When I drive along the Promenade des Anglaises, a Nice coastline boulevard where already the Victorians used to stroll, and past Nice’s old town and a small harbour area towards the next cove, it feels like all the colours of Côte d’Azur from refine yellow to refreshing blue whizz past the corners of my eye in one, continuous flux.
Then I take a turn away from the coastline, a few twists to a steep decline towards the sea again, and I have arrived in a paradise inside a paradise; this is Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Whereas the close by Antibes and Juan-les-Pins are known for their glamorous literate past from the 1920s – thanks to the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds – and Nice is known for its Picasso connections and as the colourful inspiration for Matisse, tiny Villefranche-sur-Mer was the sanctum for one of French literature’s and cinema’s rascals, Jean Cocteau. In fact, there is a tiny chapel from the 14th century in the village, Chapelle St Pierre, which Cocteau decorated in 1956. And here, almost opposite to the chapel and directly facing the little harbour, is situated a warm orange Welcome Hôtel, which has been greeting arriving guests for more than hundred years.
When I was descending to Villefranche-sur-Mer from a coastal highway that runs through St Tropez, Cannes, Monaco and such, a curiously homey feeling had taken a hold of me: whereas the bigger Riviera cities had felt too crowded with other tourists (l’enfer c’est les autres touristes!), Villefranche felt more original, stopped in time in a good way kind of a village, without a need to shout its charms to the whole world. “I really don’t have much to tell, as you can see, in Villefranche-sur-Mer we have a special kind of a spirit, it is its own bubble in Riviera, and it does not need a definition,” I am greeted in Welcome Hôtel.
And I couldn’t agree more: here, you find everything you find from elsewhere in Riviera, only on a smaller scale, but at the same time, somehow, with more originality. The hotel dates back to the 18th century and it features in photographs taken by a photographer following Queen Victoria’s entourage in the area; and note you, this is the time when Côte d’Azur started to lure travellers as the place to be. As the number of visitors grew during the following decades, the hotel changed its name from Hotel de l’Univers to Welcome Hôtel in the 1920s. And as is the case with many other historic European hotels, also Welcome Hôtel got neglected during the II World War: But the forefathers of its current owner, monsieur Gabois, renovated the building, ready to welcome more guests, and in 1955 the hotel had achieved its current shape as the top floor was added.
There are 35 rooms in the hotel, each with a balcony: a sea view renders you to one of those travellers who can sit for hours just staring into the horizon, and in the mornings, you can keep an eye on the fish market at the harbour. The old town, where little boutiques, houses, grocery stores and restaurants spread to its narrow streets, begins right off the hotel. The service in the hotel is prompt yet kind and you can enjoy your breakfast either as a buffet downstairs or have a private continental breakfast on your own balcony.
The rooms are comfortable and decorated with elegant taste – well, we are in France after all! The seaside atmosphere is emphasized in light colours and dots of different shades of blue. The light brown wooden materials in the lobby are lifted up with bright turquoise tables and white lilies. Everything from welcoming the guests to the décor and general ambience is done with the renown French grace, and the traveller feels at the same time esteemed and homely.
The long and colourful culture in Côte d’Azur has enchanted me since the beginning of my journey, but as I am savouring my long breakfast on the balcony, I start to grasp what kind of allure the Riviera cities, since commercialized for the need of tourism, have to have had for the early guests, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Matisse, Cocteau, and others. Cocteau also happens to be one of Hotel Welcome’s much liked guests who enjoyed his time in this little fishing village so much that he left behind a little token which is now printed in hotel’s crockery: “a mon lui cher hôtel Welcome où j’ai passé la meilleur de ma vie.”
The piquant glamour of French countryside living has polished off here, in a little cove pressed in between two mountainous peninsulas, to its perfect shape: a little old town on its slopes, an old castle guarding the village in the West and the little harbour still used by fishermen and not only the flashy yachts. I sigh in delight after basketful of croissants and strong French coffee – and wish for a quick return to Villefranche-sur-Mer and Welcome Hôtel.
P.S. I wish to thank Welcome Hôtel for the opportunity to stay in this elegant and historic seaside hotel. Welcome Hôtel is part of my series exploring Europe’s historic hotels. The collaboration does not affect the content of my writing, as I choose only culturally or historically significant hotels for the series. By this, I wish to ensure inspiring and atmospheric moments not only for myself but for my readers on their travels. Historic hotels are an integral part of the history of European travel, and with the series, I wish to support this part of our travel history.