St Tropez, in all its naked glory: Out of season, the town is abandoned to the wind, gulls and dog-walkers. Even half closed, Philip Sweeney finds it perfect for a quiet weekend

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The Independent Travel
The French Riviera has a wan charm in winter. The light is still pretty, if flintier; sole strollers with dogs occupy beaches that in August are jam- packed with loungers, and the French adapt with customary efficiency to the cold. In Cannes and Juan-les-Pins the fur coats and the buckled tartan sleeveless numbers adorn the backs, respectively, of the permed and Ray-Ban'd ladies of a certain age (62, roughly) and their pooches; and the cafe terraces set up butane-powered standard-lamp heaters whose Art Deco down-reflectors make it possible to sip a pastis or even with a bit of fortitude dine al fresco.

The removal of the summer crowds, however, affects resorts differently. In places such as Cannes or St Raphael, where the entire thrust of 20th-century architectural endeavour has been to cater for tourism, the pointless weight of empty, grand hotels and apartment blocks becomes a little depressing, like the City of London on a Sunday. Other towns, which never acquired cream Belle Epoque stucco or white Sixties marble-clad concrete condominia, recapture a provincial charm obliterated by the excess of humanity in summer.

A prime example is St Tropez, whose population shrinks from 80,000 trippers, campers, Ecstasy- dealers, yacht groupies, jet-setters and allied professions in August to 5,800 (and it seems like fewer) residents in the off-season months of January, February and March, transforming the place into a quiet and pretty town ideal for weekending.

I drove down the coast from Cannes on a cloudy but luminous afternoon. Along the Corniche road skirting the Massif de l'Esterel, slate-blue, white-topped waves were crashing in over the rusty rocks, and palms in villa gardens were lashing in the wind. Set back from the coast, the great scrub-covered peaks of the Massif looked truly wild, as they never quite do in summer.

There was a trickle of cars and hardly any campers, unlike the continuous stream of summer. Past St Raphael - casino still open but quiet - and Sainte Maxime, and the lack of traffic became miraculous. The infamous stretch of the D98 from Le Foux roundabout - in July and August a democratic hell where Porsches and caravanettes swelter through the hours it can take to crawl into town - was a five-minute doddle, and I slowed to admire the sea through wind-rippled reeds.

In St Tropez, the huge car park in front of the new port was empty and free, the lucrative ticket kiosks boarded up. The Brigitte Bardot Foundation's new dogs' sun-shelter was also hors de combat, its bamboo roof wrapped around the side of an adjacent building by the wind. Along the quays the smaller yachts bobbed, their rigging clanking musically like the bells of Alpine cattle.

Strolling through the old town, St Tropez's wintertime boom trade - building - became apparent. There were pavements up, boutiques being refitted, sales in the few open clothes shops, and lots of shutters down, including those of both the Harley-Davidson rental agencies - so the option of trading up the Renault 5 for a 2,000-francs-a-day pink metal-flake hog with fringed leather mudflaps was mercifully closed.

On the quai Jean-Jaures, the gin palaces were moored as usual and opposite, the red triangular tables on Senequier's terrace were stacked by mid-afternoon. In winter Senequier changes dramatically, its garish exterior atrophying and the focus shifting to its mellow Thirties interior with carved-wood benches, where middle-aged waitresses in black dresses and white aprons serve tea and cakes after blustery walks.

Along the sandy sweep of the Plage du Pampelonne I found the famous beach clubs (Tabou-Plage, La Voile Rouge, Polynesie) abandoned to the surf and seagulls, the topless nymphettes of last summer as insubstantial a memory as the US Marines who stormed ashore in 1944 or the Barbary pirates half a millennium earlier.

By 8pm I was back in a semi-deserted quai Jean-Jaures: where to go for an aperitif? The lights of the balcony of the Hotel Sube beckoned warmly. In the wood- panelled bar logs burned in the cream Provencal fireplace and three or four well-heeled regulars chatted with the barman. From the tall windows the view over the quayside, the stone jetty and the twinkling lights of Sainte Maxime across the bay, was as cheering as ever.

Outside, the chilly wind carried the eerie cries of peacocks from the hilltop citadel, and now and then a muffled Tropezien hurried home through the narrow stone streets of the old town.

Mulling over the plot for my forthcoming best-seller The Vampires of St Tropez, I set off to dinner. No point lusting after the pig's trotters stuffed with lobster, truffle vinaigrette salad and peach soup with muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, at pounds 80 a throw from Michel Rochedy. Le Chabichou, like the other grandes tables of St Tropez - indeed like 70 per cent of the restaurants - is closed in winter.

I headed for Chez Fuchs, a very Tropezien little bistro above a tobacconist's in the rue des Commercants. Four tables were occupied by what appeared to be separate parties from an extended family: a pair of dressed-up teenage girls giggling hysterically, a Dali-moustached roue uncle character in denim, two bank-managerial couples, and an elderly gent in a blazer who dined with the chef, all table-hopping, exchanging cigarettes and gossip.

Stoked up with Paris-priced but tasty mussels, rabbit a la Provencale, rocket salad and creme caramel, I set off to check out the nightlife, which seemed to consist of two choices. Down by the new port, the little bar Le Winner's chief attraction was a small billiard table with large balls, played upon with spectacular incompetence by a handful of lumpen youths. The young waitress complained about Elm Street the Umpteenth on the video - 'J'ai horreur de ce Freddy]' - but still offered me a choice of warmed or unwarmed glasses for my 22-franc cognac.

Over in the Place de la Garonne, the small 'piano-bar' L'Octave was the sophisticate's alternative - live pop trio, champagne at F80 a glass, clientele who all knew each other, including the giggling girls and roue uncle from Chez Fuchs.

At 12.30 I headed home across the empty place des Lices. A car pulled up and a couple of men got out and began to play boules on the deserted ground. I sat on a wrought-iron bench to enjoy the beauty of the square and worry about the state of its famous mottled pollarded centenarian plane trees; many of these have been newly hollowed, riveted and Tefloned in the town's pounds 1,000-a-tree programme to combat an epidemic of tree canker.

The place des Lices, restored to the local population, is by itself sufficient reason to visit St Tropez in winter, and a perfectly delightful weekend could be spent without leaving it.

On Saturday morning, there is a large, varied market and until early afternoon the small terraces of the Clemenceau and the Sporting get the pale sunlight. In the evenings, the classic Cafe des Arts, bereft of its summer terrace tables and crammed restaurant, opens only the wonderful front room. Its zinc-topped bar, table football, dingy green Twenties ceiling mouldings and dowdily louche atmosphere are reminiscent of Soho's French House in its heyday.

Beside it, the Brasserie Renaissance offers a good carte. Paris-priced and styled, this serves local plats du jour, such as an excellent garlic turbo-charged bourride, to the familiar circle of bon vivants, including, of course, the giggling girls and roue uncle.

The St Tropez peninsula benefits from exactly the same off-season depopulation as the town itself, offering further delights. One such was driving into the low hills, preferably to the sound of Serge Gainsbourg on Radio Nostalgie Cote D'Azur, past acres of bare vines, for a stroll around the old villages of Gassin and Ramatuelle. Last and by no means least was the joy of heading east on the A8 to Nice airport to catch my flight home, and finding the traffic-jam warning panels (a source of dread in summer) locked on green.

When to go The St Tropez season starts around the beginning of April, peaks in July and August and continues until the end of the Nioulargue yacht regatta in early October. There is a short mini-season around Christmas before the quiet months of January, February and March.

Getting there British Airways and Air France both have several flights daily from Heathrow to Nice. British Airways also flies from Gatwick. BA's Apex return fare costs pounds 224 (book 14 days in advance, a Saturday night stay must be included); the Pex fare (no advance booking but still requires Saturday stop- over) is pounds 264. Air France's Apex costs pounds 225.90, Pex pounds 265.90. Air UK (flying from Stansted) and British Midland (from Heathrow) offer special fares to Nice. Travel out and back between Monday and Thursday (including a Saturday night stay) for pounds 125. If you travel Friday to Sunday (also stopping over on Saturday) the fare is pounds 140.

Accommodation For a list of hotels open in February and March, contact the St Tropez Tourist Office, on 010-33 94 97 41 21.

(Photograph omitted)

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