We were in St Tropez the other day. Yes, we know, that’s a beastly bit of name-dropping, but it isn’t quite what you think because it wasn’t quite what we think. Or thought. Or thought we thought.
Let us clarify. Think St Tropez, and most folk normally conjure up glorious mental images of endless golden sands, beautiful people and topless sunbathing. It’s the heart of the French Riviera, and therefore the epi-centre of high fashion and sun-tanned bodies, with a hefty dose of film celebrity thrown in for good measure.
That ultimate French movie goddess Brigitte Bardot put St Tropez on the map in 1956 when she turned up to film And God Created Women. The, ahem, Princess of Pout, was in full uninhibited mode back then, and the world’s glamour photographers flocked to the Côte d’Azur to snap endless pictures of her, her friends, her surroundings and pretty much anything that didn’t move.
From a humble fishing village, St Tropez became the hub of A-list celebrities and other hangers-on, creating a cottage industry in star-spotting and film accessorising. This was THE place to see and be seen and, along a genuinely sun-kissed coast, it captured the imagination as much for its image of Bardot on the beach as anything else.
So, we rolled up on our latest little Mediterranean jaunt – a highly pleasant seven-day sojourn in the company of that bastion of sea-going chic, Windstar Cruises – fully expecting to be bowled off our pins by the sight and sound of a full-scale, beach-induced celebrity-fest.
Only that’s not quite what happened. Which is where that ‘You thought, We thought’ conundrum first hove into view at the top of the blog. It should be said that we’ve visited the Côte d’Azur before. We love Nice, Cannes and Villefranche, and, while we find the open ostentation of Monte Carlo just too pretentious for words – we’re not about to ‘Peter plus haut que son cul,’ as they say over there – we still enjoy the indulgent idyll of it all.
Surprisingly, we had never made it to St Tropez before, despite Treadwell insisting it was tailor-made for the inner Bardot in her. It always seemed a touch too recherché, too obviously tainted by the cult of celebrity, too dissolute. How wrong we were.
In stepping off the tender from our boutique bateau, our first utterances were, “Oh, where are the beaches?” Because it was clear they weren’t anywhere in the vicinity of the harbour, or the old town or even the rocky peninsula crowned by the 16th-century Citadel.
Sure, there were the usual quota of millionaire’s playthings bobbing in the oh-so-wealthy marina, and the immediate harbour area was surrounded by the kind of cafes that give Venice a run for their money in that “It costs HOW much?” type of reaction when you get the bill for two cups of coffee, sorry, cappuccino. There was also a liberal sprinkling of boutiques with no prices in the window in the manner of Bond Street, an indication to those of us with limited bank accounts that our custom is not welcome.
But beyond the obviously superficial, here was a town that felt wonderfully authentic and original; precious, maybe, but not the precocious hot-spot we expected. There was no Bardot, and there were no Paparazzi looking to cash in on celebrity sightings. In fact, if you were able to blur out the super-yachts and the café prices, this was as regular and charming as any Mediterranean bolt-hole can be, a genuine slice of La Belle Vie without the posturing and affectation.
Wandering beyond the immediate tourist-trap vibe of the marina, the town itself quickly revealed far more charms and attractions than we imagined. In the Place des Lices, the local characters were engaged in some serious games of boules underneath the plane trees, and families strolled across the sun-baked earth in a setting more timeless than anything in Bardot’s day.
We continued into the ‘vieux ville’ and found even more of this gracious, abiding atmosphere, full of ochre-coloured streets surrounded by similarly-hued buildings topped by dull red tiles and punctuated by the square rust-and-yellow bulk of the tower of the parish church. We discovered Restaurant La Pesquière and lunched on outrageously delicious sardines, ratatouille and several glasses of Pays D’Oc chardonnay, overlooking La Ponche beach.
Maybe this was where the Bright Young Things hung out with the film celebs back in the day, we wondered? For all of five seconds, as this postage-stamp-sized parcel of beachy real estate was about as glamorous as leftover cassoulet and, if Ms Bardot ever rested her rump on this piece of grainy plage, she may well have ended up with a perforated posterior. Glamour central this was not.
What it was, though, was a glorious slice of 16th and 17th-century Tropezien heritage, a perfect little hideaway long before the nouveau riche decided this was the place to park their yachts.
From a perceived stage for celebrities, St Tropez actually turned out to be a charming theatre for the real and authentic, packed with history but enough mod cons to keep us blissfully happy with this unexpected corner of the Mediterranean.
So, the next time we are tempted to dismiss a place – especially a well-known, mainstream place – as the sum total of its reputation, just reminds us of St Tropez. Oh, and sardines and chardonnay. That’ll do the trick.
What port has most taken you (pleasantly) by surprise? Tell us your best port stories in the Comments section below.