… I am enrolled in the month-long French language immersion course at the institute, housed in an elegant Provençal villa set within orange tree gardens on a high-terraced hillside above the Mediterranean. Our modern classroom overlooks the deep blue bay of Villefranche and beyond that to Cap Ferrat.

For eight hours a day, five days a week, speaking any other language but French during the course is forbidden, with a €1 “fine” for any lapses.

One of the students turns to me and says (in French, of course): “This is the first time for 30 years that I feel like I am a student again and I love it”. Bruno, professor of our advanced class, performs a great balancing act, bringing humour and much diplomacy to the daily task of our improvement. It feels like we are in a safe boat on a very fast-moving tide – whatever our age, career paths and position in our respective countries, we are all at the same level here.

There are 65 students in all, aged 21 upwards and from such countries as Australia, America, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and Ireland. The motivation to learn free-flowing French varies: work requirements, the desire to integrate into the French lifestyle or just the pure pleasure of communicating in another language.

Charlene Wittstock, the South African swimmer rumoured to be the next Princess of Monaco, has been studying here recently. Other well-known students have included Queen Sonja of Norway, Hollywood actress Kathy Bates and even Vidal Sassoon.

The language teaching is based on the St Cloud-Zagreb method, which takes the 1,500 most frequently used French words in everyday conversation – originally recorded, in the 1950s, via strategically placed microphones in stores, cafés, subways and offices around Paris – as its basis. These words are the “fundamental French vocabulary” used for the audio-visual elements of the course.

Different classes mix for the afternoon séances pratiques sessions – which cover business vocabulary, how to understand radio and TV news, useful phrases for shopping, telephone calls, going to dinner and entertaining at home. And what better way to pursue our knowledge of French cuisine than the wine and cheese tasting sessions that tantalise palates with the superb variety of French cheeses, together with lessons on how to mix and cook crêpes.

Our lunches are held with a teacher at each table to encourage informal conversation. My favourite topics include Jean-Pierre’s tales of travel and precious stones, and the chef’s recipe for home-made Limoncello. French speaking is kept alive on evening visits to local restaurants serving regional cuisine and wine, to the theatre in Nice and to the cinema.

There is, however, serious intent beyond all these fun outings. Says Frédéric Latty, executive assistant of the institute: “In this way the students don’t return to their first language or risk losing any of the benefits of the true immersion of the day – rapidly developing French conversation skills in a correct and spontaneous manner”.

At the weekend, some students take time off to ski in the nearby mountains, walk around Antibes or hike in the Massif de l’Estérel beyond Cannes. Others take a train ride to Monte Carlo and then into nearby Italy for shopping.

In Villefranche-sur-Mer itself, wandering through the cobbled streets of the medieval fishing port, lined with clusters of pastel-shaded houses, draws you back to the end of the 13th century when the “free port” was created by Charles II, Duke of Anjou…

… By contrast, looking out straight into the brilliant light of the harbour, it’s easy to see why artists such as Matisse, Chagall and Léger were drawn to this area. It is as if you are actually walking inside a painting – in the intense and shimmering light, detail is lost and replaced by small strokes of pure colour bouncing off the expansive blue of the sky and sea.

For the final occasion, I am back in the institute’s language laboratory, and the mist gradually seems to be clearing. I am now actually thinking in French.

“Je pense que, j’aimerais que … L’humeur, l’humour, le mur, l’amour “… We repeat in unison and on our own and we love it ! What an improvement. After speaking nothing but French, it seems strange to hear classmates talking in their own languages at the end of the course.

As I leave town I notice Betty, who runs the local café-bar. Popular with students for welcoming all attempts to speak French – even happily correcting any mistakes – she is leaving in a tall white wool hat, owlish dark glasses, white coat and high heels. And I see Julien, one of the teachers, whistling on his way up to the school.

Sadly, it’s au revoir for now.