Moët and mackerel: Beneath the glitz and glamour of St-Tropez lies a charming coastal town
Brian Viner went to find it, then got distracted by a certain bearded airline mogul
Saturday 11 July 2009
My wife, Jane, had never been to St-Tropez. She embarked on a rare weekend away without the children in a slight state of trepidation – nothing to do with the forest of signs at Nice airport warning of the dangers of grippe porcine, but rather her perception of "St-Trop" as a haven for the vulgar rich.
She was surprised and delighted, therefore, to find a small town that remains unspoilt by the crass developments that scar so much of the Côte d'Azur, and which has clung tenaciously to its roots as a Provençal fishing village. It is recognisably still the place where a young Brigitte Bardot frolicked naked in Et Dieu... créa la femme, even if Bardot is no longer recognisable as the frolicker.
On the other hand, what was the point of going to St-Tropez if we didn't explore its reputation as a millionaires' playground? We stayed at the Byblos, the discreet, effortlessly swish hotel that is itself built to replicate a charming old fishing village, only with the whiff of Moët rather than mackerel in the air.
I had stayed at the Byblos before, five years earlier, when I took to the dance floor at its celebrated night club, the Caves du Roy, in a rarely worn suit that – I discovered too late and without recourse to a belt – was a couple of sizes too big for me. Consequently, I was forced to gyrate with my fingers hooked strategically into my trousers to keep them up, an enduring source of embarrassment since the women in my party were young, lovely and almost certainly would have preferred not to be trapped under the glitterball with one of the Wurzels. Like the golfer who makes a mess of his one round over the Old Course at St Andrews, I had wanted to go back to the Caves du Roy ever since, to prove, if only to myself, that I could hit the dance floor with something other than a combine harvester.
It was a good time to return, too, because the Caves du Roy has just been refurbished for the first time since the 1970s. Some of the regulars, who include Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Bruce Willis and George Clooney, were reportedly a little concerned that the old place was getting a facelift, but it has been done with aplomb. Imagine, if you can, the inside of Cleopatra's bedchamber, given a makeover by Laurence Llewellyn Bowen.
The Caves du Roy doesn't open until midnight, by which time I am normally snoring gently, even on a Friday, but it is a Riviera institution and worth a few caffeine shots. By the look of some of our fellow clubbers, they had also been on the caffeine, if not even racier stimulants.
One man whirled around in his own personal bubble of bliss, looking very much like one of the inmates in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. It was a joy not to be the one with the daftest dance moves, although it could simply be that he'd been sent over the edge by the bar prices. A measure of gin at the Caves du Roy costs €27; a standard bottle of champagne is €290. Still, admission is free, so by ordering a gin and tonic and wetting your lips every 10 minutes with scarcely enough liquid to drown a gnat, an evening can be almost a bargain.
The following morning, emphatically not hungover, we wandered down to the harbour to ogle the vast motor yachts, and to play the game obligatory for all have-nots in St-Tropez: given the Euromillions jackpot, which boat would we like to call our own? We chose a sleek, silver number that looked as if it belonged to a Bond villain, except that it was registered in the Isle of Wight, which is not very Blofeld-like.
We then ambled up to the town's Saturday morning market in the Place des Lices, the delightful square where, when there are no pickled-walnut stalls to drive them away, men with pickled-walnut faces play petanque. One of them, the last time I was there, declared petanque to be one of the few truly egalitarian activities left to a Frenchman. He had played in the Place des Lices with former President Pompidou, he said, yet nowhere else would he have been able to get within 20 metres of such an illustrious fellow.
There was a form of egalitarianism in the market, too; its stony aisles trampled by holiday flip-flops, Christian Louboutins and the stout footwear of elderly local women, very probably the spouses of the resting petanquiers. We watched these locals squeeze and sniff melons, suspicion etched on their well-lined foreheads. They were watched with casual disdain by the stall-owner, a younger woman with peroxide hair and, perhaps as a clever marketing ploy, a pair-of-melons boob job under a skimpy yellow T-shirt.
Jane and I restrained ourselves on the food-shopping front, still smarting from the last time we returned from a French holiday and the luscious, glistening olives we took home were sullied by a lunch guest with three chirpy words: "Ooh, yum, Waitrose?" But Jane saw a simple, summery dress she liked and tried it on in the makeshift changing cubicle, four poles contained by a barely adequate length of canvas. I stood guard trying not to laugh. It looked like the sort of thing a conjurer's assistant might step into in an end-of-the-pier show.
Jane wore her new dress for a late lunch at Club 55, our next attempt to mingle with the jet set. Club 55 (unless you're a member of Ukip, never "fifty-five", always cinquante-cinq) is an even more venerable Riviera institution than the Caves du Roy. Located on Pampelonne Beach, a few kilometres out of town, it is named after the year in which it was founded. The restaurant is the embodiment of beach-chic as well as one of the great people-watching, and indeed celebrity-spotting, lunch venues in the world. "The combined value of the sunglasses here would probably pay off our mortgage," Jane muttered, as we clinked glasses of kir under the bamboo roof.
It was an oddly prescient remark because, just as we had given up hope of seeing anyone famous, Sir Richard Branson, owner of Virgin One and thus, ultimately, the provider of our mortgage, arrived with Lady Branson and a large, cheerfully rowdy party of friends, and sat down at the table next to us. They came from the direction of the small jetty, which is the cool way to arrive at Club 55, rather like turning left instead of right on one of Branson's own aircraft.
Soon they were having a marvellous time while Jane and I wondered how we could curry favour with the great man, in the faint hope he might feel moved to wipe out our debt. It was all I could do to stop Jane rushing round to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on him. "You're supposed to wait until they start choking," I said.
Lunch at Club 55 did our debt no good at all, although €200 for an excellent meal lasting almost three hours, not to mention the cabaret of performing Virgins at the next table, is the sort of blow-out that does the soul good occasionally. Afterwards we pushed the boat out even further and paid another €56 for two sunbeds on the beach, where we soaked up the sunshine in a stupor of wine-induced satisfaction.
Later, back in our lovely room at the Byblos, we decided not to visit the Caves du Roy again. There's only so much room in a day for decadence. Instead we sat back and tried to follow the French version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. We did, we decided, if it means more lazy weekends living it up in St-Tropez.
The nearest rail hubs are at Toulon and St-Raphael, which can be reached from London via Paris and Avignon (08705 186 186; eurostar. com). The nearest airport is Toulon-Hyères, served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted and Bristol. Alternatively, Nice is served from the UK by a wide range of carriers. You can also buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-3117 0500; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Three nights at the Byblos ( byblos.com) cost from £1,025 per person, based on two adults sharing a Classic Room on a room-only basis, but including economy flights with British Airways and car transfers. For further information, contact Elegant Resorts Reservations on 01244 897516 or visit elegantresorts.co.uk
Club 55: Plage de Pampeldonne, Boulevard Patch, St-Tropez (00 33 4 94 55 55 55).
St-Tropez tourist office: 00 33 4 94 97 45 21; ot-saint-tropez.com
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