An Introduction to Villefranche-sur-Mer

Off to the beach through the Old Town

Villefranche is unique as a village on the French Riviera in that it has not been over-run by apartment development and commercial tourism. Remarkably, it is still an authentic French and Nicoise fishing village of 7,000 residents. Although it is in the heart of the Riviera, with Monaco on one side and Nice on the other, it is still a little village where the same families have lived for centuries and people know each other - it is a little enclave. More information can be found at
the town web-site

Steep hillsides filled with bougainvillea.

Picturesque beauty all around.


One couldn't speak about Villefranche without mentioning its physical beauty. Surrounding its large, natural bay, are cliffs and steep hillsides filled with olive trees, Mediterranean pines, all kinds of citrus trees, bougainvillea, and a bounty of colourful and sweet smelling flowers at all times of the year.

The Bay itself is surrounded by two of the most beautiful peninsulas on the Mediterranean - Cap Ferrat and Cap de Nice - two stunning, lush, limestone ridges sheltering the Bay of Villefranche. Beautiful villas dot the landscape all around the bay.

History of Villefranche-sur-Mer

The Citadel built by the Dukes of Savoy.

The site of what is now Villefranche, Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat has been settled since prehistoric times. Celto-ligurian tribes roamed the area and established farming communities on the surrounding hills. The Greeks and later the Romans used the natural harbour as a stop-over en route to the Greek settlements around the Western Mediterranean. It is a strategically important area where the Alps join the Mediterranean separating France from southern Europe.

Waterfront restaurants and harbour

In 1295, Charles II, Duke of Anjou, then Count of Provence, enticed the local inhabitants to settle closer to the coastline in order to secure the area from pirates. By charter, he established Villefranche as a 'free port' thus the name, granting tax privileges and port fee rights that lasted well into the 18th century. By 1388, East Provence became part of the Duchy of Savoy. For the next 400 years, the area known as the County of Nice was hotly disputed between the Holy Roman Empire to which Savoy was an ally and the French.

In 1860, as a consequence of the Risorgimento in Italy, it was given to France by treaty. By the late 19th century it had become an important Russian Navy base and the Russians established an oceanographic laboratory in the old lazaret (quarantine station).

View from Mount Albon.

The bay (rade) of Villefranche is one of the deepest natural harbours of any port in the Mediterranean and provides safe anchorage for large ships. Since World War I, the United States Navy has called on a regular basis, making Villefranche the home port of the U.S. 6th Fleet from 1948 to 1966. Since the 1980's Villefranche has been used by cruise ships. As such it is the most visited port of call in France.

Lunch on the quay side.

Villefranche-sur-Mer today

The main activity remains tourism with hotels and restaurants employing a sizeable portion of the population. Traditional activities like fishing have now given way to leisure related activities such as sailing and deep sea diving and water skiing. Some dockyard activity remains at the harbour of 'la Darse' but most of it has now been moved to Antibes. Residential construction and maintenance continues to employ many people.

Places of Interest around Villefranche

Eglise Saint-Michel

                        Churches and Chapels

Eglise Saint-Michel (Saint Michael's Church) in the heart of old town, was built in the 1750s in the baroque Italian style where originally stood a more modest early fourteenth century church. It houses various works of art.

The Chapelle Saint-Pierre (Saint Peter's Chapel) dates from the sixteenth century. Used as a storeroom for local fishermen's nets and equipment for most of the 19th and early part of the 20th century, it was restored in 1957 with Jean Cocteau adding his now-famous murals depicting the life of the saint and of local fishermen.

La Darse harbour and marina.



Other public buildings

The old harbour of la Darse dates back to the 17th century. Built originally for the galleys of the Duke of Savoy, it is now a marina with dockyard activities for yachts. It is also the site of the oceanographic observatory Observatoire Oceanologique de Villefranche.

Facing the harbour are large stone arches, built 500 years ago to build trading ships in. The arches go back into the hillside over 30m - all with huge vaulted ceilings. To this day boat building and restoration still continues here.

Stone arches along La Darse.

The Darse also has a dry dock next to the Capitainerie. Built for the galleys of the Duke of Savoy it is the largest dry dock between Marseille and Genoa and still works in the old fashioned way.

The Citadel completed in 1557 now houses the Town Hall, a convention centre, three museums and an open air theatre. This enormous, stone structure, on the water's edge, was largely built in the 15th century but its foundations date to Roman times. Since the Phoenicians Villefranche has been a port of trade on the Mediterranean.

The entrance to the Citadel over the moat and through the drawbridge.

The citadel, together with Fort Alban on the hillside above the town and the ruins of the fort across the bay on Cap Ferrat, all formed part of the defensive system of the town. The citadel now hosts three museums, including the Volti museum, in honour of one of the town's most famous artists.

Rue Obscure at evening.

The Rue Obscure or 'Dark Street' is a passage way which runs parallel with the harbour and behind the harbour-front houses, which dates back to 1260. It is a vaulted street that was once open to the sky like the other streets. But, in the 13th century, there was a housing shortage so to address this problem, they just vaulted over the street and built on top of it!

Miscellaneous

Villefranche-sur-Mer has been home to many personalities including Katherine Mansfield, Jean Cocteau, Charlotte Salomon, Aldous Huxley and pop star Tina Turner. The Rolling Stones recorded their 1972 album Exile on Main St. at Villa Nellcôte, then the home of Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg.

The old town and bay have been a natural set for movie makers. Among many productions: - Raoul Walsh's Captain Horatio Hornblower - Adventures of Captain Fabian with Errol Flynn - Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief - The Count of Monte Cristo with Louis Jourdan - Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember - The Madwoman of Chaillot with Katharine Hepburn - Never Say Never Again with Sean Connery - The Jewel of the Nile with Michael Douglas - The Bourne Identity with Richard Chamberlain - Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Steve Martin, as well as numerous video clips and commercials.

Getting to know Villefranche-sur-Mer

Winding streets in the old town

Without doubt the best way to get to know the town is on foot. The old town is a maze of medieval streets now pedestrianised. It is fun to stroll along them following your nose, admiring the balconies bedecked with flowers, the wrought iron work on entrances, the hand carved doors, the Provençal shutters and the carved stone water spouts. You will come across wonderful views, abundant gardens and yesteryears villas while getting a good dose of stairmaster exercise.

Spoilt for choice

Whether it is along the Quay or in the alleys the town is filled with great restaurants, many specializing in fish, and all different price ranges. They do a lively lunch trade and evening meals. Many French visitors come from Nice, Cap Ferrat and Monaco, attracted by the culinary reputation and waterside setting and the fact they remain open year round.

Café bar in the main square

There are a number of attractive boutiques including the world-famous Savonnerie (bath and soap shop) where exquisite hand-made soaps are made. The cafés in the local squares make it a quintessential café-scene kind of place.

Weather in Villefranche-sur-Mer

The Cote d'Azur - Nice to Menton, has a micro climate of its own being sheltered from the north by the barrier of Les Alps Maratimes. The effect is mild winters with day-time temperatures of 13 C and minimum night temperatures of 6 C. In addition Villefranche, being protected by two peninsulas - Cap Ferrat to the east, Cap de Nice to the west and Les Alps Maratimes to the north, has a particularly favoured climate being unaffected by frosts or La Mistral. There is a locality east of Beaulieu known as Le Petit Afrique because of the tropical plants flourishing there. From Villefranche to Menton the area is noted for the world-renowned gardens such as - Les Jardins Villa de Rothschild, Jardin Exotique de Monaco, and Jardin Serre de la Madone, Menton. During the end of the 19th centuary this was the area of the French Riviera favoured by wealthy northern Europeans as their winter resort.

October and November are the wettest months with 4.5'' (14%) rainfall each month. July and August being the hottest and driest. The sea water in Villefranche Bay is slow to warm up in the spring with few swimmers until mid May but it remains warm until the end of October / early November.

Average Temperature and Rainfall Statistics from Nice Airport

Jan Feb March April May June July Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec
Temperature Maximum 13°C
   / 55°F
13°C
   / 55°F
14°C
   / 57°F
16°C
   / 61°F
19°C
   / 66°F
23°C
   / 73°F
26°C
   / 79°F
27°C
   / 81°F
24°C
   / 75°F
20°C
   / 68°F
16°C
   / 61°F
13°C
   / 55°F
Minimum 6°C
   / 43°F
6°C
   / 43°F
8°C
   / 46°F
9°C
   / 48°F
13°C
   / 55°F
17°C
   / 63°F
19°C
   / 66°F
20°C
   / 68°F
17°C
   / 63°F
13°C
   / 55°F
9°C
   / 48°F
6°C
   / 43°F
Rainfall mm 76 74 74 64 48 38 18 30 66 112 117 89
inches 3.0 2.9 2.9 2.5 1.9 1.5 0.7 1.2 2.6 4.4 4.6 3.5
days 6 3 4 6 5 3 2 3 5 5 7 4