VILLEFRANCHE-SUR-MER, France – Getting lost in the winding passages of history while walking along the narrow cobbled alleyways and ending up in one of the world’s deepest natural harbors, the charming 14th century fishing village where apricot-colored villas stand tall in the French Riviera offers a great tale of adventure and escape.
When the gods ruled the Heavens and the Earth was still flat, clouds were made of fire and mountains stretched up to the sky. Hercules went down from Mount Olympus to the Mediterranean one Saturday morning, and as he opened his arms, it gave birth to a little town known today as Villefranche-sur-Mer.
I arrived on that very same day but in a different time. Was it somehow possible that during my 14-hour flight I actually traveled back in time to the 14th century? It would have been different. Chances are I might have even met the mythical god. Yet, I had too much wishful thinking, that I had forgotten about being airborne on a Boeing 777 and the only thing that caught my gaze were the cotton candy clouds, snow capped mountains, and an overheard tiny LCD screen along with the smile of a Lebanese flight attendant wearing bright red lipstick. But ooh la la! Emerging from the distance, the fantastic view of the vast, blue Mediterranean Sea loomed.
It was a splendid sight of relief. Its dark blue waters and the rocky hills set in the background exuded an aura of masculinity and charm. It was such a consuming frenzy imagining the naked figure of Hercules taking a bath in the sea. His skin, shining like gold as the salt water drips from his head, running to his waist and all the way down to his feet. The thought of it made me giggle and in my prophetic intuition, somehow I knew deep inside that our paths would intertwine.
Just a few minutes away from the airport, I reached Villefranche (by a car, though I would have preferred Apollo’s flaming chariot) that adjoins the city of Nice to the east and Monaco on the south. The stillness and serenity of this fishing village takes pride in its marina, with its deep abyss of an undersea canyon safely providing anchorage for large ships and mega yachts that dock regularly during the summer. The port’s short distance to the shoreline had been useful as well to the U.S. 6th Fleet in the 1940s up to the mid-1960s as well as during WWII. It is with the port that Villefranche’s history began.
The bucolic Mediterranean climate penetrated deeply into my skin. The soft radiance of the sun and the clear cloudless sky reflected in the behemoth sea giving it a deep royal blue color, were enough to inflict involuntary acute time-warp sensations. I thought about the Celto-Ligurian tribes that built their homes and farms on the hillside, the Greeks, the Romans, and mythology yet again.
As quick as Hermes, I found myself walking in the center of the old town, admiring the little museums, taking a stroll on the promenade, and lavishing my big appetite for some French cuisine from a fine selection of restaurants.
Like most tourists, I came to look at Villefranche through the eyes of a holiday maker. I realized that it is best to see the town’s sights by foot. Though bus rides and trains can sometimes be an option especially if one decides to either go to Monaco or to the medieval village of Eze. But if you have enough adrenaline, you can surely pedal your way to Nice or to nearby Saint Jean Cap Ferrat.
During the cold season, Villefranche is also a popular destination. It plays a gracious host to visitors of royal descent. Over the course of time, it created its “raison d’etre” and became a sanctuary for some great artists and entrepreneurs such as Bono of U2, Tina Turner, Elton John, and Bill Gates. Probably the most exclusive residence is the Villa Leopolda which was once the residence of King Leopold II of Belgium and has been tagged as “the most expensive house in the world.” Somerset Maughm lived in the Villa Mauresque and was inspired for many a novel.
I did not have the luxury to stay in an ivory tower, but I had an apartment with a magnificent view of Villefranche that would have cost as much as a Picasso painting. The way I see it, its panoramic view is an inspiration and a distraction all in one. Much to my surprise, I had a room key so big that I imagined it was out of the Count of Monte Cristo! Here, in this lovely little town where “pan au chocolat” tastes like ambrosia, the escapade would not be complete without witnessing its savage beauty through a different lens.
The Old Streets
A walk in the old streets feels like walking on a path through a nostalgically remembered past. At the end, it leads to a vaulted passageway under the harbor front houses. The locals call it the famous Rue Obscure or “Dark Street” that dates back to 1260.
Churches and Chapels
Following the original medieval rampart of the town, in its center is the Eglise Saint-Michel or Saint Michael’s Church. This baroque Italian building was erected in the 1750s and is home to various art pieces, notably the large Saint Michael painting above the marble main altar, the polychrome wooden statue of San Roccoan, 18th century recumbent sculpture of “Christ of the Galleys,” and an organ built in 1790 and considered as one of the oldest in Nice which still serves its purpose every Sunday.
The Chapelle Saint-Pierre (Saint Peter’s Chapel), was formerly used as a storeroom by the local fishermen during the 19th to 20th century. This 16th century Romanesque chapel was restored by Jean Cocteau , a well-respected painter, writer, filmmaker, and dilettante, in 1957 adding his now-famous murals which depict the life of St. Peter walking on the water and of local fisher folks.
The 16th century citadel
Perched on top of a hill, the large walled citadel stands proud and within walking distance of the center of town. This old infrastructure houses the town hall, government offices, and even valuable art pieces. The collection includes sculptures and drawings of the Volti Foundation, ceramic figurines, and historical portrayals of the Roux collection.
I thought I had seen it all, but I still felt that there was something missing. It was then that I realized that I can only truly experience French culture by learning to speak like the French. The best way to learn it, is to be immersed in it. “Pas de problem,” (no problem) the Institut de Français, one of France’s top language schools, is situated on a hill, overlooking the sea in, yes, Villefranche!
Institut de Français
Since 1969, as one of the of the world’s most intensive French language schools, Institut de Français knows how to twist your tongue (just like when you’re French kissing!) and come out speaking French in just a month.
Fascinated in the collaboration of the human innate talent to learn a language, and employing the scientific method, Jean Colbert a French physicist, integrated a program that gave birth to an intensive total immersion course of eight hours a day, five days a week, and lasts for four weeks. Focusing on the simple principle of how children learn to speak naturally – by ear.
Despite its rocket science origin, the school’s “total approach” is famous among the gilt-edged culture which included Spielberg wed Indiana Jones actress Kate Capshaw, Oscar winner actress Kathy Bates, hair stylist Vidal Sassoon, and perhaps the most celebrated student of all was Queen Sonja of Norway. There were also ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, CEOs, UN representatives, lawyers, airline crews, and artists, all gathered to brush up their French.
It was all that I needed to fully equip myself before going to the market and meeting the man of 12 Labors from Mt. Olympus.
The homely market
Everybody knows everyone. The friendly hawkers always have a lovely time chatting with the locals, making everyone feel at home, even the tourists. This sleepy little community wakes up every Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays on a different vibe. At the end of the day, all that is left is one tiny space in your grocery bag giving you a hard time to decide whether to add the boxes of quiche or the take away bouillabaisse.
The days and nights felt short. In my 20-day trip to Villefranche-sur-Mer, not only did I get lost in the winding passages of history while walking along the narrow cobbled alleyways and ending up in one of the world’s deepest natural harbors, I also became a living witness to the French culture and “Frenchness.”
Down in this 14th century fishing village a myth was born; together with it comes the legend and then, history. I did not meet Hercules during the entire visit (sad to say) but once upon this modern time, the path lead me to a different curve and standing from a corner, I saw my future French loving husband. And this is where charm lies.
Jan Sevilla is a quixotic nomadic chick from the Philippines with some difficulty of having her subject agree to her verb. She is forever 25. Convinced herself that she is alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how oxygenated the blood that flows in her brain. Catch more of her travel murmurs at : http://najsevilla.blogspot.com/