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A place with music of its own: Villefranche

A place with music of its own: Villefranche

A place with music of its own: Villefranche

The story in my novel Concerto begins in a place I know well: Nice, in the French Riviera, a little way along from my summer home. The hero of the novel, Umberto, is Italian, and so it makes sense that he spends time in this part of France, so close to the French–Italian border.

Umberto is a rising star in classical music, and he has bought himself a little place on the water, a retreat for composing his piano pieces. For me, the obvious choice of setting for this hideaway was Villefranche-sur-Mer, a place so beautiful it is bound to stir the muse.

Here, Umberto and Catriona take in the scenery on the approach to his Villefranche home:

Soon they were running along the seafront corniche and it wasn’t long before they had reached Col de Villefranche. The view of the village harbour on one hand and Nice, Antibes and the Estérels on the other was breathtaking.

Although it was night, the moon was shining her silver beams over the ocean and when they had reached the extreme point of the promontory Catriona couldn’t help but exclaim, ‘Oh, que c’est beau!’

Umberto nodded, still looking ahead. ‘Sì, davvero magnifico!’

A truly magnificent sight burst into view on the east side. It embraced the promontory of St Jean and Cap Ferrat, with the lighthouse standing out in the sea, and the deep gulf of Villefranche, encompassing the indented coastline of the Mediterranean as far as Bordighera, with the little town of Eze standing on the top of a high mountain, overlooking the deep glittering waters.

For Umberto, the views in Villefranche are so inspiring. His house, Villa Rossini, is small, but it is built to make the very best of its cliff-side position, with arched windows that overlook the whole of the bay across to the Italian Riviera. From the terrace, the view is spectacular. I write:

Below the house lay the darkly shimmering and moving sea and Catriona could see the masts and ropes of the fishing boats in the little harbour of Villefranche, frosted by the orb of night. The bay was hung with a necklace of houses enveloped in shrouds of night mist. Above them, the full moon smiled its crooked smile and stars burned away in pale gold fire that flamed like little jewelled pinheads, filling the sky with their unusual brightness. The tree-lined cliffs flanking the bay seemed to imprison the coastal town and its waters in their shadowed arms.

As Umberto tells Catriona, Villefranche is different from the other towns of France. It has a totally unique atmosphere. This, he theorises, may be because it was once part of Italy, so there is a marriage of cultures.

It is not only the views that inspire Umberto here; it is the sounds of the place, its inherent music. He tells Catriona:

‘Everything here speaks of the sea. The bars are crowded with fishermen and sailors and there’s always a carefree air of mariners on shore leave, with accordions playing dance tunes. I often go walking on the docks, and all through the day there’s the sound of hammering and scraping of boats. This place has a music of its own.’

Umberto’s passion for the place is evident. ‘It’s utterly captivating,’ he tells Catriona, ‘mi sono inamorato … I’m in love …’

It is here, in Villefranche, with Catriona and overlooking the ocean, that Umberto is moved to improvise at his piano, and the result is his greatest composition, ‘Songe d’une Nuit d’Amour’, played with such poignancy and power, until ‘the final chord melts into the quiet swish of the sea beyond’.

It is here, in Villefranche, that Umberto and Catriona come together for a night of passion. The next day both will leave Villa Rossini, never to return there together. But that place, that view, that music, that passion will remain forever in their hearts. The question is, when after years of estrangement the two meet again, on Lake Como in Italy, can they recapture the magic and wonder and inspiration they experienced in Villefranche?

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