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A dog is for the day in surrealist Saint-Tropez

If you plan to visit Saint-Tropez, and have left the family pet back in kennels, why not borrow a small dog? Your villa owner can usually help, and this being the south of France, the animal may well come with a designer lead, perfect for the occasion. This is because a dog makes a statement on your behalf to Saint-Tropez restauranteurs and boutique keepers: ‘We live here.’ You will find that the best tables, empty but mysteriously reserved, suddenly become available in quayside restaurants, and that the outrageous fixed prices in the little shops on narrow streets that fan out in all directions from the Place aux Herbes suddenly become negotiable.

Unless you set out from your villa soon after breakfast, you will also need a chauffeur, some unsuspecting member of the party who can be persuaded or bribed to stay with your car as long as it takes. There is only one serious road into Saint-Tropez and it is snarled up with traffic from morning to night. There is only one car park of any size and it fills up very early.  After that, finding a space takes immense patience and a good deal of luck. Avoid Saturdays and Sundays at all costs and remember the official tow trucks here work 24/7. One ingenious alternative is to aim instead for the marina village of Port Grimaud, with its network of little canals and Venetian bridges. This lies 6km west and has an effortless boat connection to Saint- Tropez, across the bay. Above all, though, do not be put off: this still promises to be a memorable experience.

Dress for the occasion. Don’t tell the children, but you are not really here for the beach or for any sporting activity. You are here to sample a unique, arguably passé, three dimensional film set, with yourselves as extras. For women, this means wearing the most chic, sexy and expensive outfit you have, so long as it is light and all white, with shoes to match and a straw hat to fend off the sun. For men, avoid branded sportswear and trainers: go for designer shirt and jeans, and hide any midriff secrets with a big metal buckle on your belt. If you feel you need a hat, wear a baseball cap, with the peak pointing forwards this year. For everyone, bring sunglasses of course, the larger and more ostentatious the better. Refuse to speak French, even if you do, and you are now the next best thing to bonafide Tropéziens.

However, do not expect to fool the security guards who man the gangways to the luxury yachts moored cheek by jowl in the harbour: guided tours are definitely out. Best to retreat to the facing line of terraced cafés, and stake a claim to a table you can use in relays as a base for several hours. Fortified by a Tarte Tropézienne, a diet-busting slice of crème patissière, sandwiched in sponge cake and sprinkled generously with crystallised sugar, you can try to spot the celebrities on deck. Most will be ‘B’ or ‘C’ list because the really rich and famous own or rent huge houses in private enclaves along the coast, from which they emerge only after dark, when the town’s frenetic and vibrant night clubs open their doors

It is hard to believe it now, but Saint-Tropez was once the forgotten end of the French Riviera, reduced to rubble in 1944 by house-to-house fighting between the invading Americans and the stubborn German garrison. Although rapidly rebuilt, for a decade Saint-Tropez simply stagnated. Then, almost overnight, its popularity was transformed by the arrival in 1956 of French film producer Roger Vadim to make ‘And God Created Woman’ with the unknown actress Brigitte Bardot in the starring role. They stayed on in Saint Tropez, where their circle of glitterati, including Catherine Deneuve, Sacha Distel and Jane Fonda, was meat and drink to the press and fomented an adolescent sexual revolution. St.  Trop, as it became known, was flooded with teenagers who, à la Bardot, began taking off some and then all of their clothes on nearby beaches, occasionally pursued by dutiful gendarmes. Topless bathing, which began at Saint-Tropez in 1960, soon spread to the rest of the Riviera, further enhancing Saint-Tropez’s reputation as an arbiter of progress if not always of taste. 

The fashionable beaches lie not in the town but to the southeast, accessible only by car inland via the D93, another road entirely unsuitable for the volume of traffic now found upon it. You still have to walk some way to use the free stretch close to the Plages des Salins, the northernmost beach. The rest, 7km of glorious sand, is divided into about 30 private sectors, where, be warned, a day out including umbrellas, drinks and lunch by the sea will not be cheap. The Plage de Pampelonne seems positively demur in comparison to the Plage de Tahiti, where every section is topless and most are bottomless for those with the cheek to carry it off. Keen students of anatomy will be amply rewarded for their investment despite the occasional anachronism, such as the English lady of a certain age who every summer sells homemade cakes wearing nothing but a comprehensive tan.

Saint Tropez first became famous in 1892, when the painter Paul Signac persuaded his little colony, fellow neo-Impressionists and a group of colourists called the Fauves, to join him there.  Among them were Bonnard, Braque, Derain, Dufy, Seurat and the greatest, Henri Matisse, whose fine appreciation of design and superb balance of colour made him the acknowledged leader of this illustrious band. Some of the best works by these artists have remained in Saint-Tropez, thanks largely to a local collector, Georges Grammont. To house them, in 1937 he bought the de-consecrated 16th century chapel of L’Annonciade at the western end of the port, well worth a visit.

Saint-Tropez is also the gateway to the magnificent scenery that inspired these artists, on the Massif des Maures, one of the oldest surviving land masses on earth. Its vivid chain of grey, red and violet primeval rocks covered much of the Mediterranean, before the melting snows raised the sea level at the end of the Ice Age.  For children the reward for even transient cooperation at Saint-Tropez could be a day or more at the seaside on the Côte de l’Estérel, which runs north of the town and is characterised by pleasant bays and safe bathing. Among the best is Saint Raphaël, a family resort with a long sandy beach sloping into the sea, and which satisfies the need for more moderate prices. 

Agay, whose name means ‘favourable’, is a deep water anchorage first used by the Greeks and the Romans. It was once the haunt of such illustrious writers as Guy de Maupassant and Saint-Exupéry, for whom the Fountain of the Little Prince was erected in the town in his memory.  Nowadays Agay is specially favoured by bossy pre-teens, who claim the sand on its leeward shore is exactly the right consistency for building immense castles, and that a banana drink sold on the beach cannot be bought for love nor money elsewhere.

In all, Agay has three excellent sandy beaches and a sun-bathing area converted into a terrace, with access across the rocks to the sea. Agay sailing club runs a variety of nautical activities in the summer months, including windsurfing lessons and catamaran courses. Children as young as seven are welcome, with or without their parents.

The harbour, one of the finest anchorages on the coast, offers trips to the Estérel coves, the Lerin Islands and Saint-Tropez, which takes several hours and allows an extensive stay ashore. If you have less time to spare, try the glass bottom boat, a 50-minute excursion to discover the exotic flora and fauna off Cap Dramont. 

To avoid the crowds in summer, try some less popular resorts, such as Boulouris, with its affluent villas and tiny harbour; Miramar, despite its private river marina, still apologetically elegant, uncertain of its identity; Port-la-Galère, unkindly said to be for yachting folk unable to afford the mooring fees at Antibes or Cannes; and Théoule-sur-Mer, a thriving fishing harbour.  Théoule can be said with some certainty to possess the only 18th century battlemented soap factory to be turned into a private coastal château.

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© Jean-Louis CHAIX

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