Bardot, the Beckhams and me...

A favourite haunt of movie stars and jetsetters since the 1950s, St-Tropez is still the place to see and be seen in summer. Even former presidents drop by for a game of pétanque, says Brian Viner
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The Independent Travel

In St-Tropez last week there were two stories on everyone's lips, from the lips with a Gauloise permanently attached, to the lips with collagen implants, to the naturally beestung. One was that David and Victoria Beckham, tired of slumming it at Elton John's place whenever they visit the South of France, have bought a £3m, 50-up, 50-down pad of their own, a deal reportedly brokered by a St-Tropez estate agent.

The other was that local resident Brigitte Bardot – routinely described in the French press these days as "la protectrice des animaux" – had again demonstrated her preference for animals of any sort over people of any colour, by railing in her new book against what she calls the "Islamisation" of France.

Bardot has already been fined twice for inciting racial hatred, but her startling metamorphosis from pouting young sex-kitten to spouting old xenophobe does not stop holiday-makers from taking boat trips around the Gulf of St-Tropez, lured by the prospect of getting close to her otherwise inaccessible waterfront home, the former fisherman's cottage known as La Madrague.

On walking tours, too, the reclusive Bardot looms large. Here, the beach on which she cavorted naked in the film Et Dieu Créa La Femme. There, the café where she hung out with her Svengali, Roger Vadim. At the behest of the gloriously camp proprietor of L'Esquinade, the small town's original (and now gay) nightclub, I even picked my way down some precarious steps to see where she once gyrated, nigh on half a century ago. Someone should write a book complaining about the "Bardotisation" of St-Tropez.

Still, I lapped it up like one of her hundreds of cats offered some crème anglaise. And to be fair to our guide, he was by no means of the belief, as many folk are, that the history of St-Tropez began in 1956. On the contrary, he dragged us up to the evocative old citadel and told us in detail the story of Torpetius, the brilliant army officer beheaded by the Emperor Nero for converting to Christianity.

That much is fact. Legend then takes over, suggesting that the martyr's corpse was placed in a boat at the mouth of the river Arno, and that the boat was carried by the Ligurian current to a remote peninsula in southern France. When it landed, on May 17 AD68, both Torpetius and the peninsula were renamed St-Tropez. A likely story, although there is no doubting the power of the Ligurian current. When the Arno burst its banks and flooded Florence in the Fifties, seven bodies were washed up in... St-Tropez.

In keeping with his status as by far the longest-serving employee of the local office du tourisme, our guide plainly knew more about St-Tropez than anyone alive, informing us with dramatic timing born of 1,000 tellings that the statue on the quayside of the great 18th-century admiral Pierre André de Suffren, who routed the English in the Bay of Bengal, was cast, on the orders of Napoleon III, from captured and melted-down English artillery.

The story interested me almost as much as the man from the office du tourisme himself: a decidedly eccentric, heavily perspiring, fiftysomething Englishman wearing an off-white suit tailored for a Graham Greene novel. His name is David Singleton and he comes, with delicious improbability, from Hull.

But that's St-Tropez for you. Of the 5,500 permanent residents (the town's population swells to 120,000 in summer, when the drive to Ste-Maxime, 12 kilometres away, can take up to four hours), few are actually indigenous. Not even the three-times local pétanque champion, Jean Papazian, who arrived from Beirut when he was four weeks old, 78 years ago.

Papa, as he is widely known, is part of the furniture in the Place des Lices, the charming market square which represents a welcome contrast with the million-pound yachts (and they're the cheap, tatty ones) anchored in the harbour. It's part of the well-preserved charm of St-Tropez, that while absurdly glamorous women sashay between boutiques – conspicuously not eating the delectable local delicacy, the tarte tropezienne, which is a wodge of custardy cream sandwiched between two heavily-sugared brioches – not 100 metres away walnut-featured old men drink pastis in between hard-fought games of pétanque.

Pétanque is the name given in the South of France to boules. And Papa, while showing me how to impart valuable side-spin, informed me that it is one of the few truly egalitarian activities in modern French society. "I have played here with (the former president) Pompidou," he growled. "But anywhere else I could not have got within 10 metres of him."

Others whose pétanque skills have graced the Place des Lices, Papa added, include the Manchester United footballers Fabien Barthez and Laurent Blanc. Perhaps Beckham will have a dabble, too, when he moves in up the road. There is, after all, no better way of seeing afternoon into evening than in a sun-dappled square on the French Riviera drinking rosé (I have stayed away from pastis ever since a nasty experience when I was 19), eating olives, and playing pétanque. Preferably with Papa or someone like him.

And yet in my enjoyment were the seeds of, quite literally, my downfall. Or at least of my trousers' downfall.

I needed a belt, you see. I needed a belt to hold up my extremely loose suit trousers bought a couple of years ago when I was half a stone heavier, because that evening I was going to Les Caves du Roy, one of the best-known and most chic nightclubs in all of France, where smart dress is de rigueur.

Entrance to Les Caves du Roy is free, although ordinary bottles of champagne cost €250 (about £170) apiece, and a methuselah of Cristal Roederer (ordered quite frequently even in these recessionary times) €20,000 (£14,000). George Clooney likes to sit in the VIP section, the so-called carré magique, while Bruce Willis prefers a table by the dance floor. Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell are regulars.

The last nightclub I went to, by stark contrast, was probably Mad Hatter's in Southport, Merseyside, 20-odd years ago, with my friends Billy and Waggy. At Mad Hatter's it was de rigueur not to wear smart clothes. In fact, just to say de rigueur was to risk a thumping, unless you were a Scouser with a cold introducing your mate, the North Sea oil worker.

So I was rather looking forward to my night at Les Caves du Roy, as long as I could find a belt. But I got so engrossed in the pétanque match with Papa that the shops had shut by the time I meandered off to buy one. Consequently, at two o'clock the following morning, I was the only person on the crowded dance floor dancing with my thumbs hooked firmly under the top of my trousers. Anyone watching would have assumed that I learnt my dance moves at Status Quo concerts, or perhaps by studying the Grumbleweeds. Either way, it was a rare foray into the heart of the beau monde and I blew it.

It was a relief, frankly, to escape to the carré magique, where my host was Antoine Chevanne, a debonair 29-year-old recently voted one of France's 10 most eligible bachelors. Antoine's family owns, and he runs, the Byblos, the celebrated hotel (which has a sister establishment in Courchevel) of which Les Caves du Roy is a part. So being with him in the nightclub was like being with Tony Soprano at the Bada Bing. We sat at table one (Clooney's favourite, apparently) drinking bottles of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, at €290 (£180) a throw. It was an insight not into how the other half live, but a 100th of the other half.

Naturally I am indebted to Antoine for his hospitality that evening, but even if I were not, I would commend the Byblos. I know of other great Riviera institutions which have lost their touch of class, but the Byblos, according to those who have been going for years, is at least as classy as it ever was. If I had to carp, it would be that the concierge could not find me a belt. I did ask.

The Byblos was built in 1967 in the style of a fishing village; although the only baiting and hooking that goes on there now is in Les Caves du Roy, where teenage girls, bronzed and beautiful, find their sugar daddies.

The following day, at Club 55, the famous old restaurant on Pampelonne Beach a few kilometres out of town, I saw two sugar daddies successfully landed. For people-watching, in my substantial experience of that joyous pursuit, there is no better place on earth than St-Tropez. And when the Beckhams arrive in the neighbourhood, it can only get better.

Abercrombie & Kent is offering three nights at the Byblos Hotel, St-Tropez, from £775 per person (based on two sharing). This is on a B&B basis and the price includes return flights from London. Call 0845 0700 612 or www.abercrombiekent.co.uk

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