SOUTH OF FRANCE (Day 4 : To Villefranche sur Mer)

Goodbye to Entrevaux

We spent a couple of hours just enjoying the quiet old streets of Entrevaux, part of which dates back to the 10th century. The castle was closed but we had visited it before, making our way slowly up the near 500 foot steep climb via a winding stone zig zag path, passing under many arched gateways then finally reaching the citadel’s sharp, rocky perch.

Entrevaux's amazing 17th century citadel, built by Vauban
Entrevaux’s castle

It was built by Louis 14th’s most famous military engineer, Vauban and with the medieval village clustered below, it was a magnificent sight. In fact the village was one of the most heavily fortified in the wider area, ringed by towers and ramparts and reached only via the drawbridge at the Porte Royale.The fast flowing glacial waters of the Var river were also a good defence.

The cathedral is a beautiful sight too – there was barely a soul around the village, the whole time we were there but then, Entrevaux always feels off the tourist trail. We were able to clamber our way down to the Var itself, the river raging fiercely; I like these opaque, powerful glacial rivers. They look SO cold. Of course, we don’t have them at home, having no glaciers. All of our rivers are clear and sometimes whisky – coloured from the peat which the water filters through as it travels down from the mountains. These look great too, but in a different way.

Looking south - about 90 mins away is Nice and a different world
The drawbridge over the Var

Our apartment, at the very top of one of the village’s slightly peeling townhouses, in a little street which was so narrow it was barely arms width, had been spacious and very attractive, with old, solid furniture, all decorated in good taste and super quiet. The whole place is so safe that the place hadn’t been locked when we’d arrived, although there were instructions to pick up a key hidden under a stone in a flower trough beside the communal entrance door. It was a popular ‘hiding’ place because it took a minute or so before we found ‘our’ key, there were so many other keys of other apartments lurking under the various pebbles!

Having done a little justice to Entrevaux, it was time to pack up the car and head south for the 40 mile drive to Nice and Villefranche sur Mer where we would stay for the remaining 4 nights. It’s a pleasant drive initially past little valley villages overlooked by the mountains but then the traffic builds on the outskirts of France’s 5th largest city and we had to make some quick decisions about which route to veer off the motorway and make for our little coastal haven.

As we always seem to do, we took a route which became clogged almost immediately, hit major roadworks on another road then resigned ourselves to a crawl until Nice’s lovely old harbour area came into view and as ever, the traffic flow improved dramatically. Soon we were sweeping out above the wonderful Bay of Nice, with its turquoise water and palm trees and its glittering Art Deco jewels of buildings which make this such a stylish and justly celebrated place. It’s a beauty. Does anywhere compare with the Cote D’Azur for these glamorous, glitzy coastal walkways like the Promenade des Anglais?

Villefranche sur Mer

View from Hotel de la Darse, our favourite on the coast
Balcony view over the bay, one of the deepest in the Med
Cap Ferrat across the bay

In 15 mins we entered another quieter, lower key and very pretty world as we veered off the busy main highway into Villefranche, heading for the Napoleonic harbour where our simple hotel awaited.

Not easy getting parked (for free) in and around Villefranche but finally we did with only a short walk to Hotel de la Darse. La Darse is the name of the beautiful, 18th century stone harbour, built during Napoleonic times. Our balcony overlooked the marina and harbour walls; on the other side, lay the Napoleonic star-shaped fort built by Vauban (again!) and which gives this beautiful, pastel – coloured seaside town such character. Opposite across what is one of the deepest bays in the Mediterranean, is the long finger of the Cap Ferrat peninsula with its billionaire villas surrounded by pine – shaded, private gardens.

View from our balcony over the Napoleonic stone harbour in Villefranche sur Mer
Balcony view over the harbour

We had been whirling around France so much for the past while it was a relief now to just stroll into town along the lovely coastal path and have a seat on the harbour-side terrace of the Welcome Hotel. Good coffee and relax, so happy to be here in this favourite little corner of the Cote d’Azur. Time passed and at 4pm we realised we had missed lunch! Decided to order some nibbles here – olives and crisps and nuts – with a fruity mocktail for me and wine for Chris. Lovely. A bit hefty price wise but oh well, let’s put another pea in the soup, as the old saying goes!

Coffee and Rose wine in Villefranche sure Mer
Mojito mocktail hour

I always wonder which of the many huge detached villas on the hillside above Villefranche, was used in the original , 1957 film ‘An Affair to Remember.’ They’ve never disclosed which it was presumably because the owners would have been flooded with movie buffs (like myself) inspired by the lovely Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant, standing romantically in the front garden with its grand view over the bay.

At the back of 5pm we headed up into the back streets where a couple of small supermarkets were and picked some supplies for the next few days.Tonight we were going out for dinner at La Grignotiere, a place we’d had a couple of good meals in, in previous years.

Well…I nearly never made that meal out (although with hindsight, that might not have been a bad thing!) In the words of my boys, their mother managed – inadvertently – to get ‘smashed’ that evening. I was so happy being here, chatting away to Chris on the balcony, admiring the marina and the old harbour, the sun going down over the bay, I didn’t realise that my glass was being constantly topped up with Cava and I was gaily knocking it back like it was lemonade. An hour later and I was ‘birlin” as they say – head spinning, mind a jumble. I managed to stumble my way onto the bed where I collapsed, head starting to spin and promptly fell fast asleep!

An hour later, 20 mins before our restaurant booking, I woke up feeling less sick and managed a quick shower and change. I really expected to have lost any appetite and wasn’t sure how the walk into town would be, but hanging grimly onto Chris’s arm, I managed to totter along beside him without looking too pathetic.This is why I drink so little alcohol – I have no capacity for it beyond a glass and a half of something not too strong!

Anyway, there were few diners in La Grignotiere and it was chilly so we sat inside.Unfortunately it wasn’t the best meal out…a shared and pricey (17 euros) starter of duck foie gras wasn’t the greatest I’d ever tasted accompanied by cheap white toasted bread. Just poor quality ingredients let down what is such a good, traditional French starter.

Villefranche sur Mer's pretty pastel houses

I had Seafood Linguine which somehow managed to have a tasteless sauce and consisted mostly of King Prawns which as usual, were like bits of rubber and a poor substitute for the lovely, sweet cold water prawns/langoustines we have at home. There are many people who rave about fish/shellfish in the Med but too often, I’ve found it poor. Chris’s steak frites was fine.

A bit of a disappointing experience this time but I cheered up after a pleasant stroll along the front, the restaurants busy and all lit up on Saturday night. Quite a lot of very fancy cars were parked all over the place – Rolls Royces, Ferraris, Maseratis – with distinctive Monaco number plates; Villefranche attracts quite a lot of diners from the Principality, we’ve noticed this before.Picked up a Pistachio ice ream for myself and Rum/Raisin for Chris then ambled home.

Villefranche sur Mer

We sat out on the balcony, although it was quite chilly.The moon was up, glittering a silver light across the now-black sea, the only sound, the clink of the rigging of the yachts in the marina.A joy to be here and I was looking forward to the very special treat we had planned for tomorrow.

Tomorrow – Sunday lunch booked in one of the most beautifully situated restaurants in the world at Chateau Eza , built on the cliff edge of ancient Eze village, 1,400 feet above the Mediterranean sea.

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