Feeling at Ease in Villefranche-sur-Mer and French Riviera
Solo on the French Riviera
Of all the places, I choose Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Riviera as my holiday escape for two weeks a year. As a working woman, in my fifties, I am conscious that travelling alone is not always easy. Short of not being able to convince anyone to go with me, the serenity and supercharged independence that I gain far outweighs any loneliness. I am blessed to call this little piece of paradise home for two weeks.
Philosopher Anatole France (1924) says it all, “To accomplish great things, we must not only act but also dream; not only plan but also believe.”
Reasons to Visit the Côte d’Azur
I have always loved France, and despite the annoying French grammar at University. For that reason, the South of France ticks many boxes for a vacation. Coco Chanel said that the sun is sexy. In this part of the world, the beach is a fun activity, but the museums are compelling. The food is a real culinary adventure; history is mesmerizing, and the people are amusing and friendly.
Flying to the Nice international airport is easy. It is well-organized and close to destinations like Monaco or Antibes or Cannes. The transport offerings are relatively straightforward by a driver (booked ahead), taxi, tram or bus to the train station. They all work on cash, so bring hard currency in euros. If the budget stretches that far, helicopters even are available (a half-hour flight to Monte Carlo is roughly 350 euros).
For a small, seaside village, in one of the busiest places in the world, Villefranche-sur-Mer is a piece of paradise amidst the glamour and glitz of the rest of the French Riviera. It is the combination of modern and a 16th-century seaside town located about a 15-minute drive east of Nice.
Nestled against the steep villa-clad hillside on the Bay of Angels, there is a variety of accommodation on offer, mostly three-star hotels that are atmospheric for the lack of a recent paint job. The best location is the Hotel Welcome on the waterfront with large renovated balcony rooms and a wine bar. Renowned travel writer, Rick Steves, says of the place, “It lowers my pulse and empties my wallet.” The famous painter and avant-garde intellectual, Jean Cocteau, stayed here when he was painting his exquisite murals in the tiny nearby Chapel of St Peter. One particular day in 1955, he was on the phone in the lobby begging Coco Chanel for more drugs. Or so the story goes.
Where to Stay
Creating a home base is sensible at my age. Lovely locals, Shelley and Riccardo, run a superb accommodation business called Riviera Experience. They offer a variety of places from a one-bedroom studio to a two-bedroom villa. My favourite is Le Petit Bijou (the Little Jewel) – a one-bedroom delight, renovated in chic Parisienne style complete with a fully functional kitchen and a chandelier in the bedroom. The views from the terrace balcony are astonishing in their beauty, and it is a steal for 250 euros per night. Hotel rooms in some of the grander establishments begin at 1,500 euros a night without a view. Only weekly rentals are available, but they are terrific people, and Shelley helps out with lots of suggestions for things to do and see in the area.
Villefranche-sur-Mer Plenty to Do
Villefranche is a paradise for walkers. It operates in three main zones: the modern Octroi in the centre of town on flat land with a pretty park and the tourist information office. Buses, banks and the Wednesday morning food market run from here too.
Below, the second main area is the colossal 16th-century citadel, which guards the natural harbour, the deepest on the Riviera, called Port de la Darse. Walking past the thick slanted walls evokes a sense of impregnability when the Italian Duke of Savoy protected his duchy against the French in the 1500s. Inside the citadel are a quaint artifacts museum, an art exhibition space and shady rose gardens with an outdoor theatre.
Lastly and most picturesque is the old town, located on the Quai Corbet’s waterfront. There is some excellent shopping here. Marie Clare runs a fabulous boutique called Les Senteurs de Marie in Rue de Poilu (the street of hairy soldiers harking back to when the village was gated and protected against 17th-century pirates). Marie Claire is delightful, and her careful selection of clothing always makes many lasting wardrobe additions. Her son runs the sports bar across the way. Enjoy a glass of rosé for four euros. It is hard to pass by the handcrafted ice creams at Glacier Solea and the tiny Casino supermarket with its wall of bottles offering a vast selection of wines.
No Lack of Good Food
Excellent restaurants and eating options tease the tastebuds in Villefranche. On the waterfront, the classy La Mere Germaine named after the current owner’s grandmother, who fed American GI soldiers during and after World War II. Sitting on the harbour sipping a chilled rose and enjoying a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse (fish stew) is living your best life. Inside the restaurant, it is a formal affair complete with white tablecloths.
For romantic occasions, it is hard to beat the fountain setting inside the old town of Les Deux Garcons run by some friendly but slightly crazy men. Their food is traditional French with lots of modern variations.
My favourite dining experience for food and mood has to be L’Aparte because I never feel awkward as a table for one, and the food is honest. Located at the end of the 13th-century Rue Obscure, it was in this covered alleyway, one of the oldest in France, that the villagers could be safe against marauding invaders. The fountain still operates today and is one of many in the old town.
Near the public swimming beach on Promenade des Marinières is a little secret location. It is unnamed and run by a quirky French couple who laugh more than they talk. They love my French accent, such as it is, and they are the happiest French people I have ever met. As a shack with white plastic chairs and tables, it doesn’t look much, but the local specialty of pan bagnat (a Niçoise tuna fish sandwich) is superb, and they have the best coffee in the area. Tip: Take a walk to the next village, Beaulieu and on towards the celebrated Cap de Ferrat with a picnic.
Passing the Time on the Riviera
My daily routines involve an early morning swim in the warm water of the magic Mediterranean. The water is salt dense, and the swimming seems easy. Perhaps it is the water’s clarity, which means that I can see the tiny fish swimming along with me. After a bit of yoga on the beach to drip dry, there is a stroll along the waterfront. I greet the locals as they start their day before heading to La Boulangerie (bakery) for a spinach pie and the day’s baguette. However, not on a Tuesday as the rather strident owner has a day off.
Writing for an hour on the balcony is followed by an hour with my language professor, the awesome Aude. She and her husband work in the world-renowned International Language School, where they offer French immersion for the right price. A local, Aude makes my heart sing even if she is a hard taskmaster when it comes to French grammar. Highly recommended, it is essential to book ahead for sessions as she is very popular and for a good reason.
Lunch is Affordable
Even though I sometimes allow a touristy Tuesday type persona to exist, I try to have myself an adventure every day. These explorations included lunch in a swanky hotel (not to stay, just for lunch). Some examples include the Hotel Negresco in Nice, Café de Paris in Monaco or Grand Hotel de Cap Ferrat near the delightful fishing village of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat with views from the terrace that lessens the pain of the bill, a bit. Or I might catch the train to Cap d’Ail, where I can spend the day on the beach at the fabulous La Mala Beach Club. The private and public beach at Cap d’Ail (Garlic Cap) is an exceptional beach experience for the day; the 227 steps to the beach make it all worthwhile to dine in the excellent beachside restaurant. Tip: Have the fish; it’s filleted at your table.
Day Trip to Nice and Beyond
Some days, I catch the bus to Nice for some shopping at Galleries Lafayette or in Rue Massena or walk through the market at Cours Saleya and buy flowers or goat’s cheese. In this part of the world, it is easy to use public transport systems and bus tickets are 1.50 euros.
The walks deliver many surprises, a quirky hillside café perched on the way to Monaco, or the spontaneous swim in a seaside “pool.” Promenade Maurice Rouvier traces the Cap de Ferrat shoreline passing extraordinary villas. The Cap was made famous by the 1970’s English actor David Niven who owned this huge pink villa on the beachfront. He lived here until his death. Originally called Lo Scotlietto (Little Rock), it was built in 1880 and rented to duchesses for parties in the 1920s. Charlie Chaplin bought it in the 1950s. In its most famous reincarnation, Dodi Fayed purchased the house as a hideaway during his supposed romance with Princess Diana. They left from this part of the French Riviera to Paris on the day of her death in 1997.
Sometimes, I venture further afield, such as a day trip to Antibes or Vence or Eze, but they are for another time. With a leap of faith, I find many adventures and great solace in these outings for my busy soul.
Interesting read: The Riviera Set by Mary Lovell
Solo Travel Tips
The best way to make the most of a solo holiday is to plan, book accommodation, and be brave. It’s not always easy going into a restaurant alone or securing a table for one. Drinking alone can be singular even if the view is breathtaking from a balcony. There are only so many churches, art galleries and museums to fill the time. However, reading the details in my journal and sipping quietly on a chilled glass of wine, my spirit soars. There is a lot to be said for venturing out alone, particularly in safe and friendly Villefranche-sur-Mer. It’s a gem on the French Riviera.
Susan McDonald is a fifty-something High School teacher living in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband, three adult children and a dog, Pablo. Her love of France is enduring. She feels blessed to have discovered a little corner of the eastern French Riviera. Immersing herself in the people, the history and the sun, the 16th-century village of Villefranche-sur-Mer is home for two weeks most years.