Sunday, 15 January 2017

A day in Saint-Tropez

'Saint-Tropez, le port 1905' by Albert Marquet. Musée de l'Annonciade, Saint-Tropez. 
Once a sleepy fishing village and artists’ haven, the town of Saint-Tropez – one of the best known in the Var – now conjures up glamour, luxury yachts and beautiful people.

The change came in the 1950s when movie stars like Brigitte Bardot moved in. Artists, actors, models , musicians and the ’jet set’ all followed, putting Saint-Tropez on the map and changing it forever.
Saint-Tropez from la navette (the ferry).
Yet despite these changes – the up-market restaurants, the luxury boutiques, the beautiful people – the town has somehow managed to retain a genuine attraction, for me anyway.

I love nothing better than to catch one of the Bateaux Verts (water taxis) from Sainte-Maxime and speed across the Golfe de Saint-Tropez towards the town.
There is a feeling of exhilaration about cutting through the waves and weaving through the yachts 
as you approach the little pink-and-ochre town that grew up around its fishing fleet.

Drawing closer you can make out the familiar rounded church tower that has marked the town through the ages, the Citadelle – high on the promontory – and the breakwater that creates a safe harbour for both the enormous luxury yachts and the smaller, working fishing vessels.
Senequier - a landmark café on the port. 
You arrive portside to recognise so many landmarks made famous in posters, works of art and photographs.

It is always overcrowded with tourists in summer, yet there is a sense of fun and anticipation as you turn for a stroll around the port. Each year the town hosts an outdoor sculpture exhibition there, and regular artists set up side-by-side to ply their trade like a sunny southern Place du Tertre.

But the true finds are when you start exploring the narrow walkways and passages that take you into the heart of the town.  I could spend all my time wandering up and down these lanes – seeking out tiny galleries, restaurants hidden behind high bougainvillea-covered walls, arcades of Haute Couture boutiques and others where the usual range of soft, flowing cotton summer dresses and scarves fill the entrances.
Playing petanque in the dappled shade of the platanes (plane trees).
Push a little further and you come to the amazing Place des Lices – where the morning markets under the spreading plane trees really are something else. There are food stalls, but mostly there is an array of antique stalls – old clothes, mirrors, kitchen utensils, farm items, clocks, wrought iron candelabra, clothing, perfumes – you can spend the entire morning enveloped in the rows and rows of ‘stuff’.

Walking through the old town.
It finishes at lunchtime – everyone has to eat – and the stall-holders are like worker ants, quickly and efficiently packing everything up and clearing the entire square for the post-prandial petanque players to while away their afternoons in the dappled shade.

Meanwhile, encircling the square are restaurants of all kinds, where you can enjoy a leisurely half-pizza and salad, some locally-caught seafood or one of the special ( and extra healthy) Mediterranean dishes. Washed down, of course with some chilled local rosé.

Feeling relaxed enough to stretch those legs afterwards, you can make your way through the old town as it meanders up the hillside to the Citadelle. Warning: While the view is breathtaking, so are the many steps you have to climb to reach it.

It has been substantially renovated since we first visited it and really should be a ‘must’ on any visitor’s see-and-do list.
You learn not only about the history of St Tropez – named after the monk, St Torpès of Pisa, whose headless body was washed up in a boat on the shore of the present-day town – but also about its sea-faring pursuits and the Citadelle's own role in guarding the village below. You can even lie back on special seats and watch your own sea voyage unfold on the ceiling!

One of the giant sculptures outside l'Annonciade.
And if you’re not up to the hilly walk, my absolute favourite place to go is ‘le Musée de l’Annonciade’ – the beautiful gallery on the far edge of the port that houses a sublime collection of post-Impressionist art. Here you can see original paintings by Bonnard, Signac, Derain, Vuillard, Camoin, among so many others.
These were the early artists who colonised the small Provenҫal village, attracted by the magnificent Mediterranean light.

I sometimes return to St Tropez a second time during my stay.  It is a quick and easy day trip from Les Arcs-sur-Argens by bus to Sainte-Maxime. The Bateaux Verts that leave every 20 minutes for Saint-Tropez are just 10 minutes’ walk from the Office du Tourisme bus stop. So much easier on public transport than negotiating the Cote d’Azur in summer traffic!

It’s always a fascinating day out, even if you just want to laze in one of the café-bars lining the port and people-watch.


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