Alpes-Maritimes (06230) Population: 8,080 Altitude: 20 m
Villefranche-sur-Mer is a very picturesque Medieval beach village on the Mediterranean coast just a few km east of Nice. Once a fishing village and deep-water harbor, Villefranche retains its pastel colored buildings and narrow streets, along with long sandy beaches, terrace cafés and restaurants and an active yacht basin.
From the main road above, you can look down across the red tile roofs of the old town, with the distinctive church and bell tower in the center. Like the medieval villages of the "back country", the narrow cobblestone and bricked streets slope steeply down (in this case towards the sea) or traverse along the slope, with vaulted passages beneath the houses. There's quite a medieval feeling here, with just the many little restaurants to remind you you're in tourist country. There are also quiet little squares, like the Place Félix Poullan beside the church, and the Place de l'Eglise just below, with a bench circling a beautiful big tree.
The most extreme example we've seen anywhere of a vaulted passage is the Rue Obscura, a street about a block in from the seafront that's completely covered for about half its length. Lighted only by white, wire-gridded lamps in the roof, the "obscure" street reminds you of the days when the town's population sheltered here from bombardments. Cross streets open out onto the sunny upper village or the even brighter seafront below.
The focal point of Villefranche-sur-Mer is the quai, where a line of terrace café-restaurants face the yacht harbor and out across the blue Mediterranean, backed the lovely village houses. Villefranche was once a fishing village attached to the town of Nice, and you can sometimes see some of the little pointu fishing boats in the harbor.
Robert De Niro sat at one of these cafés, as Sam in the movie Ronin (1998), amidst action and car chases across the South of France. [We sat at a café here in June 1998, but must have missed the filming.]
The 16th-century military fortress, Citadelle Saint-Elme, sits at the south edge of Villefranche-sur-Mer, in easy walking distance from the port. The citadel was built in 1557 to protect the this port as well as the towns along this part of the Mediterranean. The fortress worked in conjunction with Fort Mont Alban (on the hilltop between Villefranche-sur-Mer and Nice), a defensive tower at Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and the military battery at Beaulieu-sur-Mer.
Citadelle Saint-Elme was occupied by the famous French mountain troups, Chasseurs Alpins until 1958. The site now hosts the Town Hall (Mairie) and some museums. Entry to the site is free, to walk around the fortified interior, visit the museums, and a very nice and shady park.
Among the glitterati of the region, Anna Mae Bullock (better known as Tina Turner) has a palatial villa here, at the peak of the Colline du Vinaigrier. She's in residence about one weekend per month, which is pretty frequent considering her schedule.