I heard a Disney executive refer to Villefranche as the "kiss goodbye" port of this itinerary, in much the same way Disney's private island, Castaway Cay is on their Caribbean sailings -- a save the best for last philosophy. We swept the curtains open this morning and could see why. The view of Villefranche was breathtaking, sailboats resting in the sparkling blue waters of the harbor, pink and coral-colored buildings tucked into the mountains, and, in the distance, the peninsula of the ultra swanky Cap Ferrat.
We could have spent the day just savoring this lovely seaside village with a 14th-century ambience, a string of picturesque sidewalk cafes and a harbor full of cheerfully colored, weathered-looking fishing boats, but this is our only stop on the French Riviera. So we headed out for a power-tour; we'd reserved a driver to take us to Nice to tour a candy factory and the Matisse Museum, Saint-Paul de Vence (a charming artsy village on a hilltop), and Monaco, to see what the most expensive slivers of land in the world look like.
Villefranche is the second, and final tender port of this itinerary, and a quick tender ride from the ship, which is docked horizontally in the harbor displaying its long sleek lines like a peacock showing off its feathers. We met Michel, from Revelation Tours, (recommended from Cruise Critic's boards) and headed for the urban resort city of Nice, just to the west of Villefranche.
On the way, we learned that Nice has only been part of France since 1860 and was previously under Sardinian rule, which explained the architectural similarities in the Old Port section to those in the Italian Riviera.
As we drove through the city's streets, we learned that once rail service was introduced between Paris and Nice, the city became a summer playground for the rich and famous including many English kings and queens. The Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-Classical architectural styles of mansions, castles and historic hotels reminded me of Newport, Rhode Island (although most of the ansions are occupied by today's rich and/or famous and as such are not open for tours).
I'd like to tell you more about the history of Nice but, alas, it's my first visit and we're with the kids. Like most parents, we're only half listening to Michel, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the area, and half talking to Colin and Cameron about the candy factory that's first on our agenda.
Our stop at the Florian candy factory was suggested by Michel to give the kids a little fun before heading on to the more adult-oriented Matisse museum. An operation run out of a small building in Nice’s Old Port, Florian specializes in making crystallized fruits (from oranges, lemons, grapes, cherries, and, their most popular -- tangerines), and chocolates, plus jams made with flowers. We had never tasted candy made of flowers before, and although apprehensive, the boys were excited to do some sampling, especially before we'd even had lunch. A brief tour explained their production process, offered a peak at the chocolate packing room, a few taste tests, and the opportunity to purchase some bon bons in the second-floor store.
The morning was similarly themed to our stay in Barcelona -- art and chocolate -- only here we saw the works of Matisse instead of Picasso. The recently expanded Matisse Museum is housed in a 17th-century red Genoese villa, decorated with trompe-l'oeil. Inside were 68 paintings and paper cuttings, numerous drawings and sculptures, plus photographs and objects from Matisse' private collection. Matisse aficionados will appreciate seeing one of the largest of Matisse' masterpieces, "Fleurs et Fruits," as well as his famous 1930's painting "Fenetre a Tahiti" -- a view of Tahiti from a balcony, which actually reminded me of the views I'd discovered on this trip.
Unlike Michelangelo, who we learned (during our Vatican tour) struggled to paint a women's face, Matisse seems to capture the essence of many, whether they are stately, stern, thoughtful, or seductive. I was alone in my appreciation of this though, since, by the time I reached this room, the boys (both big and small) were out watching French boys play soccer in the adjacent park.
Saint-Paul de Vence is a medieval village surrounded by stone ramparts, and perched high on a mountain overlooking the sea below. Ensconced inside the walls is a village filled with art galleries, narrow pedestrian-only streets, a small five-star hotel, and tiny stores that sell wines, linens and herbs. In fact the scent of the stores' herb satchels -- small bags filled with herbs and tied with a ribbon fills the air. It's easy to see why this place inspired many writers, poets and artists from Chagall to Matisse and Renoir.
But I'll be brief about Saint-Paul because Cameron did a fine job detailing it below, which leads me to believe he understood Michel's English, even with his heavy Parisian accent, quite well. While not possessing quite the same dynamic personality as our guide in Naples, Michel was quite professional and proficient (and because our tour today is less about driving and more about seeing sights, we didn't spend as much time with him).
Still, Michel had a great way of explaining many of the things we saw, from defining a Riviera (where mountains plunge into the sea, which technically would exclude Nice), to how to tell how big a Roman city was (by the size of its theatre and the location of the burial plots), and what exactly defines a Baroque church (even though you won't find nearly as many of them in France as you will in Italy).
Now I haven't checked his facts, but after seeing numerous Baroque churches throughout the Mediterranean, his explanation made perfect sense -- the higher you look on the walls and to the ceiling of the church the more beautiful it becomes, adorned in gold, angels and frescoes, to symbolize heaven and give parishioners hope for the promise of life after death.
Since there is so little time and many places to see, we leave Saint-Paul after a couple hours of exploration and make the hours drive to Monaco -- the place where Michel says there is one Rolls Royce for every 400 residents.
It is at this point that we realize we don't need to know any more history or facts (although there are plenty of interesting ones about Monaco) -- in fact, my history-fatigued husband said, "I don't want to know one thing about Monaco ... I just want to look out at the water and get a drink at a cafe." So for these few hours we focused on discovering how the place feels to us instead.
We wandered over to Saint Martin Garden and gazed out at the wide selection of yachts in the harbor. Tim admired the one with the gleaming wood, Colin wondered which one went the fastest, and Cameron pondered how the inside compared to a cruise ship. This immaculate (you are not allowed to sit or eat on the grass) vertical park looks like someone took the Boston Public Garden and hung it out like a blanket on this cliff.
Inspired by that vista, we wandered the side streets and settled in at a cafe to discuss the boys' newly hatched plan of owning a yacht (pronounced "yahtzee" by Colin) -- and involved ourselves in their dream of how they could earn money by doing more yard work and unloading the dishwasher. Cameron appointed himself the Minister of Savings; Colin, the Minister of Earnings. This lazy, albeit all too short, stay at a cafe is what I dreamed about experiencing in the Mediterranean.
The day was more than complete right there, but we had another night filled with Disney's shipboard entertainment. We dined in Animator's Palette again, only this time instead of the animation-themed show that typically takes place on the wall screens, tonight's is a slideshow featuring photos of our fellow dining companions, taken during a previous dinner. You could hear giggles from the tables as their family photos flashed on the screens.
Tonight was the night of Disney's newest stage show, "When Mickey Dreams." The show, which reminded me of the type of circus put on by Cirque du Soleil, included eight amazing acrobats (brought onboard each sailing in Villefranche and housed in Marseille, where they train the rest of the time) and music that was much more Euro pop than Disney melody. The performers, some 20 in all, were dressed in dreamy white and included jugglers, bubble blowers, dancers with parasols and dream catchers that appeared to be floating around the theater, collecting dreams that the children had written on stars; my boys placed their star in the net, wishing for their little yacht.
From Cameron's Journal
A 10-year-old's perspective (excerpted from Cameron's journal, with permission):