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Harbor of Tranquility on France's Cote d'Azur

July 14, 1991|COLMAN ANDREWS

VILLEFRANCHE-SUR-MER, France — On the first Sunday of July each year, the fishing-village-turned-holiday-town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, a few miles from Nice on the Cote d'Azur, celebrates the Feast of St. Pierre (or St. Peter), the patron saint of fishermen and also of Villefranche itself.

The festivities begin on an appropriately religious note, with a morning High Mass at the Italian baroque-style church of St. Michel, followed by the ritual jet de gerbe --the throwing of a huge spray of flowers into the sea, as a kind of thank-you to the Mediterranean for the fish it yields throughout the year.

Then the pastor of the church joins his flock beneath the cool pink stucco arcades of the port-side harbor station to toast St. Pierre with glasses of icy, milky, yellowish pastis--the anise-flavored alcohol that so persistently fuels Provencal life.

On Sunday evening, small boats bedecked in lights stage a jovial, low-key "battle of the flowers," while on the tip of the jetty, an old wooden dinghy is put to the torch--another ritual offering, said to bring good luck to fishermen. There are some brief flickers of fireworks, some short speeches by local notables, a bit of dancing to recorded soft-shoe rock. By 11 p.m., the party is over. The only trace of the festivities is the burning boat, which smolders on into the early morning.

The observance of the Feast of St. Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer, in other words, is an old-fashioned, rather quiet affair--not at all a razzle-dazzle, photo-opportunity tourist show of the sort the traveler in this part of the world might expect. But then the very qualities--the very traits of local spirit--that keep the holiday from being more spectacular are precisely the things that make Villefranche-sur-Mer worth visiting and getting to know.

Despite its privileged position on what is widely agreed to be one of the most beautiful inlets on this part of the French coast, and despite the fact that glamorous Nice is right next door, with Monte Carlo just down the road and the blue-chip resort community of St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat directly across the bay, Villefranche remains a modest place with a small-town feel. A real place.

There is no such thing as an unspoiled corner of the Cote d'Azur anymore--there hasn't been since after World War I--but Villefranche is demonstrably less spoiled than most of the region. Villas and apartment buildings fill the hills above the town, but with rare exception they are not the ungainly, garish structures that disfigure so much of the Riviera.

The old town of Villefranche itself is built uphill from the Port de la Sante, its steep stone streets mostly free from cars, and remains remarkably unclogged with souvenir shops and big-name boutiques.

The commanding 16th-Century citadel above the port--which in any other town on the Cote d'Azur would probably contain a restaurant, a disco and an elaborate city museum--is devoted instead to the city hall, a small outdoor theater (which shows movies during the summer) and several small art exhibition spaces.

Even Villefranche's famous rue Obscure, an eerie medieval covered street just behind the place Ameelie Pollonais, remains just an eerie medieval covered street--quiet, uncommercial, innocent of signs and placards and to-do.

Similarly, while it is certainly possible to dine well in Villefranche, there are no Michelin-starred restaurants here--and pizza is far more popular than pate e de foie gras . There isn't even--and this is extraordinary for so picturesque a hamlet on so picturesque a stretch of coast--a grand hotel or a resort.

What there is, however, is the small, exquisitely situated Hotel Welcome. The Welcome is the perfect small hotel--the kind you'd love to find in Paris or London or New York City.

Built as a convent in the 17th Century and converted to its present use more than 100 years ago, it is intimate, charming, clean and personal, with small, bright rooms--many with exuberantly floral wallpaper and all with tiny but modern bathrooms, air conditioning, mini-bars, color TVs and views of the sea. (There are also four newer rooms, built into the roof, compact and furnished with ship's-cabin decor--complete with brightwork accents--and with small private terraces affording panoramic vistas.)

In the mornings, guests sit at tiny tables on narrow downstairs balcony overlooking the quay, or lounge in their rooms while chambermaids bring them huge trays of coffee and croissants from the cafe just across the way.

During the day, the hotel grows quiet, with most of its boarders off for a drive to Nice, Cannes or the beginnings of the Italian Riviera, or a serious walk along the avenue Louise Bordes to neighboring St. Jean or Beaulieu-sur-Mer--or maybe even just a stroll uphill through the old town or down to the little pebble beach below the railway station.

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