Purely for Pleasure
The myth and reality of St. Tropez
Aug. 30, 2005 02:00 PM
Even if you’ve never been to St. Tropez, you’ve probably already seen the famous clock tower and the multi-million dollar yachts berthed shoulder to shoulder at the quayside. You’ve probably also heard talk of the boutiques, luxury hotels, restaurants and bars bursting with celebrities; all glitz and high-living. Some people are put off, others are drawn by curiosity. Certainly everyone has formed an impression before they arrive.
It’s hard to imagine that just after the end of the Second World War when the owners of a local fishermen’s bar decided to open a dance cellar, everyone laughed because they couldn’t believe anyone from outside the village would ever come. In 1944 the quay Suffren, today lined with super yachts, was jagged with craters from the mines detonated by retreating German forces during the Allied landings. The nearby pastel houses, including the famous Bar Senequier, were tattered and pockmarked by shrapnel. However, earlier in the century, St. Tropez had been patronised by a number of artists and writers and already had a reputation as something of a creative melting pot. When the dust settled, the village soon began to attract musicians, film stars and other celebrities.
In the mid 1950s the fishermen’s bar expanded again to become the Hotel de la Ponche and Club 55 opened its doors on the Pampelonne beach. At the same time, Brigitte Bardot made her film debut in Roger Vadim’s “And God Created Woman” instantly immortalising the myth of “la vie Tropezienne” to the outside world. The partygoers arrived in force as word spread and, before long, the jet-set could drop anchor safe in the knowledge that they would bump into their friends. Today, the same establishments that contributed to its initial success are still amongst the most popular. In a world where fame is often fleeting and based on large marketing budgets, St. Tropez is a rare phenomenon.
“It’s not what I expected at all” is the comment we frequently hear from guests arriving on our yachts. No one’s particularly sure what they did expect but the pretty cobbled streets, stone archways and patchwork pastel houses always come as a pleasant surprise. Whilst the wealthy look on, the less well-heeled gaze across from the other side of the passerelle and lick their ice creams. But beyond the clutter of postcards, churned-out paintings and the usual tourist paraphernalia, St Tropez has genuine charm and authenticity.
Take a visit to the art gallery La Musée de l’Annonciade to see St.Tropez through the eyes of the more famous painters who gathered here in the early twentieth century. You’ll recognise the light and the colours: the purple hills, the sun-washed buildings and the blazing sunsets. The light and atmosphere that Matisse, Signac and Marquet captured on canvas hasn’t changed and you can still sit on the terrace of La Ponche in Picasso’s favourite corner to appreciate his view of the bay.
Stroll around the alleyways and stop by Zita’s little garden shop on the Rue Aire de Chemin where you’ll find an eclectic and very Tropezienne mix of straw hats, wind chimes, clothing and soaps perfumed with essential oils. You’ll find an eclectic and very Tropezienne mix of straw hats, wind chimes, clothing and soaps perfumed with essential oils. Not long before she arrived in the ’70s, the town had such a reputation that any teenagers unable to produce a legally witnessed letter from their parents permitting them to be there on their own, were frog-marched out of town by the police!
On Tuesday or Saturday browse the market in the Place des Lices; locals and tourists alike bustle around the colourful stalls laden with fruit and vegetables, olives, flowers, herbs and spices, brightly patterned tablecloths and traditional straw shopping bags. In the evening it’s the preserve of the boules enthusiasts who while away the hours under the plane trees, fortified by glasses of aniseed flavoured Pastis. But at the end of a hot afternoon the best place to take refuge is in the Bar Sube where you can sink into one of the deep, polished leather armchairs. Upstairs from the Quai Suffren, it has the feel of a colonial yacht club and is the ideal place to remain incognito. Last time I was there, Mr. Armani was quietly enjoying a drink with friends, a comfortable distance from the crowds. It’s also the best vantage point to want to watch what’s going on outside - take your seat on the narrow terrace at about 5:30 p.m. and be entertained by the ballet of superyachts berthing in the port.
So where’s the glitz? Well, only the French could combine deluxe with pure bohemianism in such style. Here, designer labels mingle with market stall finds and straw hats. You might leave the Ferrari in the garage and take the Mini-Moke instead but you can still pop into Dior and pick up some arm candy to show off when you dine at the Byblos (they’ll even bring a little stool for you to put your new handbag on). One thing is essential though – a yacht.