The International Writers Magazine: France
A Taste of Saint-Tropez
Walli F. Leff
Across slippery cobblestones and up a temporary wooden ramp in the drenching rain, my husband and I ran with dozens of other tourists, seeking shelter in the festive white tent on the edge of St-Tropez’s iconic port.
A casual observer could have been forgiven for thinking the drenched refugees from this fierce and prolonged early autumn downpour had been drawn to the seaside to witness the departure of Noah and his paired-off passengers on the ark. Winds suddenly drove from two directions at once and blew a torrent into both of the open sides of the tent. We all crammed together in the middle as far from exposure as we could get, but still got soaked. The climax of the inaugural day of “Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez,” the annual sailboat regatta of the celebrity leisure capital of the Riviera, was a wash-out.
The next afternoon the weather gods made up for their howling tantrum. The sun shone gloriously on the “Pot d’Accueil,” the municipality’s welcoming event for the boats’ crews and the tourists. Clouds in every shape imaginable turned the sky into an intriguing abstract painting. Friendly volunteers manned tables decked out with bowls of colorful raw vegetables, tasty dip, and appealing canapés, and poured glass after glass of the local vin rosé for visitors who had apparently forgotten they’d just filled up on gargantuan cones of gelato from the string of ice cream stores along the port. One small, elderly woman clutching a cane, who held out her glass for more wine, was pointedly ignored while other people’s glasses were filled and refilled. It seemed surprisingly mean, but upon reflection we wondered whether the community had enacted a policy against enabling known alcoholics. Otherwise, spirits were high. Children ran, dogs sniffed around, and everywhere you turned, people smiled. Saint-Tropez knows how to throw a party.
Of course, the partying the town is best known for is not the come-one, come-all street celebration it throws for the regatta and the sailboat races, but the elite gatherings that take place during the height of the summer season in bars and night clubs like l’Esquinade, whose disco has achieved mythical status; le Quai Joseph, boat-owners’ favorite establishment; VIP Room, where celebrities and rich young people flock; le Papagayo, a prime destination for fifty years; le Pigeonnier, where hip gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and straights mix and dance around the bar; and the most glamorous club of all, Hotel Byblos’s Les Caves du Roy; and at private parties like Kazakhstani Goga Ashkenazi’s annual million dollar revel for five hundred glittery invitees.
The paparazzi had a field day in 2012, when big name summer vacationers included Elton John, Kate Moss, Michael Douglas, Magic Johnson, Hugh Jackman, Karl Lagerfeld, David and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham, Dr. Dre, Zac Efron, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, Rihanna, Jerry Hall, and Ivana Trump. But they’re accustomed to it. They’ve been snapping pictures of the international crème de la tabloid front page crème in Saint-Tropez since the nineteen fifties, when Brigitte Bardot’s presence established the town as an international destination for those who wanted to be seen and noticed. Bardot hadn’t intended to create this phenomenon; she had merely returned to the place where she’d spent her childhood vacations. Nor was she the first to recognize the town’s charms. Late in the nineteenth century, Pointillist painter Paul Signac discovered Saint-Tropez, bought a house there, and introduced fellow-artists Matisse and Bonnard to the area. Other artists followed over the years, notably Bernard Buffet and David Hockney.
Although Saint-Tropez has solid credentials among artists, its move into entertainment came late in its history. For centuries the town was just a quiet fishing village with beautiful beaches, interesting only for the legend of how it acquired its name. In 68 A.D., so the story goes, when the emperor Nero learned that a Roman officer named Torpes had become a Christian, he had him decapitated and cast the two parts of his body, a dog, and a rooster off in a small boat, with the understanding that the dog would devour the head, thus putting an appropriate end to this bounder’s insult to Rome’s pagan glory. The dog, however, declined to do Nero’s will: when the boat came ashore at the village the head was still intact. Declaring that a miracle had taken place, the residents adopted Torpes as a saint, transposed a vowel and a consonant, and renamed their village Saint-Tropez in his honor. Two thousand years later their patron saint scored veneration of a different sort when the Tarte Tropézienne, a luscious concoction of brioche filled with crème patissière and butter cream, was invented by a local pastry chef for the cast and crew of Bardot’s break-out hit, “And God Created Woman,” and became the town’s signature delicacy.
Saint-Tropez did know a serious moment on the world’s historical stage. After D-Day the Allies had to find a way to supply the growing number of troops fighting the Germans in Normandy. To meet that need they launched an invasion in the south. On August 15, 1944, Saint-Tropez was one of Operation Dragoon’s three landing points. The American and French soldiers who landed there met little resistance. Together with the troops that came ashore in Cavalaire-sur-Mer and Saint-Raphaël they moved rapidly north and within four weeks had liberated much of France. The invasion of the south of France made it possible for the Allies to use the port of Marseilles and rail transportation to restock their army as it pressed eastward into Germany.
There is a public memorial to Saint-Tropez’s role in that decisive operation. There are also reminders that this urban center, like any other, is a multi-layered, heterogeneous place. The Lions Club runs a food pantry where low income residents can shop for decent, nourishing food in a setting that preserves their dignity. Look closely at the square in the town’s center where homeless people congregate: you’ll discover the unique aesthetic and practical solution its denizens created for a problem homeless people everywhere face: they use the large holes and crevices in the plane trees as shelves or dresser drawers for keeping their belongings safely at hand but neatly out of sight.
In other words, Saint-Tropez is a real town, not a celluloid mock-up of a cinematic fantasy. The people who live and work there are friendly and pleasant, fun-loving and kind. The community is active but small—after the crowds that throng the narrow streets during the season depart, the population shrinks to about five thousand. Many make their livelihood by catering to the needs and caprices of the rich, but by no means are they all wealthy themselves; most are low or middle income. The school system is small—about a thousand students, one high school. The year-round, permanent residents are conservative: in 2012, when the incumbent president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, of the Union for a Popular Movement, was defeated by Socialist François Hollande, who won the presidency with 51.6% of the vote, Sarkozy garnered 79% of the Saint-Tropez vote and Hollande only 21%. (The first round was even more telling about Tropéziens’ political bent: 58% went for Sarkozy, 17% for the far right wing National Front’s Marine Le Pen, 11% for Hollande, and 13% divided their vote among the seven other candidates.)
The right wing doesn’t have a monolithic hold on the town, however. Shortly after we arrived, my husband dropped me off at a phone booth, parked our rental car on a metered space, and walked a long block down the street to the ticket machine to purchase the receipt he needed to place in the windshield. No dice. The machine wanted coins he didn’t have and didn’t take credit cards. He headed back to move the car.
The machine was so far from the car that two police officers had already written a parking ticket by the time he got back. Bilingual passers-by joined in support of my husband’s objections and pointed out how unjust it was to have to leave one’s car unprotected and spend so much time walking back and forth from the machine.
The police were adamant about issuing the ticket and the witnesses gave up, but this spontaneous evidence that people in Saint-Tropez easily recognized it was out-and-out exploitation to set up drivers as easy pickings for municipal revenue was comforting. As for the police, they were probably under orders to ticket as many rental cars as they could to maximize income from parking violations now that rental cars can be identified by their license plates and the rental agreement states (albeit hidden in fine print) that unpaid tickets will be charged to the car renter’s credit card.
Truly, Saint-Tropez is preoccupied with money. Wealth is a fundamental local value. Much of what catches your eye in the public domain has to do with pleasure and high-end purchasing—the enticements of Chanel, Dior, Fendi, Longchamp, Roberto Cavalli, and other luxe outposts; bonbonnières and patisseries that offer mouth-watering delicacies; fine restaurants that cater to a diner’s every whim. Most of the townspeople and the casual, non-celebrity tourists cannot afford the goods shown in the shops; nonetheless they gravitate toward the costly objects and study their every facet. They loved the elegant, large four-faced clock in the middle of the tent area headquarters for Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez—it was a Rolex!
How much of this can a vacationer take? Fascinating as the phenomenally expensive yachts and racing craft are, and pleasant as it is to view expensive, well-made trinkets, you can surround yourself with only so much of all this extravagance before you need to refresh your perspective and stimulate your sense of exploration.
You don’t have to travel far to get grounded. The medieval village of Grimaud is only a quarter of an hour away. You can lose yourself there strolling through the streets and galleries, visiting the beautiful, impeccably restored twelfth century Romanesque church, taking in the superb views, and, on market day, shopping for the freshest of fruits and vegetables. Another short trip is a drive over to Port Grimaud—the French Venice—a co-op community of 2500 pastel houses and apartments on canals built in 1966 along what had been a seaside swamp. A solar-powered electric boat will take you on a ride through the canals and to the port where visitors anchor their boats and yachts (residents sail or motor right to their door—each house has its own mooring), a smooth, silent, non-polluting trip through this community of mostly second homes planned to the last detail. It’s Disneyland without Mickey Mouse and without excited children and zombified adults waiting for hours in long lines to take a ten minute ride with cartoon characters.
The best getaway of all is the magnificent beach—soft sand, beautiful bay, splendid birds, and spectacular clouds. In the early fall, water and air are still warm enough for sunbathing and swimming, but the crowds are gone and you can easily fantasize this mythic shoreline as your own personal fiefdom.
These kinds of breaks are important. Saint-Tropez is a fascinating place with all the elements needed for a memorable time, but an uninterrupted diet of its high life could wear you out and erode your liver, and the narcissism can tarnish your soul. So enjoy yourself to the fullest—chances are what you’ll be doing next won’t have the same allure—but follow the example of the sailboat captains who race in Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez and stay on an even keel.
© Walli Leff - November 2012
Walli F. Leff is the author, with Marilyn G. Haft, of Time Without Work, and writes articles on psychology, science, cultural and political affairs, and travel. Her psychological thriller, The Woman Who Couldn’t Remember But Didn’t Forget, will soon be published by Sunstone Press.