1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Villefranche - where Jean Cocteau was happy

July 20, 2017

The French artist Jean Cocteau loved Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte d'Azur, and he presented the picturesque fishing town with a work that still bears fruit.

Frankreich - Villefranche-sur-Mer
Image: picture alliance/prisma/C. Heeb

The French painter, poet, novelist, film director, ballet scenario writer and playwright (1889-1963) loved to watch the port, with its sometimes leisurely, sometimes bustling pace. After the roaring 20s, when he cured his opium addiction here and, as he put it, haunted the place with his Parisian friends, he returned time and again. He painted the fishermen, lived with them and wrote about them. He revealed that he spent the "best time" of his life in Villefranche. 

Frankreich - Villefranche-sur-Mer - Jean Cocteau
Bust of Cocteau opposite the Welcome HotelImage: picture alliance/maxppp/Sylvestre

Cocteau resided in room 22 in the Welcome Hotel. The hotel still exists. If you can't get to sleep in the converted 17th-century convent, you needn't be distressed. You can watch the lapping of the waves or listen to the gentle creaking of the landing stage as Cocteau did, from the balcony, his "opera box". 

Frankreich - Villefranche-sur-Mer
Image: picture-alliance/maxppp/A. Brochiero

Scenes from his films on the walls, over the bed a quotation from the master: "De temps en temps il faut se reposer de ne rien faire" ("From time to time you have to take a rest from doing nothing").  Here Cocteau, the prolific writer and eccentric, found the ideal matrix for his creativity. This is where one of his major works, "Le Testament d'Orphée" (The Testament of Orpheus), came into being.

Filmstill Das Testament des Orpheus
"Le Testament d'Orphée" (1960), DVD Arthaus StudiocanalImage: Arthaus Studiocanal

"Orphée" was also the name he gave to each of his three boats, which were successively moored here. Nowadays huge ocean-going cruise ships filled with day trippers drop anchor at Cap Ferrat. In the port of Villefranche they seem like foreign bodies. The fishing village was built on a steep slope above one of the most beautiful bays on the French Riviera, and unlike so many places on the Côte d'Azur, it's neither unnaturally neat nor has it been taken over by celebrity homes.

Tourism is necessary

On the one hand, the town, with its 5,300 residents, lives from its informal atmosphere. On the other, Villefranche-sur-Mer possesses a currency of which it must make the most in order to defend itself against the competition from Cannes and Nice: at 350 hectares, the bay of Villefranche is the fifth-largest natural deep harbor in the country. Here giant liners from overseas can anchor without risk."Europe in ten days" isn't exactly the philosophy to which Villefranche has subscribed, but the community simply cannot afford to deprive itself of some 200,000 Japanese and American tourists a year. Between 60 and 70 percent of them make day trips to Cannes, Nice and Monaco; others prefer to remain on board their liners. About a fifth of them do at least stop off in Villefranche itself. But those who take the town seriously come time and time again - like Jean Cocteau.Frescoes for a chapel

Frankreich - Villefranche-sur-Mer
Chapelle Saint-Pierre in Villefranche (on the right in the picture)Image: picture alliance/Global Travel Images/Travelstock44
Frankreich - Villefranche-sur-Mer
Image: picture alliance/prisma/K. Kreder

In the 1950s, members of the "Prud'hommie des Pecheurs", the town's fishermen's association, encouraged him in his idea of decorating the Chapelle Saint-Pierre on the jetty with frescoes. The 14th-century Romanesque chapel dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen was in a sorry state at the time - a neglected storeroom for nets and other fishing equipment. As a sign of his almost brotherly attachment, Cocteau covered it almost completely with paintings as disconcerting as they are fascinating:  five main images, three depicting episodes from the life of St. Peter and two evoking Mediterranean life, such as the annual gypsy pilgrimage to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, which look like rock paintings in a sea cavern. To this day they remain a blessing for the fishermen's association, which administrates this gem. The proceeds from its entrance fees are used to supplement the meager pensions of elderly fishermen. Taking photographs is absolutely forbidden inside. That leads the town's tourism officials to tear out their hair, but it doesn't matter to the fishermen. After all, it's their chapel. 

Frankreich - Villefranche-sur-Mer -  Jean Cocteau
Image: picture alliance/maxppp/Sylvestre

A villa as an artwork in itself

The villa Santo Sospir on Cap Ferrat is on view, though only by appointment. It belonged to Francine Weisweiller, a friend of Jean Cocteau. He was a frequent visitor to the villa, and in 1950, he began to decorate it with frescoes. Nowadays the villa is a historically listed monument. 

Jean Cocteau-Museum in Menton
Jean Cocteau Museum in MentonImage: Picture alliance/dpa/P. Varotto/Musee Jean Cocteau

Further following in the footsteps of the famous avant-garde artist, the Cocteau Museum in Menton is well worth a visit, as is a look into the Salle des Mariages, the official room for weddings, which he decorated in the town hall. 

is/ks/ms (mit kna,villasantosospir.fr)