Way back in August 2004, just after she had arrived in the UK from America, we sailed Emerald from Brighton to Fecamp on the French north coast. It was an eventful passage where I nearly knocked myself out as a wave threw me forward whilst in the head, smacking my forehead off a solid piece of teak. I definitely saw stars, just like they do in the cartoons. Then when we were in Fecamp marina, we inadvertently kept tripping the breaker on the pontoon when we plugged into shore power – it turned out some electrical work we’d commissioned had been done incorrectly. So we had to manage without electricity for three days – which meant no lights and no water pumps. But we had oil lamps which added a romantic glow to our first expedition and made it more memorable. We were there with friends and they had offered to tow us out of the marina if we didn’t have enough power to start the engine. Fortunately, we did.
When we left the UK in 2013 to head south, we’d planned to sail down the Atlantic coast of France. However, an issue with our liferaft which had self inflated, delayed our departure for 7 weeks. Our visit to France had to be side lined as the weather windows for crossing Biscay began to close.
Last summer, we’d been within striking distance of the south coast of France but decided not to visit as it was getting late in the season.
Given these failed attempts we made France the focus of this year, to travel to the attractively named Cote d’Azure quickly but without rushing, as soon as we left Tunisia. But there was trepidation; an idea had got stuck in our heads that the area would be plagued with powerboats and jet skis terrorising anchorages which would be full to bursting anyway.
Our expectations were wrong! Mostly, anyway…..
We left San Remo on the 1st July with a light south easterly wind which we though we’d be able to sail with, but it really didn’t have enough umpf for us. So we motored on, doing a drive by amongst the megayachts anchored off of Monaco and on into the inlet of the Rade de Villefranche.
The same friends who had offered us the tow in Fecamp had spent several months here a few years ago and had given us lots of useful information. Within a few hours we could see why they loved the place.
We chose to anchor on the eastern side of the bay in the Baie de Espalmador, where we could look across to Villefranche on one side and the beautiful villas of Cap Ferrat on the other. Yellow buoys along the shore limited the anchoring area, however we found plenty of space in which to drop the hook. The seabed looked like weed over sand but despite the weed, the anchor held first go when we set.
There were no jet skis!
After a dinghy ride across the bay, rather than seeing ‘private’ and ‘no mooring’ signs, we found rings for tying the dinghy to in the town quay. Cafes and restaurants lined the waterfront, with pretty, narrow streets leading up the steep hillside behind. The buildings were painted in pastel colours that gave the town a warm, cosy feel and people seemed friendly and happy – how would we be able to leave?
The Southern Swell
There is a downside. Even when all is calm in Villefranche, it is possible that further west, a Mistral is blowing from out of the Golf du Leon. This western wind piles up the sea ahead of it, and the swell keeps on going long after the wind has fizzled out. The open end of the bay faces south west and being narrow, the swell enters and grows.
We’d had four swell free days when at 5pm on a Friday evening, just as we were preparing for a happy hour toast on board, we started to roll violently about. We told ourselves it would die off soon as there was no wind to keep it going.
Wrong! It was a sleep disturbed night and without any wind to keep us bows to the peaks and troughs, Emerald rolled like a pig in mud. The night would go down as our third worst rolly-rolly night from hell (number 1: Cawsand Bay, near Plymouth. Number 2: the east coast of Mallorca). Then in the morning – gone! So we took a trip to Nice on the bus and explored the old castle grounds and the old town. On our return in the mid afternoon, it was still calm, so we planned an evening out ashore at the welcoming L’X cafe with it’s budget friendly three and a half hour long happy hour.
When we returned to the dinghy on the quayside, it was rising and falling in a dance with the other tenders tied up there. It looked like the swell had returned. Cue another disturbed night’s sleep – not quite so bad as the previous night as exhaustion and beer combined to help send us to our slumber.
St. Jean Cap Ferrat
With the swell still present the next morning, our groggy heads said enough was enough and we decided to try our luck around the other side of the peninsula off Paloma Beach near the sleepy village of St. Jean Cap Ferrat. As we arrived there looked to be a strange commotion in the anchorage with a police boat moving around and several other boats picking up their anchor. Were the police moving them on? Then they all formed a line behind a fishing boat and headed out to sea. It looked like a parade was taking place and their leaving had made some space in the anchorage.
The large yellow buoys in this bay denoted that the anchorage area was limited to those less than 20m in length. A fleet of megayachts sat further out in the bay. The seabed was mostly seagrass but with light winds we spent a lazy day or two anchored off of the beach, when on the third day, a spate of storms forced us into action. All seemed well until mid afternoon, when a violent downdraft of wind raced from the land towards us. The sea instantly turned to froth and as one, us and the three boats around us dragged our anchors.
We decided that Villefranche had the better holding, so slogged back around Cap Ferrat. On the way we checked the lightningmaps.org page; there was a thunderstorm heading our way from the direction of Nice. As we turned into the Rade we were heading straight into the wind which knocked our speed back; the revs were increased to get us in before the storm arrived. We beat the lightning, but not the rain as a brief, but heavy deluge soaked Colin on the bow. There are advantages to being on the helm.
With gusts now touching 40kts, we chose a spot to anchor with no other boats in front of us. By motoring gently forwards we were able to use the engine to take some of the force out of the wind, the anchor held and we put out 50m of chain out. We were lucky; around us was chaos with boats dragging. One boat with people on board took several minutes to appear on deck despite them having moved over 100m. We called them the serial dragger – everywhere they reanchored they would drag again. They even took another unfortunate boat with them one time. We willed with all our might that they would stay away from us. There was little we could do to help the unattended boats as it was too dangerous to launch our dinghy but we were heartened to see that several large RIBs were out offering assistance.
By 5pm the wind had blown itself out. We cautiously celebrated our survival with a beer. But then the swell returned and toppled over Colin’s beer. Ahhhhh……..
Bastille Day is the day the French celebrate the storming of the Bastille fortress in Paris, a major turning point that led to the French Revolution. Last year we enjoyed participating in the festivities in Corsica. This year, Villefranche put on a good show with a free bal (disco) in the grounds of the fort and fireworks that lit up the bay.
The next day we watched a parade in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, with the townsfolk dressed in the traditional costumes from when France was fighting it’s revolution.
Hee hee, we did amuse ourselves with lot’s of nice Nice’s thrown into our conversations. Isn’t language fun?
Nice was a very pleasant city (I’m trying to avoid using nice as my English teacher at school told me to). Wide boulevards, parks filled with flowers and a pedestrian only old town, it was perfect for a wander. Being only a 20 minute, E1.50 bus journey away, we made three visits from Villefranche. On our final visit, we happened across an Irish Bar (the fourth we’d come across that day) that was celebrating it’s birthday with an all day happy hour. Cue an afternoon of live music and proper beer.
Cap Ferrat – the Villa de Rothschild
The peninsula of Cap Ferrat is a place of beautiful villas set amongst tall green pines. The wealthy have been coming here for years, attracted by the balmy climate, and perched along the ridge is the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, built by Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild, a member of the famous banking family. Completed in 1912, Beatrice filled the place with art and had nine themed gardens created. On her death she donated the property to a French art academy.
The entry fee was a fairly steep E15 per person, but with a love of gardens and vintage properties we splashed out and treated ourselves.
The gardens were cool and shady on the hot day we visited, I particularly enjoyed the Oriental and the exotic gardens with it’s towering cactus. The centrepiece is a water feature and it’s fountains which dance to music every twenty minutes and were mesmerising to watch. We also realised where the occasional music we could hear in the anchorage was coming from.
Inside the house it wasn’t overly ostentatious like many of today’s rich and famous seem to favour. The Baroness had collected interesting art and artefacts during her life, including rugs from Versailles and objects once owned by Marie Antoinette.
Monaco was a mere 40 minutes away by bus and only E1.50 so we hopped on the number 100 which runs every 20 minutes between Nice and Monaco with stops along the way.
We set off early to beat some of the day’s heat and managed to get a seat. There are three coastal roads (or corniche) cut into the steep, high cliffs that line the coast here – we would be taking the lowest one or Basse Corniche. It’s the busiest of the three and so we experienced our first traffic jam in a long time. But as we weren’t doing the driving we could sit back and enjoy the views.
As if yesterday’s garden visit wasn’t enough, our first destination in Monaco was to be the Jardin Exotique – a botanical garden created by Albert I in 1912 to be a place to grow succulents and cactus brought from Mexico in the 19th century.
Clinging tight to the cliff side, we had to find our way up there first and made use of the many public lifts in Monaco to save our legs some of the work. Once in the gardens we followed the paths and footbridges amongst a huge variety of plants – I was in cactus heaven. The views were awesome too, looking right across the tiny principality. We could see the royal palace perched on The Rock, several marinas and an area built on land reclaimed from the sea. With space for building being very limited, most buildings were high with gardens on the roof to make the most of the available space.
There was also a cave within the gardens with a guided tour included in the entry fee.
Having found our way back to sea level, we visited some of those places we had seen from above. On The Rock the royal guard looked cool and stylish as they patrolled in front of the castle. Also on the Rock is Monaco’s Cathedral and the resting place of it’s princes and princesses, including Grace Kelly. To visit you need to be respectfully dressed, so no short shorts and shoulders covered. Luckily, we had dressed appropriately that day.
We walked around the marina, where some of the largest superyachts in the world rested and on the far side we were able to pass through the tunnel used in the Grand Prix. From there we took the hairpin bend, with it’s distinctive red and white paint and complete with type rubber, and on up to the Casino. Entry into the Atrium is free after 2pm.
Walks in the Area
We’d got into a habit of buying croissants and pain au chocolats if we went ashore in the mornings, which was starting to have an effect on our waistlines.
The Cap Ferrat Coastal Walk
As well as our wanders around Villefranche, Beaulieu, Nice and Monaco, we set out to burn some calories walking along the sentier littoral – a coastal path which runs around the Cap Ferrat peninsula.
The path was created to allow the customs men of the past to patrol the coastline; nowadays they are a tourist attraction and ensure access to beaches for all.
Between Nice and Villefranche lies a high hill called Mont Boron with a sturdy looking fort sat atop, built in the 16th century. Lets go take a look at the view we said (ok, I said, Colin was not so keen). To say the people of Villefranche must be fit would be an understatement. There are steps that allow pedestrians to take a more direct route up whereas the roads which cross the hillside zigzag in places to ease the gradient, but in others they go straight up. We were sweaty and heavy breathing before we were even half way up.
However, the views were worthwhile and there are shady forest tracks to walk along the top. It goes without saying that the down part was much easier than the up.
Our First Thoughts on France
After just two weeks in France we had fallen in love. Our preconceptions had been blown to the winds and we found other boats to be on the whole, knowledgeable and courteous with their anchoring. Friendly too, with many a wave and bonjour. The anchorage was busy but not crowded; many boats would return to their marinas overnight. In two weeks, we didn’t have anyone anchor in our ‘too close’ zone.
The French know how to do summer. Free music in the town squares, regular firework displays, craft and local produce markets, art on show and welcomes everywhere we went. Freshly baked croissants for breakfast and miles of sentier littoral (coastal paths) for walking off the croissants.
We found transport ashore to be cheap and regular. And if the restaurants were a little beyond our budget, there were plentiful benches in public gardens where we could sit and relax as well as the beaches. Many public spaces were smoking free too, meaning proper fresh air that could be enjoyed by all.
Anchorages are well managed with swim buoys along the beach within which no motors are allowed. Outside of this there may be an outer line of buoys – some of which mark the anchoring area and within which speed should be kept low. It certainly worked in Villefranche in keeping fast boats from causing a nuisance.
We stayed anchored in Villefranche-Sur-Mer for over two weeks; having sailed nearly 1000nm from Tunisia to there in four weeks, it was good to be able to slow down. We considered it a safe location to leave the boat to go ashore when the weather was settled, which was most of the time.
Downsides? Well there were a couple. Grocery prices were higher than in Italy, for example, a kilo of onions were around E3.50 in France, compared to E1.50 in Italy. This did improve as we moved further west. On the ice cream index, France did badly too, with E2.50 buying just a single ball of one flavour compared to two in Italy.
The cost of eating and drinking out was on the high side too, although we found bars that offered happy hour discounts for the occasions when we wanted to sit and watch the world go by with a cold beer to hand.
The swell in Villefranche-Sur-Mer drove us crazy on a couple of occasions and was to do so later on in the summer too. But mostly there are places where the swell can be escaped and it just meant we had to make better reviews of the swell forecasts as well as for the wind.
Sailing and Useful Info
1st July: San Remo to Villefranche Sur Mer – 25nm
Anchored in 8m in sand/weed in position 43 41.86’N 7 19.323’E We tried a couple of different spots in the Baie de Espalmador on the east side of the bay, closer to the large yellow buoys was more weedy and we found less weed and better holding further away in 10m.
7th July – Villefranche-Sur-Mer to Paloma Beach – 4nm
Anchored in 11m in weed – holding poor – in position 43 41.296’N 7 20.542’E
9th July – Paloma Beach to Villefranche-Sur-Mer – 4nm
Anchored in 8m in position 43 41.864’N 7 19.333’E
Good holding in wind gusts of 40kts
Weather – in general, we had settled weather with light or east winds and temperatures in the high 20’s/low 30’s centigrade. There were days when storms rumbled amongst the hills inland but only two occasions where they passed at sea – one was the occasion where we experienced the strong north wind mentioned above. The swell can be an issue, keep an eye on what is happening to the west. If a mistral is blowing, it can blow swell into Villefranche-Sur-Mer even after the wind has died.
Dinghy landing in Villefranche-Sur-Mer with rings in the quay side to tie/lock to. No restrictions.
Recycling – there are recycling bins for glass, paper, card and plastics as well as general waste bins, in the car park next to the pink maritime building.
Shopping – there is a twice weekly Provencal market near the Tourist Information Office, otherwise there are two small Casino supermarkets with a limited range of fresh and packaged produce in Villefranche as well as a couple of bakeries.
For a wider range of goods and slightly lower prices, we used the large Super-U in Beaulieu. The train station and a bus stop are close by for the return trip to Villefranche
Transport – There is a train station in Villefranche serving destinations all along the south coast. Trains are air conditioned. Bus 100 travels between Nice and Monaco with a stop in Villefranche as well as other places along the coast. Bus number 81 runs between Nice and St. Jean Cap Ferrat. Timetables available from the Tourist Information.
Internet – we bought a Free SIM from a self service kiosk in Nice: instructions and the location of the Tabac are here. Details on the packages available are here. The one month pre-paid SIM package gave us 100GB a month of data for E19.99 with an initial E10 for the SIM. We were able to extend for another month via the online management page. Payment was taken from the credit card with which we initially bought the SIM.
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