Anybody who has travelled in southern Europe has their own idea as to what the most beautiful place is. Some swoon over Sorrento. Others are mad about Mykonos. Some will plead the case for Portofino, while still others will swear by Santorini, Kusadasi, or Taormina.
I have no quarrel with any of those opinions. All rate highly among my personal favourites for beauty, character, and sheer, platinum chip slouch factor.
Slouch factor? It’s a term I use for any place that somehow slows your normal, manic pace of mobility to an indolent saunter, simply by virtue of it’s sheer beauty and magical vibe. It’s a place that makes you feel the need to do nothing more strenuous than relax with a glass of wine or a cold beer, some lunch, with a good side order of languid people watching for dessert.
Of course, southern Europe is slouch factor central. Hedonism here is an art form, sometimes abstract like a Picasso; at other times cake rich, and full of the colour of a Rubens. Whatever. slouch factor is a state of mind; a true art form in it’s own right.
But, while all those peachy places I mentioned above induce a case of severe indolence in me, there is one that tops them all when it comes to living and loving the good life to the maximum. And- because we’re all friends here- I’m going to share it with you.
Villefranche is a small fishing village, mid way between Nice and Monte Carlo, that is used by many cruise ships to disembark passengers for the scenic highlights along the way. It has the advantage of a natural, deep harbour, and excellent road and rail connections along the coast.
It also just happens to blow spots off any of them for sheer, languid, magnificent beauty. Villefranche is, quite simply, the most perfectly styled, chocolate box pretty place in the entire Mediterranean. A view so good that it was used as one of the backdrops for the James Bond movie, Never Say Never Again.
The bay forms a perfect, natural theatre-in-the-round, cradled by a sweeping semi circle of gently rolling hills in a dozen shades of vibrant green. Villas, houses and churches peep out from among this wonderful natural crown, offering spectacular views down onto a sparkling, electric blue bay literally studded with idly bobbing yachts, as content as well fed swans.
On the waterfront, a riot of Italianate houses, bars and shops curve around the base of the bay. There are shades of yellow, white and terracotta. Window shutters in cream, green and electric blue stand open above the winding, cobbled lanes that lead back into the hills. An armada of bars, cafes and restaurants is splashed like so much brightly coloured confetti along the bustling quayside.
Waiters in starched white aprons deliver plates of food and drinks to idly loafing tourists wearing sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country. Their cars sit in leafy side lanes, shielded by a wash of jasmine and oleander. A Rolls Royce Corniche here; a Lamborghini there. The whole vibe is casually spectacular indolence, played out against a matchless natural canvas.
Trains slither like exotic snails along the railway line that hugs the coast, passing over the spectacular, jasmine shrouded viaduct that winds around the bay. A small, honey coloured beach shelves gently into the azure hue of the Mediterranean. Like everything else in Villefranche, it seems almost perfectly in proportion to every other part of the mix. It’s as elegant and coquettish as an exquisite charm bracelet and, truth be told, not that much cheaper.
That said, it is nowhere near as expensive as, for instance, Monte Carlo just down the coast. A first time arrival by sea in Villefranche is easy to spot; just check the speed with which their jaw hits the top of their shoes when your ship first sails round the headland at Cap Ferrat, and that whole, wonderful bay opens up in front of you like a flower bursting into full bloom.
As evening falls, pools of light begin to shimmer on the ink black waters of the bay. Table lamps flicker skittishly under cafe awnings as they are ruffled by the ghost of a gentle breeze. The deep, seductive growl of a tenor sax floods the night air with a torrent of warm, sultry soul. Lovers walk hand in hand along the promenade, Down below, an old man tends to the sodden nets in his fishing boat, getting them ready for the next day’s catch.
Villefranche is warm, welcoming, almost other worldly in a way. It has a subtle, electric vibe that will stay in your soul like a quiet storm long, long after you leave it behind. And, just like the magnetism present in any storm, you will be drawn back.
Trust me on that one….