Well, I wonder, is my French any better after two weeks of intense immersion at Institut de Francais in VilleFranche-sur-mer on the French Rivera? Happily, it is, but I’m far, far from fluent—a distant goal. The key is to retain what I’ve learned. But now, in English, a recap with recommendations for visiting:
If you want to learn French, the Institut offers opportunities and challenges. Great teachers, international classmates, breakfast, lunch, lodging options, and an inspiring location, but there’s also a daily language lab that can leave your head spinning.
Housed in a Provencal villa, the school rests high on a winding hillside with views of the Mediterranean, Cap Ferrat, and distant mountains. The grounds are lovely, surrounded by a terraced garden and dotted with orange and lemon trees. Not a bad place to be immersed. I had a wonderful apartment (arranged by the Institut) overlooking the bay and a ten minute climb to the school grounds—86 steps to the back garden gate and another 66 to class (there is an easier way around, however).
The port village of VilleFranche-sur-mer looks as if it were chiseled out of the mountains, a politically strategic position for keeping enemies at bay. Remnants of a 15th century Citadel, the ancient fortification, partially surround the old city.
With the weekend off I toured the Citadel, now a museum and well worth a visit to see the sculpture and sketches by 20th century artist Antoniucci Volti (http://volti-sculpture.com/), permanently housed there. Don’t miss the chapel Jacques Cocteau decorated. When he was in residence at VilleFranche, he painted the interior too, but it was closed for the season.
After five days of seating in class, wandering around the gardens of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Cap Ferrat—perfectly perched on the hillside with the Med all around—was a treat. Rich people certainly knew how to live during the Belle Epoque! But hiking the Peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to the lighthouse was a highlight. Would have traversed the entire route, but the daylight was dimming.
For exercising body and soul, meander along the rocky and wild coast of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat: Follow, if you can, the Sentier de pietons signs (warning: the French and their signs or lack of them, don’t make it easy), for awe-inspiring views —akin to the CA coastline from LA to SF.
Back in VilleFranche, there’s a fruit and veggie marche along the quay on Saturdays and a small brocante market on Sundays. Pretty much all that’s happening this time of year. February is definitely off-season; the town is quiet, no tourists in site. So the local merchants are happy to see the students, and speaking to the vendors is an easy way to practice French. If you want more action, a 45-minute walk or a 1 Euro bus ride will get you to Nice, where you’ll find larger, bustling markets.
Restaurant recommendations in VilleFranche:
Cote Jardin—Delicious salad and fish. This is where the Institut holds a special dinner during the week. Pleasant outdoor and indoor dining in the old city.
Rue de Poilu
Le Serre –reasonable French cuisine and a pleasant staff; probably need reservations during tourist season.
16 Rue May,
phone: 04 93 76 79 91
Chez Betty for coffee at the bar. Just wander in. The staff is friendly and happy to speak French to you. This is also where the Institut leaves your apartment key if you arrive on a Sunday.
2 Avenue du Maréchal Foch Phone 04 93 01 70 91
After tackling language school for two weeks that included giving a 15-20 minute talk in French and answering questions, I realize that I should have stayed for an entire month. But alas, there are other things to do, such as playing tennis on red clay courts in Nice where I continue to practice speaking French. And, there’s always next year in VilleFranche.