The lovely French seaside town of Villefranche is situated between two tourist hot spots, Nice and Monte Carlo. Since I’d already visited these two cities during my college year abroad and had pleasant memories of both, I couldn’t decide which to revisit on this second to last stop of our Disney Cruise through the Mediterranean.
Leaving It Up to Fate
My husband, Phil, and I started our day wandering with our toddler, Karissa, through Villefranche’s tiny downtown area. We enjoyed a breakfast of cafés crèmes and pains au chocolats (chocolate-filled croissants). Then we decided to let fate decide our destination. We walked to the train station and agreed to take the first train available going to either Nice or Monte Carlo (which were about 20 minutes away in opposite directions).
Nice won. In retrospect, we wished Monaco would have. Monte Carlo is more compact and offers kid-friendly options like flowery, grass-filled parks perfect for toddling legs as well as a small zoo and an impressive aquarium.
Nice is too widespread to tackle in one day and is not the kind of town for aimless meandering. One should have a goal here (mostly the beach or shopping). Still, just as I had remembered, the people of Nice were…well…very nice. The city’s residents seemed impressed with my fading grasp of French and everyone we encountered went out of their way to wish us a bonne journee (or good day).
On my first visit to Nice, I had gone for Carnival with two fellow foreign exchange students. Carnival and its famous night of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) has been celebrated here since the 1200s. The version I encountered here during college was much tamer than that of New Orleans. In Nice flowers are tossed from floats instead of beads. I did not witness or participate in the flashing of any usually covered body parts. No one was drinking Hurricanes. (Well, but we did have a few drinks after watching the parades!)
This time around, my husband and I spent much of the day pushing a stroller long distances trying to decide where to go and what to do. Our Nicoise lunch at a Rick Steves’ recommended restaurant, La Maison de Marie, was just as lunch in Southern France should be: in a picture perfect setting with delicious food. We were the only American diners in the restaurant’s darling outdoor courtyard. Thankfully our then two-year-old daughter slept throughout the entire languorous lunch, allowing me to enjoy my chicken with dried fruits and almonds as well as some grown-up conversation with the hubs under the shade of bougainvillea vines.
Beachtime in Villefranche
That morning we had spied a sweet little beach in Villefranche but had not brought any swimsuits with us for the day. Since we had taken a tender boat to shore and knew that it would be a time-consuming ordeal to tender back to our cabin, I took this as a sign that we should scour Nice’s department stores for French swim duds for the family. This was quite the fun quest for me; not so much for my husband.
After our return train trip, we stopped in a café for afternoon refreshments (which was really just an excuse to slip into their restroom to change into our new, chic beach gear). I purchased Karissa a Finding Nemo inflatable swim ring from a beachside stand, which wound up being quite handy since she refused to step her delicate tootsies on the pebble sea floor. She floated about in the comfort of her ring for as long as my sand-spoiled feet could handle it.
Date Night for Mom & Dad
We tendered back to the ship and fed Karissa a dinner of pizza before dropping her off at Flounders Nursery. After quick showers, Phil and I hesitantly left Karissa aboard the ship while we (gulp!) headed ashore for dinner alone.
It seemed all of the town’s residents had gathered that evening for a summer festival of sorts. They gabbed aimiably with one another, listening to live music and watching a modern dance performance, as they sat perched on the edge of the square’s sweetly pitiful fountain.
We perused the menus of the handful of restaurants surrounding the town’s tiny main square before settling upon one for dinner. We dined on incredibly fresh fish and toasted our good fortune at experiencing such an incredible vacation, which would be coming to an end all too soon. Romantic moments on vacation with children are rare and make them ever so much more worthy of savoring.
The pressure of time and parental duty weighed on us unspoken throughout our meal. Before long we dutifully took the tender boat back to the ship as the sun dipped slowly beneath the horizon. I snuggled with my husband, his arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders to protect me from the cold breeze as the boat sped across the bay. I stared at the bittersweet beauty of that little French town’s colorful lights shimmering across the water and the sound of the jazz trio fading while I tried to cement the feeling of gratitude and wonder of that moment forever in my memory.
Sometimes not having set vacation plans allows for unexpected discoveries and is the best way to travel. Other times, not having an agenda leads to poor decisions and missed opportunities. Both proved true for us on this day in Southern France.
Do you prefer perfectly planned vacations or spur of the moment travel? Let us know in the comments!
A Note from The Travel Mama: My family paid for our Disney Cruise and I did not receive any discounts or compensation related to this post. All opinions are mine, as always.