The French Riviera has been a major attraction since it first became the playground for the international jet set in the sixties and the Gulf of St Tropez is the jewel in its crown, writes Conor Power
“YES, that’s Brigitte Bardot’s house over there.” Instinctively, everyone on the boat trained their cameras on the otherwise unassuming semi-detached house set amongst the colourful development of Port Grimaud. Today, this mini-Venice is at the most chic end of the French Riviera, where deep pockets are required to be BB’s neighbour. No less than half a million euro is needed to purchase one of the smaller homes here in a village built 50 years ago.
“Nobody here believed in the idea,” says our captain — a man brought up in Port Grimaud. “But after Brigitte Bardot invested in it, plenty more followed after her.”
Like the fascinated journalists we were, we stared in wonder at the collection of houses clustered around a church and market square in classic Provencal manner, hardly believing that such a place could have been built out of a swamp in the 1960s as the brainchild of architect François Spoerry.
In an era where everyone else was trying to elevate the beauty of clean lines and concrete, Spoerry’s vision was of a traditional nature. Every house in Port Grimaud was designed to have a mooring right outside and once the entire thing was built, it was only then that the swamp was drained, dug out and the Mediterranean was allowed to fill up the empty space, creating a little Venice on the Côte d’Azur, with a beach front onto the Gulf of St Tropez, midway (about 8km from each) between Saint Tropez and Sainte Maxime.
This is one of the many treasures to be found within a radius of 20km of Saint Tropez itself and the best way to really appreciate this most famous of French Riviera towns is to start by visiting some of these places, most of whom have lovely views of colourful ‘St Trop’.
The original medieval town of Grimaud is just 5km west of its unique purpose-built seaside version. It’s a superb example of a hilltop village (village perché) of the type that abound along this
part of the world, set inland and overlooking the surrounding countryside and coastline. You can almost hear the clinking of Crusaders’ swords in its atmospheric 12th century church and its colourful markets allow you to pause mid-shopping and gasp at the views across the valley and the glittering blue sea beyond.
Then there is Sainte Maxime itself. This was our home base for three days, divided up into pairs to share a villa with a swimming pool in an elevated spot on the edge of the town. My villa-mate — a jovial English journalist based in London’s East End — and I couldn’t resist getting changed into togs, grabbing a beer from the fridge and having a dip in the pool (all almost simultaneously) as soon as we arrived, despite having both been up since the crack of dawn travelling to get here.
Each villa has great comfortable space, an olive tree and a palm tree (what a combination) in the sheltered garden and a high level of maintenance that brings the comfort level up that little bit more. The local golf course — an 18-hole splendour with a view — is a short walk away from here. The town centre is a 20-minute walk away from these peaceful surrounds, as are Sainte Maxime’s beaches.
On first view, Sainte Maxime cuts a fairly mundane presence but once you begin exploring on foot, it reveals itself to you in all its Riviera charm. The promenade is a great place to begin. Its wide boulevard curves along a sandy shore, with views across the Gulf of St Tropez to Saint Tropez itself, nestled into the mostly verdant peninsula. Turning into the old town by the art-deco-style casino brings you through a warren of semi-pedestrianised streets that are pure Riviera charm, where colourful shuttered houses with curled orange tiles line streets of head-turning shops and open markets. Perched a little higher up are the former residence of filmmaking pioneer Léon Gaumont (a special pilgrimage and absolute must for any true cinematic fan), a former Grimaldi castle building with unique twisted chimneys and the Hôtel de Ville — the town hall with surely the best views of any in France.
In order to get the most spectacular views of all, however (and without the huge cost of hiring a helicopter), the best way is to go parasailing. From a distance, taking off up into the air while being pulled along by a speedboat looks like an adrenalin rush too far and I’ve no head for heights. However, parasailing brings you up high far more gently than you could imagine. It was a gorgeous experience sitting in the sturdy harness way above the Gulf of Saint Tropez and looking down on one of the most amazing coastal towns on the Mediterranean.
Finally, we took the boat from Sainte Maxime across the Gulf to Saint Tropez to have a good look at ground level. It’s the only sane way to enter the town during the summer months and avoid the permanent traffic jam but once you’re there, you instantly see and feel what all the fuss is about. Despite the large numbers of visitors, the hot, Provencal atmosphere pervades every pretty street, every cute little piazza and every expansive tree-lined large market square. It’s a place where you can wander around in a daze all day long without ever getting really lost. And, who knows? If you linger long enough, you might just
run into a certain aging neighbour named Brigitte.
Where to stay: We stayed at Les Restanques du Carré Beauchêne, Sainte Maxime, courtesy of Summer France. Prices are from €244 per person for a week in a three-bedroom villa basis, sleeping up to eight people (€1,953 total) in May or from €384 per person per week (€3,074 total) in August. For the other complexes in the development, the prices are lower.
See summerfrance.co.uk for details.
What to do: Apart from the watersports, another great way to explore the countryside is by guided retro electric mopeds at La Guêpe Mobile.
Where to eat/drink: In Sainte Maxime, the Bistro de Louis (+33 4 94 43 88 27) on Place Colbert offers great Provençal fare in a charming old-town setting. Le Saint Barth (saint-barth-plage.com) gives you large and superb portions in a more upbeat international menu right on the beach. In Grimaud, the Café de France (+33 4 94 43 20 05) on Place Neuve is a joy just to be in, with its central location from where you can watch the world go by. Even more impressive is the quality of food and service. In Saint Tropez, you won’t find a more atmospheric place to eat than Le Café (www.lecafe.fr) on Place des Lices. Inside, the eye-popping décor celebrates 1960s cinematic culture on an art-deco background, all topped off by an excellent menu. Outside, local men play boules under the shade of ancient plane trees. An even cosier option is to not leave the confines of your villa and bring the best of French cuisine to your door. Part of the team at Restaurant La Badiane, Sainte Maxime, owned and run by award-winning chef Geoffrey Poësson offers a chef à domicile service for clients, offering the same style of cuisine as in his restaurant.
For wine tasting, try the Domaine de Tropez (domaine-tropez.com), for superb regional rosés.