It is not until 20th June, twelve days into our three-week sojourn with Francois and Fefe, that we are able to set off with a new battery charger fitted and some confidence that we can depend on ‘Till’. We are going to head east as far as the Italian coast and our first stage will be Iles Lerins, one of Fefe’s haunts. It is well into the afternoon when we pick up mooring ropes and leave Frejus marina. The sea conditions are rather choppy so I settle down to listen to my current read on Audible and also play a few hands of BridgeBaron.
As we enter the strait between the two islands we phone Catamaran Pizza to order our supper. The pizzas are large so Nick and I share a smoked salmon, spinach and crème fraiche one. The young man who delivers our pizza is full of charm and effuses over our vintage wooden vessel. It is true that when I look around at the other boats that have chosen this spot to moor for the night there are few such characterful boats as our own. With our pizzas we also eat some of the succulent white asparagus that Fefe buys at the market and prepares for steaming. With cheese and the gorgeous plump cherries that Francois loves so much we really have eaten well.
The next morning, before we head eastwards Francois and Nick plan a run ashore in the inflatable to dump our dechets. They attach the outboard to the tender and pull the starter cord. It starts but clearly is going nowhere under power. They drift down tide and have to row back to investigate the problem. The propeller is broken so Francois carries out a running repair with a split pin. Back in the water they try again but the engine is having none of it. Francois investigates its bowels with a screwdriver, probing underneath and “merde, alors” he manages to break a spark plug. So, OK, the rubbish will travel with us to Villefranche-sur-mer.
I enquire and am told that our motor to Villefranche will take four hours. We are going to sail past a string of nice resorts with popular and attractive beaches although we will be too far offshore to appreciate the topography of the various bays, promontories and small headlands. Fefe has given me the book she keeps onboard which is full of colour photographs of the beaches of the Alpes-Maritimes and Var. Entitled ‘Plages vues du ciel’ the book opens with a photo of Menton in the east and you page forwards (but are travelling back westwards) to Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer. I keep getting muddled with this counter-intuitive layout!
Leaving Lesrins we look across to Cannes and we are sailing into the realm of the defaced Red Ensigns. Such flags are sported by British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies: Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman, Gibraltar, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man. Cue tax shenanigans. And the boats which show these flags are flashy vessels and as they ply these waters they often pass us at stupid speeds whose wakes our stalwart little boat must ride. It makes Francois furious.
Beyond Cannes we will go past Golfe Juan, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes and a long coastal sprawl emanating from Nice. Stark and highly visible to us at some distance offshore is a complex of hugely ugly (to my mind) apartment blocks, the Marina-Baie des Anges. Constructed between 1969 and 1993 it consists of a marina with the four blocks named Amiral, Barronet, Commodore and Ducal. The style of architecture is meant to suggest waves. Pressing on I notice aircraft flying in from the west and seeming to land on the beach. Nice Airport is indeed very close to the coast and is a busy airport and in passing I see at least twenty aircraft landing, following each other at varying intervals from two to ten minutes. I watch nearly as many take off, gain height and fly east or southeast, their silhouettes passing briefly over the dark flanks of the snow-capped Alps.
We are booked into the marina at Villefranche for five o’clock and slightly ahead of ourselves so we motor a bit further and drop anchor in the adjacent cove at Cap Ferrat. It is tranquil with only one other boat there and so it is a treat to have a swim in the clear water. As I lower myself into the water off the ladder I notice that my body is getting used to the first encounter with the water and within a minute I feel at one with the element and, particularly when the sun is shining on my face or back, it is joyful.
After a swim like that it is particularly good to have a warm meal, even on a hot sunny day, so the bavettes that Francois cooks for us go down a treat. There is just time for a little rest before we lift the anchor and motor round a small headland and into Villefranche marina. We have been allotted a numbered space on the pontoon which is just inside the entrance and could not be further from the Capitainerie. Nick does his bit with a boathook and muscle power in fending off contact with the adjacent vessels but Francois’ feat of parking his boat is an amazing bit of manoeuvring. The helm of a boat is slow to react to steering and I know from the few occasions I have taken over ‘Verity’ in Croatia that it is so easy to over-compensate. Granted Francois has had his boat for twenty years but Fefe says she knows it is not an easy handle and when you are trying to squeeze into a place with very little wriggle-room fore and aft it is all the more amazing to watch.
Villefranche is very beautiful to my eyes, its buildings clinging to the steep sides of the hill and cliffs that descend to the harbour. There are some very prestigious-looking residences and the houses go right to the top. It reminds me a bit of the Amalfi coast. Fefe has talked of finding a restaurant where she remembers they serve good tapas. She has warned us several times that is is “tres cher”.
So we walk into town along the Cliffside path of worn limestone cobbles with the sea and a narrow rocky foreshore to our right. It is a pleasant stretch with some vegetation types including an ancient cactus that has initials and hearts scored into its ‘trunk’. We find the tapas place that Fefe remembers but when we are show the tapas options on the menu the meat and fish choices are very lack-lustre so we end up ordering a ‘plat’. I choose steamed cod with a lovely selection of vegetables, mussels, whelks and a hard-boiled egg. What makes the dish fab is the lovely pot of aioli that goes with it. It is very pleasant sitting right on the quay where there is an arc of tables with each restaurant having its allotted harbour frontage to colonise.
I take in the ambiance and enjoy. We are going to spend two nights here.