Saturday, December 15, 2007

Riviera’s charming fishing village: Villefranche-sur-Mer

Now, my personal opinion of the French Riviera would be that the east side going to Italy offers the most scenic views in the region. Driving from Nice to Villefranche-sur-Mer is simply breathtaking! Definitely one of my unforgettable experiences there. The winding highway was something I had to get used to though, and I was so glad they offer parking spots along the cliffs for people to stop and admire the beautiful quayside views.

I have read before about Villefrance-sur-Mer as one of the few remaining traditional fishing villages in the French Riviera, and most importantly, as being a low-key quarter. The writer of the article was right. When I was there visiting I was one of the very few tourists exploring the meandering alleys.Villefranche-sur-Mer is for me a breath of fresh air; a pretty little town that is away from the ostentatious scene where the true character of a French fishing village is conserved. It is uniquely perched on a hill on a picturesque bay in the Riviera coastline between Nice and Monaco (precisely between Cap Nice and Cap St. Jean Ferrat).

The little town reminds me of Nice. Its charisma is, let me put it this way, overpowering. It is arguably one of the very attractive quayside towns in the Riviera and for such a small place, the hamlet stirs up so much charm to the visitor. I guess it works this way always. As they say, beautiful things come in small packages.

For 2 hours, I patiently made my way around the village, exploring the side streets, devouring the ambiance and allowing the stone winding alleys lead me to the next hallway. The alleyways from the main road slopes in tiers all the way down to the wharf. The descent is kind of dramatic though. As I walked down the cobbled steps, I can’t help but feel the excitement burgeoning inside me—What’s waiting down there for me? Well, I guess we all know what’s down there huh.

The harbour provides anchorage to all types of vessels, from fisherman’s boats to luxurious yachts and holiday cruise ships. However, the way the village is laid out calls to mind a different expectation. As what I have said earlier, it is dramatic, or perhaps it’s just my artistic imagination at play.

Going down and before reaching the waterfront, I came across this massive stone vaulted tunnel in a somewhat graceful decaying state. The excitement of reaching the bottom of the steps was replaced with curiosity of a new challenge. On the topmost of the archway, it says ‘RVE OBSCVRE CARRIERA’ SCVRA (Rue Obscure) and beside it is a small squared plaque saying Monument Historique. The place looked like remnants of a long gone Roman bastion, or perhaps a secret subterranean vault or passageway.

After returning home from the trip my inquisitiveness got into me. I researched Rue Obscure and found out that this is indeed a hidden road, and the oldest in fact in Villefrance-sur-Mer.

La Rue Obscure was primary built as a refuge for the townsfolk from attacks and raids. It is a hidden place where they can continue with life without being noticed by the outside world. Secondly, it serves as a depot. When ships dock for repair or to pass away a storm, here they can store their wares temporarily. It might also be interesting to note that this vaulted passageway was not built underground, although it looked like it is due to its cavernous setting. This was built from ground up in the 14th century and the long-standing houses were built on top of it making it imperceptible from the outer surface. All the buildings built around Rue Obscure have access to this tunnel which explains the minute passageways I discovered later.

Promenade des Marinieres where I exited offers a picturesque view of Villefranche-sur-Mer. It would have been perfect if I was in a boat arriving to dock where I could see this fishing village from a point of vantage. Due to the sloped topography, the town’s buildings stand in a theater-style slant, making it without difficulty to witness and appreciate its beauty from afar: the warm pastel colours of the old buildings reminiscent of Nice’s Vieille Ville, the open-air café terraces on the bayside esplanade, and the baroque St. Michael’s Church in white and yellow ochre colours, its tower looming above the village, all offers an expressive scenery.

I might have to mention that parking in this village is simply horrible. I had the feeling that during the weekends, many locals come here to spend their time. Or perhaps it was just untimely as there was a big group of lively locals gathered where the main shops are housed. I saw a cameraman roving around and could hear loud voices coming from a microphone. Without really understanding what was happening I squeezed myself into the mob to find out. I can only surmise it must have been politics as a few sharply dressed individuals standing in front of the camera were interviewed and a series of claps followed. The same scene continued, and if you are aware of the French media style, they can go on talking, like forever.

Villefranche-sur-Mer however has its own train station, so I would safely assume that it would rather be easy to travel to other parts of the Riviera from here with public transport.

After spending enough time in the promenade I went back to La Rue Obscure and headed for the small pockets of exits. The passageways were so minute that one person can only fit in while going in there. It reminds me of a scavenger hunt inside the caves. There were no lights and the small ray of light ahead was my guide and, I have to say this, my sanity, lol. I must say though that this hidden vaulted hallway is surely the coolest thing in Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The surrounding hills are also known to be homes to a number of nobility, stinky rich people, and famous celebrity and public figures. However, unlike Cannes and Monaco, this little village doesn’t have the feel, lifestyle, and the brazen jet set moniker for a place. The seaside town has managed to preserve the personality, charisma, and image of a little fishing village that suggests a low key yet very exclusive atmosphere. This for me is what makes Villefranche-sur-Mer so attractive.
Travel Period: December 2007
Destination: Villefrance-sur-Mer in Nice (Provence-Alpes Cote d'Azur), France

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