Villefranche-sur-Mer is a small hideaway Mediterranean town in southeastern France that stretches along the bay between Mont Boron and Cap Ferrat. This quiet seaside resort is among the most beautiful places of Cote d’Azur.
“When I look at Villefranche, I see my youth!”, said Jean Cocteau. What did captivate the famous writer, dramatist and film director so much in this small town? It must have been its unique atmosphere that adds lightness and joy and inspires as if inviting to start dancing. When you get here, your head swims with happiness and it seems that life is only beginning! The name itself, Villefranche, means “free town” in French – Charles II of Naples, who founded it at the end of the 18th century on the site of an ancient Roman port, established a free trade area here, a sort of a duty free zone of that time. In 1388, the town came over to the House of Savoy and was then called Villafranca in the Italian way. In the middle of the 16th century, Duke Emanuele Filiberto, who realized the strategic importance of the bay where Villefranche was located, decided to use it for construction of a naval harbor. At that time there still were fresh memories of a none too pleasant visit of the Turkish sultan’s navy in 1543.
Fort du Mont Alban was built by order of the duke on a hill between Nice and Villefranche, and a picturesque fortress named La Citadelle Saint-Elme was constructed at the entrance to the bay. La Citadel now hosts the town council, a museum (its art gallery boasts works by such great artists as Picasso, Picabia, and Miro, and famous Russian painters including Repin, Polenov, and Levitan), a cinema and an open air concert hall. Another attraction is the small St. Peter’s church. This medieval chapel was built in the Romanesque style in the 16th century. In 1957, its walls were painted by the same Jean Cocteau, who in addition to his literary talent had a fine taste for art. He devoted the main part of his original sketches to stories from the life of the Holy Apostle. Obviously, due to some reasons the chapel made a very strong impression on the master: Jean Cocteau wrote in one of his works that it “winks conspiratorially with its chandeliers that seem to have emerged from the Apocalypse”.
In the course of several centuries, Villefranche-sur-Mer remained the main port of the whole Sardinian Kingdom until the end of the 18th century, when a large port was built in Nice.
Life in the town was rather closely associated with Russia and the Russians. The Russians first appeared here in great numbers with a striking effect in 1770, when a squadron under the command of Alexei Orlov cast anchors in the Villefranche bay. This event has been recently perpetuated by a somewhat tasteless monument with busts of two Orlov brothers and Admiral Ushakov. But the true Russian expansion to Cote d’Azur started in the second half of the 19th century, and it just happened that Villefranche became the center of the Russian colony. In 1856, the widow of Nicholas I took residence in Nice, but shortly thereafter moved with her maids of honor and court to Villefranche, where she spent about half a year.
The convenient road from Nice to Villefranche was to a large extent built at the expense of the Russian widowed empress Alexandra Fedorovna and named after her at the same time. After World War II the communist mayors tried to expunge this fact from the memory of the town inhabitants and maps and renamed Empress Boulevard as Stalingrad Boulevard, but in these latter days the grateful residents of Villefranche named a small embankment in the very center of the town as a tribute to Alexandra Fedorovna and several years ago set up a bust of Her Majesty next to the citadel. Eventually, the sculptural images of the empress and the admirals placed in front of each other now form a certain Russian memorial corner in Villefranche.
The widow of Nickolas I cared not only about her own pleasant recreation and the comfort of local residents. Our empresses, even having descended from the throne, continue protecting Russia’s geopolitical interests. Alexandra Fedorovna was not an exception and combined what was pleasant for herself with what was useful for Russia. Under a peace treaty signed after an extremely unsuccessful completion of the Crimean war the empire forfeited the right of passage of its navy from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. “Something must be done!”, exclaimed Alexander II and sent his own mother to rectify the mistakes of his father. The empress’s entourage soon bought up real estate around the Villefranche-sur-Mer aquatic area and as early as in 1857 a lease agreement for the bay was signed with the Sardinian Kingdom. According to that agreement, a Russian navy was allowed to ride at anchor in a roadstead 2 km long, 1 km wide and 25 to 150 m deep. After France took control of these lands in 1860, the treaty’s legitimacy was confirmed by the government of Emperor Napoleon III. The Russians leased the bay till 1878, when the premises of the former Russian naval base hosted a zoological station financed from St. Petersburg. After the fall of the Russian Empire this station came under the jurisdiction of the French government, but still was managed by Russian scientists for as long as half a century. As for the strategic importance of the roadstead of Villefranche, it is confirmed by the fact that from the end of World War II till 1962 it was an anchoring area for a US navy squadron, and now it is used by plenty of French warships picturesquely diluted by multicolored fisherman boats.
Probably, the most famous building in Villefranche-sur-Mer is the-so-called King Leopold Villa located at the entrance to Cap-Ferrat. The Belgian monarch was generally fond of Riviera and did a lot for its improvement. In 1902, Leopold II acquired a plot of land in Villefranche, where he decided to build a villa for his mistress, a young French woman named Blanche Delacroix, who subsequently born him two sons out of wedlock. The 74-year-old king entered into a morganatic marriage with her in 1909 five days before his death. The villa had not been completed by that time. In the 1930s, it was considerably expanded by its new owner, US millionaire Ogden Codman, and since then has been the largest in the town. In 1955, Alfred Hitchcock filmed here his ironic detective movie To Catch a Thief starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the lead roles. In the 1970s, the villa was acquired by the French billionaire of Lebanese origin Edmond Safra, who even arranged there a nuclear war shelter. The billionaire was visited at his villa by US President Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Prince Charles and Prince Rainier III. It wouldn’t be proper to classify the villa as a local sightseeing spot as it is privately owned and hence closed for tourists.