Anyone who knows me even vaguely will tell you how much I love Villefranche Sur Mer. The small French fishing port is the pearl of the French Riviera; a jump off point for cruise passengers to visit the heady delights of Nice, Monaco, or even Cannes. As Villefranche has no pier, passengers come ashore via local tenders, and are then taken on tour by coach.
Their absence is fine by me; it leaves me free to just soak up the atmosphere and sheer, jaw dropping beauty of what is, quite simply, the most stunningly beautiful harbour in all of southern Europe. Villefranche, while not a cheap date, does not have the stratospheric prices and brittle glamour of nearby Monte Carlo. It’s always been about style here, rather than hype.
As our ship-Pullmantur’s stately, legendary Sovereign– hugged the coastline of the French Riviera, the expected springtime weather decided not to play ball. Presumably, it had not read the memo regarding blue skies and sunny weather.
Instead, a slate grey sea roiled and slammed against the sides of the ship. Grey clouds scudded like malign, ghostly galleons across a leaden sky that threatened rain at any moment. But none of that was going to dampen my enthusiasm; I was going back to Villefranche, setting foot once more on what, to me, amounts to hallowed ground.
I stood mesmerised on the windswept upper deck as the Sovereign loomed past Cap Ferrat. Before I knew it, the enormous ship swung to port, and came swaggering into the stunning bay of Villefranche. Jaws dropped by the dozen at that first view.
A vast, natural ampitheatre of low, rolling greenery is studded with hillside villas, peeping out from among the foliage. On the quay, a ring of beautiful Italianate architecture, clad in shades of ochre, terracotta and pale cream, crouched along the waterfront, their window shutters garbed in shades of electric green and petrol blue. A handful of unsteady fishing boats huddled against the quayside, as if seeking refuge from the rain clouds.
An hour later, I was on a tender to shore, bumbling across the slate grey briny. Whitecaps licked greedily at our flanks and, even as I watched, the gorgeous panorama of Villefranche opened like a flower, bursting into bloom. Oddly, I still felt the same sensations of awed reverence as when I first came here, way back in 1998.
I stepped ashore on the old stone quay, and took in that still peerless panorama. Truth be told, Villefranche seemed surprised to see us; some of the houses had paint peeling from their usually immaculate facades, and most of the cafes were still closed against the just gone winter weather. Rows of chairs and tables were stacked up against the front of these, as if seeking refuge from the elements. The normally pristine beauty resembled nothing so much as a drowsy supermodel, woken suddenly from her sleep, that had not yet had time to put on her make up properly.
There were very few people about on a waterfront that is normally sun splashed and awash with happy visitors in the long summer days and nights. The two small, perfectly formed beaches were empty, the twin bars that adjoined them still shuttered and silent. But the wisteria and the oleander were beginning to bloom again on the old stone parapets below the railway viaduct; a sure sign that much better weather was on the way. Alas, just not today.
Sovereign was the first cruise ship to arrive in Villefranche for the 2017 season, and she will be followed by literally hundreds more. In very short order indeed, Sleeping Beauty will awaken and greet these visitors with her usual flair and finesse.
Some of the old stalwarts were open, however. It was nice to enjoy a glass of wine and some sporadic people watching at Les Palmiers, a cafe bar set just back above the quay. I walked along the windswept beach and then came back for another glass of wine in the Wine Pier, the seaward facing conservatory of the waterfront Welcome Hotel, with its beautiful Art Deco interiors. Warm against the outside cold, that wine- a beautiful drop of Sancerre- was truly something to savour.
Later, as our tender purred back across the darkening sea towards the spectacularly floodlit Sovereign, I gazed longingly back at the waterfront of Villefranche. Pools of light danced and shimmered along the edge of the bay, casting a subtle, seductive glow on the water. I felt cheered, almost elated at the sight.
Spring might not yet truly have sprung on the pearl of the French Riviera, but I felt warmed, charmed and, once again, hopelessly in thrall to this singular piece of rare earth. Needless to say, a return visit is already in the planning.