The morning after our visit to Monaco, we take a walk to the train station in Nice.
“Je suis desolé, Madame. But your car is waiting for you at Nice airport. Not here.”
We show monsieur at the Avis desk our confirmation which clearly states that car pick up is in Nice Ville because the airport branch is closed on Sundays.
“Mais ce n’est pas possible! It is always open!” he says, gesturing with his arms up in the air.
Not a good start. In between a few phone calls, he explains. “Le problème, c’est qu’il n’y a pas une automatique.”
Le problème, is that we can’t drive a manual car!
Another phone call later and he is all smiles. “C’est règlé.” All sorted. He hands us les papiers and a Bison Futé fold-out map of France.
We follow him into the car park. Please let the car be any colour but white. And preferably French. I hold my breath as he presents us with a new Renault 19 in grey metallic paint, with a boot large enough to accommodate all our luggage.
Mr G is the driver. I am too nervous to take the wheel on the opposite side of the road. As soon as he gets his bearings, he turns the key in the ignition and we return to Hotel Negresco to collect our suitcases. The voiturier with the blue eyes addresses me in French, pointing out that he remembers that madame parle français.
We exchange a brief conversation about our travel plans in France. Once I tell him we’re touring the country by car, he says, “Alors vous faites un Tour de France!” How right he is. And it’s going to be a gourmand’s Tour de France! He loads our suitcases in the boot and wishes us bonnes vacances.
We are finally off on our driving adventure. Mr G is behind the wheel and I am a bundle of nerves in the passenger seat, on the side of the road where I would normally be driving. We head north on the Promenade des Anglais towards the Vieille Ville of Nice. If only we had time to explore the old part of town. We take a winding coastal road through small seaside villages and bays. The town of Villefranche-sur-Mer is our first destination.
We pass the harbour on the right that was once a military port and now an anchorage of luxury yachts and pleasure boats. We follow the signs to the parking and leave our car amidst ancient fortress walls and head towards the water.
Villefranche-sur-Mer is one of those exclusive coastal Mediterranean towns that seduce you at first sight. A conglomeration of pink apartments and old renovated houses with colourful facades cover the hill that rises from the shoreline.
We observe the calm blue sea hugging this fishing port and holiday resort like a lover who does not want to let go. People are sitting on their balconies watching the morning flea market activities below, or sipping a late morning café. Church bells start to ring.This is Sunday morning on the cote d’azur.
We descend towards the bay where luxury yachts are swaying in the breeze. A cruise liner is anchored in the distance and a warship is getting a musical send off by a military band on dock.
We meander through le marché à la brocante, the flea market and browse through old books and postcards, original oil painted posters, silverware, antiques and paintings. If only we had more time to look at such bargains.
We take up a few steps to the old part of town with seventeenth century character. If only we could buy time as easily as the bottle of Volvic to quench our thirst. I soon realise that this is not a fly-by town you can see in an hour. Just as one of my favourite artists Jean Cocteau who often returned to Villefranche and later redecorated Chapelle Saint-Pierre in 1957, we vow to come back for a longer stay.
Heading back in the direction of Nice, Mr G’s driving skills are more relaxed. As for me, my nerves have me pressing my foot to the ground as if I’m hitting the breaks. The car makes its way through a series of narrow winding streets comfortable. But as we approach Promenade des Anglais, click-click-click-click-click. The car gets a little too close to a row of parked cars and our side mirror clicks theirs.
Du calme. Du calme. I know no such thing. Thankfully, there is no damage.
We continue past the Negresco and drive onto Route Nationale (RN) 98 past a number of inviting plages. By now, I need a dip in the sea to ease the nerves but we continue on our destination.
We drive through Cagnes-sur-Mer, once a Greek trading port founded in the fourth century BC, Villeneuve and Loubet Plage. Pretty small towns that make you want to stop and discover on foot. Next is the town of Antibes famous for its flower growing and the Picasso museum.
We approaching Juan-les-Pins, famous for the World Jazz Festival, this is quite the elegant resort town lying at a magnificent bay. I think we’re close. I glance at the map and soon Boulevard de la Croisette comes into view with a succession of elegant hotels and beaches. The Carlton Hotel stands out eminently from the rest and we slowly pull into the driveway.
… continues tomorrow.
‘Le Tour de France Gourmantic’ series is the story of a young couple from Australia who took to the French roads on a whirlwind Tour of France back when the internet wasn’t at everyone’s fingertips, phones were still attached to sockets, GPS was an unfamiliar acronym, digital cameras were a pipe dream and the Euro hadn’t replaced French Francs. With just one fold-out map of France and boundless enthusiasm, they took their Renault 19 and went on a cultural and culinary discovery.
What to See in Villefranche-sur-Mer
- the harbour – a stunning place to admire people and the beauty of the town
- Marché à la brocante or Flea Market on Sundays
- Chapelle Saint-Pierre, decorated by Jean Cocteau
- Citadelle St-Elme, 16th century church overlooking the sea
- Medieval quarter dating back to 13th century
- Villefranche-sur-Mer is located between Nice and Monaco
- Take the N98 then N7 between Nice and Menton
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