There’s a reason it’s called “high season.” There’s a reason more people flock to a place at certain times, that the prices skyrocket and the city fills up so full that it’s nigh on impossible to imagine it any other way.
Except that there is a low season. There is a time when visitors are few and far between, hotel rates are affordable and a good number of the businesses are shuttered because it isn’t really worth their time to open up with such a sparse population to serve.
And while there is a very real charm to having a city to yourself, to getting a fancy room at the hotel that looks out onto the water for a reasonable price and to wandering a beautiful seaside place that looks a little like a ghost town. There’s definitely charm in that. But it’s also … a little depressing.
This was our latest experience of Villefranche Sur Mer on the French Riviera. We had found an incredible deal on a flight and on hotels, and all of the wine-tasting and landmark-viewing we wanted to do. It all seemed to line up perfectly, so we booked. Never mind that it was off season. We didn’t care for crowds anyway. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the height of summer – surely, there was more to do by the sea than bathe in it or sunbathe near it.
Villefranche Sur Mer is a typical, postcard-lovely Riviera village. A pharmacy, a bakery, a patisserie, a wine store – or three, multiple seaside bistros serving French, Italian and of course, seafood. There is a marina with enormous yachts tied up, as well as quick little cruising boats and rowboats, alike. Also, a fisherman’s dock, with a decidedly casual little restaurant perched alongside and just a bit farther down, fancy restaurants headed by some of the top chefs in France.
But while we visited, it was cool – sometimes, cold. The upscale eateries were closed, most with a sign announcing that they’d reopen with the season. Although, not the season in which we were visiting – another reminder that we had come at the wrong time. The beaches were all but empty. Just sand and water and sky. And it was gorgeous, lovely, staggeringly beautiful – but there was also something slightly off about it. Like arriving to a party after the other guests have left – or, perhaps, before anyone has arrived. Before the music has come on and definitely before the cake has been put out. The beach was more than empty, it looked … abandoned and forlorn. It was early spring, the flowers were blooming and the weather mostly mild, but we were too early. We’d never see the full bloom of the flowers or the beach full to bursting – with nary a space to lay down our towel.
Our hotel room was one of the best the place has to offer. High up, with a clear view of the Mediterranean, and one could almost pretend that Italy can be seen across the expanse if you screwed your eyes up just right and saw through the waves. But the few boats tied up on the water were empty, too, their occupants having anchored them and then come ashore – in search of excitement we were too foreign to know about.
And Villefranche was charming, and it was lovely and there were lace curtains hanging in windows and spring was in the air. But we were too early. There’s a reason it’s called off season, because everything about visiting then was slightly … off. A solid reminder to pay the premiums and put up with the crowds, to fight for space on the beach and arrive to the party … in the high season.