Today Jill and Henry Warner visited the 1550′s era Villefranche citadel named Fort St Elme. The citadel, situated at sea level, was a key element in the coastal defense system of the time. While more modern than a middle ages château, it is nevertheless of interest for those who can appreciate the effort it must have taken to construct it. Today the citadel has no military significance, but is instead home to civic and cultural offices, including the town’s mairie (city hall), museums and an outdoor, open-air theater. Admission is totally free, which continued to surprise us while touring the facility, as we expected to surely get charged for something before we were finished.
Henry Warner recommends a visit to the citadel for anyone staying in Villefranche. We had no trouble spending about two hours ambling through the structure and visiting the various museums. While not directly connected to any early history of the fort, one museum that both of us particularly enjoyed was the early aviation museum housed in the former chapel. This museum had a lot of early aviation movie footage and photos that were quite fascinating. As Henry Warner is a licensed pilot, it was especially compelling to me to watch footage of flying machines that looked very fragile by today’s standards.
A large part of the aviation museum was dedicated to the exploits of Villefranche native Auguste Maïcon, who was a pioneering French aviator. One of the feats that he was particularly well known for was flying his plane numerous times under a bridge in nearby Nice. The bridge opening was only 7 feet higher and 20 feet wider than his airplane. He died of natural causes at the age of 83, disproving the old adage that “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.”