When we left Annecy’s majestic mountains for Provence, I had a romantic image of ochre coloured houses and fields of lavender. The beginning June is a bit too early for the purple blossoms of the Perfume Gods, although the red hue from the poppies were a joy to behold. So whilst we sat waiting, both for the heady scent of lavender to fill the air, and the weather to improve, the map guided us towards Provence’s other treasures.
What struck us was how close we were to the Côte-d’Azur – I love the coast – I find it really nourishes me. Must be something to do with the sea air and the permission it gives my inner-child to play, bare-feet, in the sand. Yet this coastline is anything but a child’s playground – it’s a far more glitzy affair, where the adult kids come to show off. That realisation deterred me from heading that far south, as I’ve seen Monaco, and it all seemed a bit too superficial for me.
Yet strangely, St Tropez called me. I can’t quite articulate why; there was just something alluring about this glittery gem on the Mediterranean coast that I was drawn to.
What happened over the course of four days, was a caravan of beautiful surprises, each arriving in perfectly wrapped boxes. The first was realising that St Tropez is actually sheltered in its very own bay, giving it a certain, ‘je ne sais quoi.’ Craggy outcrops of rock decorate the bay, from Sainte Maxine on the east, right around to St Tropez on the opposite side.
Our second surprise was being able to camp right on the beach at Les Mûres, just outside Grimaud. This was, in fact, not quite as romantic as it sounds; for one, big Pine trees blocked much of the view and gave too much shade and a busy road immediately behind us, was used as a race track by early morning commuters and hundreds of Vespas that had turned up for a rally the weekend we arrived. Add to that, plenty of other campers who had the same romantic idea as me and you’ll understand why it was not quite the reality I’d envisioned. That said, being this close to the beach was a real treat for my inner-child. If I shut my ears to the noise I could still be nourished by its stillness and tranquility.
On a trip out on the bikes, we stumbled across our third surprise – Port Grimaud. This little sanctuary, that looks like a picture-postcard, is a sight NOT to pass by. In 1966, architect François Spoerry had an ambitious vision to turn this dilapidated port into a living marina or ‘lake-dwelling’ city. Contained within its walls like a well-kept secret, is 12km of Venice-like canals that weave between fishermen’s houses with pontoons that act as watery car parks for rather magnificent sea-faring vessels. And just beyond its breakwater, the ocean flirtatiously entices you towards her.
The colours, shapes and rooflines of this little water city is quite charming and so easily missed as you sail on by towards the magnetism of St Tropez. These collection of homes bording the canals, which perch like herons on the water’s edge, represent every colour of an artist’s palette; their traditional Provençal roof tiles framing their picturesque couture. Electric boats carry you around the intricacies of the canals for €5.50, allowing you to safely explore the waterways as a voyeur without reprimand. For €1 you can climb the Church tower to get a bird’s eye view of the port and it’s a spectacle that not even the camera can capture. You just need to drink it in with your soul.
And as we moved around the bay, our final surprise – the pièce de résistance – was St Tropez. Now I had an image in my mind about what it would look like, given my Monaco experience, and as we drove towards this celebrity hang-out, I found myself waiting patiently for the truth to be revealed. Would we see marbled walkways, glitzy hotels and bars, and the glamour of a city that has a reputation for big names and equally big boats?
Our first welcome into St Tropez was a very traditional market in Place de Lice. I usually love walking around these artisan stalls, although with too many people, we didn’t stay for long. Instead we parked up our bikes and headed into the centre, ready for whatever joys that may hold. We passed through narrow streets with typical Provençal buildings discretely housing understated boutiques, selling big brand labels. Flag lined alleyways enticed us to come feel its history and treasure and yet there was no glamour and no glitz.
On first entering the port area of St Tropez, you get a real sense of ‘Ah, this is it, this is more of what I was expecting.’ And it’s true, you are welcomed by the largest, most ostentatious, floating pleasure craft you will ever see. Like a Cat-Walk at Paris Fashion week, boats, no wait… ships parade themselves in all their glory along the quay, like birds with puffed out chests trying to woo their women. As we walk along the quay, we get the sense that people are languishing in the dream of being King or Queen for a day and being swept off their feet by some monarch or celebrity into the luxurious world of the rich and famous.
Yet artists line the quay under their simple canvas umbrellas, hoping that someone; you, me, Brad or George, will appreciate their talents and purchase one of their masterpieces. Restaurants frame the marina, one after another, all offering their ‘Plat de Jour’, although not with the tinsel I was expecting. Just everyday bars looking out onto a – not-of-this-world – watery view. The only thing that gave you any indication of opulence – aside of the boats, were the prices. Food, not so much, although the beers – oh my! It was a good job that, after four bottles between the two of us, I was a little mellow, because the €52 bill left me feeling like I needed celebrity status to pay for it. That said, the chance to sit and soak up the atmosphere was priceless.
As our search continued, somewhat in shock at our bar bill, we ventured on up into the old town and wow, were we amazed. St Tropez’s hidden beauty soon sobered me up as her charm embraced us. Cobbled streets, wonkey alleys, archways that called to you and the most delightfully authentic town we’ve seen. It was a joy to be in and it captured our hearts with its simplicity, lack of tourism and Provençal roots, giving us a glimpse into life before Bridget Bardot.
So St Tropez – is it all glitz, glamour and no heart or is there a soul in the place? Well I have to say that for us, she most certainly has soul. There is no city, just a quaint, old fishing town made good – and through it all, she has maintained her simplicity, despite Leonardo’s annual visits or the Princess of Monaco’s graceful presence. There are no marbled streets, ostentatious hotels, just the odd restaurant that suggests opulence and a few big boats. That’s it.
We loved the surprise that St Tropez wrapped up for us and were captivated by her old town in particular. You can keep the floating palaces and the lifestyle they offer; the real St Tropez, on the other side of the beer price tag, is full of character, delight and introverted personality. Despite the Haut Couture labels, there is nothing flashy about her – she is subtle, alluring and delightful. She is just a normal French town, trying to go about her business, with a few celebrities that choose to don her streets every now and again.
St Tropez has a big reputation and an even bigger heart. Do visit as you will be pleasantly surprised by her soul.