When we arrived in Nice last summer and travelled immediately to Beaulieu-sur-Mer, our journey took us through a place called Villefranche-sur-Mer, which our tourist information told us was worth a look also, and this turned out to be very true indeed. As with most of this coast, it’s been lived on for a long time but it seems that here as elsewhere, until quite late on the actual settlements were back up the hills for safety, and only the promise of substantial defence could bring them down.
This didn’t stop the place being sacked by the Ottoman navy in 1543, however, and in 1554 steps were taken to make sure that couldn’t happen again.
This is one of the huger fortress complexes I’ve ever been in, and very much post-medieval: artillery was on the designers’ minds, so we have deep counter-sloped glacises, minimal towers and firing platforms everywhere. As the town website says, “cette forteresse a subi de nombreux sièges plus ou moins glorieux au service de la maison de Savoie,” whose service does seem to have been a good way to get into fights in this area for much of the modern era. It was military property until 1965 and restored by the town in 1979.
Nowadays, we also have three museums inside it, but despite opening hours professing otherwise, the one that apparently contained medieval stuff was shut and stayed that way. There’s a collection of really quite interesting Surrealist painting and sculpture by Henri Goetz and Christine Boumeester, however, and down at the harbour level there is also a Chapelle de Saint-Pierre which they let Jean Cocteau decorate, so in terms of art there’s a lot going on here.
None of this, you may however have noted, is medieval, and for that we had to go down not just to ground-level but beneath it.
This is the entrance to the Rue Obscure, or in the local language (yes, that confused me too, but there is a Niçard dialect of Occitan that is still spoken a bit and which in Villefranche especially merited dual-language signage) the Carriera Scura, which is a fourteenth-century subterranean access-way running under a portion of the settlement to allow rapid movement of troops from one side of the sea-level defences to the other. Of course, once it ceased to have this defensive function, towns being generally short of space, people moved into it.
There are one or two intermediate stairways leading down here, and it’s more or less straight in overall direction but there are still many corners, and I thought we’d got to the other end several times before we had. Occasional lightwells punctuate the space between these moments.
It’s not as if there’s nothing else to see in Villefranche, therefore, quite the reverse, but after a few days on this coast the views like this begin to run into one another somewhat.
The Rue obscure, though, I will remember for a good long time. Excellent exploring, I recommend it! (If you want to see more, a slightly different selection of our photos can be seen here.)