is welcoming and helpful. Their breakfasts are serve in the garden. Book early to secure a room with a view over old town to the Mediterranean … one of several reasons to choose Hotel le Provencal in Villefranche.
Address: 4 Avenue du Marechal Joffre 06230, Villefranche-sur-mer
Phone: 04 93 76 53 53
Email: On website contact page
FOOD IN VILLEFRANCHE-SUR-MER
There are plenty pleasant of sit-down restaurants along the harbour, but the eatery we would be sure to return to is Souris Gourmande [translates to Gourmet Mouse]. This popular little ‘snack-shack’ on Rue de l’Eglise is just a few steps up from the harbor’s pedestrian promenade. There are plenty of sandwich choices with the ‘traditional’ being ‘Pan Bagnat’ (a round tuna sandwich). There are a couple of small, outside (there’s no room inside for other than the cook), usually-busy, tables snuggled up to the exterior but count on taking your yummy purchase with you