Saturday, March 04, 2006

Villefranche: 'source of myth and inspiration'

I didn’t intend to do travel on the blog – seems a bit like taking work home - but I guess I can tell you about the place where I live. I didn’t choose Villefranche – it chose me. I was driving along the coast road one day when I realised that a big horse race(that’s a big race – not a race just for big horses, though many of them are: thought I ought to make that clear) was on in England and I needed to stop to point my short wave antenna at the booster station. That was over 20 years ago, and it was what the French call a coup de foudre: I fell in love, and the longer I stay here the better I like it.
So this is about Villefranche – I hope you don’t find it too literary, but that’s because it was here I wrote my book, The French Riviera: A Literary Guide* – little plug there, but so subtle you probably didn’t even notice it. Many towns have poetic links: Ambleside with Wordsworth, Hull with Larkin, but Villefranche-sur-Mer, the little port on the French Riviera, has inspired poets for centuries, from Dante to the Rolling Stones.
It lies 5km east of Nice and 13km west of Monaco, on the Bay of Villefranche facing the sun, its hills forming a natural amphitheatre - ‘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 are its 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 Charles II of Anjou offered tax reliefs to encourage people to live there - Villefranche means, literally, free town. (The town still attracts tax exiles: the Rolling Stones recorded their aptly-named Exile on Main Street here.)
Although the hills above the town have not escaped a sprinkling of opulent mansions, Villefranche has managed to retain much of its 18th century atmosphere. The ochre and terracotta houses huddled around the Baroque church confirm - as do the surnames on its war memorials - its Italian heritage: it became part of France only in 1860. Yet the town is so typically Provençal that it could be a film set – and often is: films shot here include Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, the James Bond thriller Never Say Never Again, de Niro’s Ronin, and the Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner epic Jewel of the Nile.
Its population of 8,000 more than trebles in holiday times - and that doesn't include a quarter of a million cruise passengers. With a natural harbour deep enough to accommodate the world’s biggest ships – it was once the Mediterranean base of the of the US Sixth Fleet - Villefranche welcomes more than 250 cruises a year.
The old port has many historical and literary links: Pope Paul III was here in 1538; George Bernard Shaw stopped off in 1896; Ernest Hemingway disembarked in 1934 on his return from Africa; and the Irish navy came by in 1948 to take the long-exiled bones of the poet W.B. Yeats back to Sligo. Between the wars, the Hotel Welcome, in prime position dominating the harbour, attracted dozens of writers, many of whom, like the Waugh brothers, Evelyn and Alec, came to pay homage to W. Somerset Maugham, who lived his last cantankerous years on nearby Cap Ferrat.
In Cocteau’s time, the 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.’ Across the street, a bronze bust of the artist bears his testimonial: ‘Villefranche, […] Pray Heaven it may never change’.
It does change, but not very much. Villefranche is change-proof: 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, the American landings continue: a third of the cruise passengers come from North America. The sumptuous villas peppering the Villefranche hillsides no longer house European royalty: they belong to stars of entertainment and sport, like Tina Turner, U2’s Bono, Riverdance creator Michael Flatley and cyclist Lance Armstrong - while, overlooking them all, astride the peak of Mont Boron, 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 has remained pretty much unspoiled.
Is it still ‘a source of myth and inspiration’? Of course - otherwise I wouldn’t be here!

* - (Published by Tauris)

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