Many towns have poetic associations: Hull with Philip Larkin, Ambleside with Wordsworth, but Villefranche-sur-Mer, the little port on the Bay of Villefranche on the French Riviera, has inspired poets down the ages, from Dante to the Rolling Stones.
t lies 5km. east of Nice and 13km. west of Monaco, facing the sun in a natural amphitheatre formed by Mont Boron to the west and Cap Ferrat to the east – ‘as if in a box at the opera’, as Jean Cocteau, the town’s ‘poet laureate’, put it. To complete the theatrical illusion, the precipitous slopes of the Southern Alps form a backdrop. Cocteau called the town ‘a source of myth and inspiration’.
The town’s history is recorded as far back as 130 BC, but its ‘modern’ age began in 1245, when, in order to populate the bay and protect his lands against invasion from the sea, Charles II of Anjou offered tax relief to encourage people to come and live there – Villefranche means, literally, free town – and burrowed the mysterious rue Obscure into its rock to protect them against bombardment. (The town still attracts tax exiles: the Rolling Stones recorded their appropriately-named album ‘Exile on Main Street’ here.)
In the 16th century, the Duke of Savoy built a fortress, the Citadel, to protect the town from seaborne attack. Its monumental walls still brood over the town, but today they protect the Mairie, the Chapel of St. Elme, an open air theatre, a Congress Centre and three museums.
Although the hills above the town have not escaped a sprinkling of opulent mansions, some of which, like La Léopolda, – built by King Léopold II of Belgium with mineral wealth from the Belgian Congo – date from before World War I, Villefranche has managed to retain much of its 18th century charm.
The painted ochre and terracotta houses that huddle around the Baroque church – like the surnames on its war memorials – assert its Italian heritage: it became part of France as recently as 1860. Yet Villefranche is so typically Provençal that it looks like a film set – and often is: among the films shot here are Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch a Thief’, the James Bond thriller ‘Never Say Never Again’, Robert de Niro’s ‘Ronin’, and the Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner epic ‘Jewel of the Nile’. A reconstruction of the port provides the Riviera setting for Disney Hong Kong.
Its native population of 8,000 more than trebles in holiday times – and that doesn’t include the cruise passengers. With a natural harbour deep enough to accommodate the world’s biggest liners and warships – it was once the Mediterranean base of the of the US Sixth Fleet – Villefranche welcomes more than 250 cruise ships a year, bringing more than a quarter of a million overseas visitors.
The old port has many historical and literary links: Pope Paul III was here in 1538 to negotiate a peace with the French King, Charles V; George Bernard Shaw stopped off on a Mediterranean cruise in 1896; Ernest Hemingway disembarked in 1934 on his return from Africa; and after World War II the Irish navy corvette Mocha came to take the long-exiled bones of the poet W.B. Yeats back to his beloved Sligo.
Between the wars, the Hotel Welcome, in prime position dominating the harbour (‘We don’t need to advertise,’ says its director, M. Galbois, ‘we’re on every postcard of the town.’) was host to a procession of writers. Many, like the Waugh brothers, Evelyn and Alec, came to pay homage to W. Somerset Maugham, who lived his last cantankerous years on Cap Ferrat.
In Cocteau’s time, the Hôtel Welcome changed its character when the fleet was in. ‘On the first floor of my hotel–brothel’, he wrote, ‘the sailors dance and fight day and night. You hear nothing but loud jazz – it is killing me.’ He was dean of the Welcome ‘school’ of artists. He decorated the little 14th century Chapelle St-Pierre that stands on the quayside opposite the hotel – controversially, because the local fishermen to whom it was dedicated, refused to enter at first because his naked angels were male. The words on the plinth of the nearby bronze bust of the artist read, ‘When I see Villefranche, I see my youth again. Pray Heaven it may never change’.
It did change, but not very much. Villefranche is almost immune to change: there are no tower blocks because there’s nowhere to build one, and, with the exception of the busy Basse Corniche that traverses the town, there’s little traffic because the terraced streets that wind down to the old port are too narrow to admit cars.
Although the US Navy left in 1967, banished to Italy when General de Gaulle took France out of NATO, the American landings continue: more than one third of cruise passengers come from North America. The sumptuous villas peppering the Villefranche hillsides no longer shelter European royalty: they belong to stars of entertainment and sport, like Tina Turner, U2’s Bono, Riverdance creator Michael Flatley and Lance Armstrong – while straddling the peak of Mont Boron high above them stands the Château Elton John.
Despite – or perhaps because of – its proximity to more publicized attractions like Nice, Cannes, Monte Carlo and St. Tropez, Villefranche-sur-Mer has remained an unspoiled fishing port. It is still ‘a source of myth and inspiration’? I hope so – I live there!