If you want to park near the beach in Villefranche-sur-mer, you have two choices. At the top end of the beach strip, near the expensive waterfront restaurants, is the shaded but small cruiseship parking lot. The far end offers at least triple the number of spots, but the parking is mostly cliffside, just off the road, exposed to the searing heat.
That’s where we’re headed, among a jostle of beachgoers, human and vehicular. A sleek black Mercedes lunges at us, its driver tossing Lorne an exasperated glance as we creep past. Posses of young men ramble on and off the sidewalk. Male couples in Panamas, white linen shirts, and Gucci sandals walk Yorkshire terriers. Worried looking mothers in cloth hats with wilted brims push strollers and try to keep toddlers from stepping into the road. Sunburned seniors, with cameras draped around their necks, juggle beachbags and sandmats. A young woman in a red bikini saunters down the middle of the road, her attention averted towards one of the cafes. She looks back at us, tossing her hair, neither startled nor altering her path.
Leaving the Peugeot to bake in the 34 degree afternoon, we begin the trek back along the shore to the town centre. Some people are just spreading out their beach towels. Those who have already found a place in the sand have positioned their bodies to receive maximum exposure, from the sun and anyone else who wants to look. Their skin is mahogany and cherry wood and bleached birch. Some women are topless, their breasts pert or pendulous. A teenager lies face down on her boyfriend’s back. A few people, usually those with small children, are sitting under umbrellas. Swimming doesn’t seem to be a high priority activity.
Where the sand gives way to large rocks, we cross the street to look at lunch menus – mussels and frites, salade Nicoise, croque monsieur, crepes sucres. We choose a table in the shade and a tapas selection. A greying African man offers us vinyl belts, purses, and beads. Shuttle boats bring cruise ship passengers to shore for a train trip to Nice or an afternoon of shopping. A tourist market has sprung up near the village fountain to offer a convenient selection of lavendar soap, Provencal linens, and half price sandals.
After lunch, we discover a steep, stone staircase, broad enough that a restaurant or two and a few shops have set up along its margins. We go into one, and I say “Bonjour” to the saleswoman. She says, “Oh! Vous parlez Francais!” and reaches out as though to rest her hand on my arm. She doesn’t actually make contact – French people whose jobs involve serving tourists usually keep a polite distance – but the gesture touches me. I tell her we are from Canada, and speak only a little French. She brings me a marketing basket, and says, “Vous avez arriver en bateau?” assuming I’m a cruise ship passenger. I tell her we came by car. “En voiture?” she says, her eyes widening a little. “C’est un aventure!” I say that, yes, it has been, and mentally thank her for the reminder.
When we leave the shop, we climb more stairs and find a cobbled passageway intersecting the main stairwell. Not far along it we’re aware of a calm that is absent from the beachside and its tourist conveniences. There are fewer people, and more French voices. The tall stone buildings provide shelter from the midday dazzle. The restaurant menus, on outdoor chalkboards, offer more interesting choices and considerably cheaper prices than their waterfront cousins. We find a boulangerie and a green grocer, almost Carombian in style. We shop at both, and decide to return to our newly discovered neighborhood for dinner.
That evening, sitting in the twilight of a candlelit courtyard, we’re treated to a sound we haven’t heard since we left Caromb – the church bell tolling 9 o’clock. Little by little, Villefranche is revealing her Provencal charms. We just have to look a little more closely to find them.