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Having fun on the Côte d’Azur
1:17pm Saturday 23rd June 2012 in Leisure
MATT CLARK has fun in the south of France’s millionaire’s playground.
When Roger Vadim made Brigitte Bardot an overnight sensation with his 1956 classic film And God Created Woman, he also introduced the world to another soon-to-be starlet; a sleepy fishing hamlet called St Tropez.
These days it’s the most glamorous and exclusive part of the Côte d’Azur; a Mecca for the beautiful people with time on their hands and the cash to enjoy it.
Ferraris don’t get second glances here, they’re reserved for multi-million-pound yachts the size of market towns approaching the still quaint harbour.
Fortunately, mere mortals can also arrive in first-class style. The TGV from Nice to St Raphael is sleek, fast, quiet and on time.
The rest of the journey is by air-conditioned bus through glorious countryside, past the shimmering Mediterranean to Sainte Maxime, followed by a short ferry ride across the gulf.
And best of all, the trip costs peanuts, which is just as well: in St Tropez you need deep pockets.
It may be a small place but along Rue Gambetta and Place de la Garonne are the same designer names you would find in smart districts of Paris. All sell irresistible goodies and don’t miss Rondini on Rue Georges Clemenceau. For 80 years, the family has produced Saint Tropez’s ultimate fashion accessory; the Tropezienne sandal, made famous by Brigitte Bardot and, more recently, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
A snip, at only 120 euros.
Café de Paris is the most famous spot for people watching, but again the prices are eye-watering; even an espresso costs a fiver.
Try further along the harbour instead at Le Senequier, St Tropez’s oldest café, or nip round the corner to Le Café on Place des Lices. This place is popular with locals – always a good sign – and prices are surprisingly reasonable.
St Tropez may be expensive and crowded in high season, but May is the best time to go, when the hotels are slightly cheaper and you can look past the big bucks to discover the same St Tropez that first attracted La Bardot.
People are friendly and genuine, the old port is charming, and the back streets look as they have always done. Eating out doesn’t have to be pricey either, if you stick to set menus.
Alternatively, go al fresco. Find a small épicerie to buy a baguette, some cheese, olives and a bottle of decent wine – all for six euros – and dine in shoestring-style on the legendary Plage de Pampelonne, one of Europe’s top beaches.
There may be no bargains in the designer shops, but you’ll find plenty at the Saturday market, where you can pick up heavenly spices, soap and bath oils made from lavender and olive oils.
Across the bay, don’t miss the medieval town of Sainte Maxime. It was a favoured wintering spot for the Victorian English and still has an Anglicised air. The yachts are less ostentatious and the whole place feels more down to earth than glitzy St Tropez.
The old town is the place to be, among the pastel-painted fishermen’s houses which have found a new lease of life as shops and restaurants.
It comes alive on Wednesday, when stall holders from the nearby hills of the Massif des Maures sell tomatoes as big as tennis balls and every conceivable herb and spice.
The pungency of cumin mixed with floral aromas of lavender in Sainte Maxime on market day is the scent of which memories are made.
There is still a pleasantly old fashioned feel here.
Lunch is sacrosanct, shops close for three hours and the only mid-afternoon activity is men playing boules under the gentle shade of giant plane trees. It all makes a rather agreeable change from the hustle and bustle of St Tropez.