Wake me up in St-Raphael
The new European timetable can get you to the Cote d'Azur in time for dinner - or you could do as Philip Blackmore did, and arrive in time for breakfast
Saturday 28 October 1995
It was 6.15am and St-Raphael, the resort we were heading for, was only a little further along the coast. The two of us piled into the corridor, our elbows propped-up on the window rail. Linear flashes of blue sea broke into view like geographical punctuation marks along the rocky bits of coastline, surmounted by a simmering blood-orange sun that looked as if it was suffering from an early morning hangover.
After pulling through Cannes station, deserted and ghost-like in the early morning, we noticed the coastline change. St-Raphael and its neighbouring town, Frejus, sit at the bottom of the Massif de l'Esterel, which is shot through with red rock; volcanic, with a scrubby, bandit wildness.
Just approaching 7am the train arrived at St-Raphael station. We climbed out and headed for a bar in one of the resort's streets leading down to the sea front.
Scarfed grandes dames were already out shopping, poking at Provence tomatoes and peering between the leaves of scaly artichokes in a small shop, a few feet from where we sat drinking coffee. Middle-aged, lizard- skinned men,Lacoste shirts straining over pot bellies, walked bow-bedecked lap dogs. Shop awnings squeaked as they were rolled out. It was typical small-town Riviera resort life: more cotton than linen - and definitely chic-resistant.
The room in our hotel, a five-minute walk from the beach and less than 10 minutes from the resort's main shopping streets, had a balcony overlooking a dental technician's practice. Here two men toiled over pin-flamed bunsen burners fashioning bridges and dentures.
While St-Raphael has plenty of shops and restaurants, its twin town Frejus (the two practically form a single town) has the crumbling Roman good looks. We took the one-and-a-half mile stroll down along the connecting sea front, turning inland for the last gentle incline into Frejus.
The town, founded by Julius Caesar in 49BC, was the oldest city in Gaul. And it was here that Napoleon landed on his return from Egypt - and left for exile 15 years later to the island of Elba. We spent several consecutive days working through the Roman remains: the old town walls; the Cathedrale St Leonce et Cloitre, a sort of fortified complex of 12th-century buildings with a 5th-century baptistry; and the Roman theatre.
One afternoon, after devouring a crunchy salade Nicoise in the town square, we wandered into the tourist information centre opposite the fountain in Place Paul Vernet. A smart move, which unearthed a small booklet listing a number of local restaurants.
We chose two: La Toque Blanche and Restaurant Pastoral in St-Raphael offering varied choices at around pounds 30 a head. But our biggest eating discovery was the modern harbour complex in St-Raphael, a 10-minute walk from the beach past the groups of wind surfers. The seafood restaurant here is wonderful. Allow about FF260 (pounds 33) a head for a starter of either crevettes, mussels, crab or soupe de poisson and a main course of locally caught fish or lobster. We had hilarious marine discussions, trying to find the fishy British equivalent for many of the fish chalked up on the blackboard menu. Don't bother, though, there aren't any. Just order and eat up.
Ducking into a local wine shop one afternoon - bordering on what's left of the old part of St-Raphael - Monsieur le patron poured generous measures of chilled cassis primeur into chunky glasses. Forget the sticky sweet creme de cassis used for kirs, this is a fragrant blackcurrant elixir.
The local casino and one-armed bandit room had limited appeal, so some nights we mingled with the families gathered at the older harbour front. We would examine the collection of reassuringly tacky tourist offerings at the market stalls or try to find cicadas in the nearby floodlit bushes.Then we'd give up and visit the nearby bars where girls dressed in white sang a repertoire of music hall songs in accented English.
St-Raphael local life ambles along with sundial accuracy. At 1pm, we'd watch groups of Snoopy dog be-satcheled children coming home from school in knickerbockers buttoned tightly below the knee. Around 5pm, we'd join the tables of women with matching husbands and Chanel handbags taking afternoon tea along the sea front.
St-Raphael makes no pretensions to being a playground for the rich and famous. And it's certainly all the richer for it. Unlike many of its smarter neighbouring resorts, it remains charmingly chic-free. Leave the travel iron at home.
How to get there
If you leave London Waterloo at 7.53am, you can be in St-Raphael at 7.27pm. You have a half-hour wait when you change trains at both Lille and Lyon, but this avoids having to change terminal in Paris.
A return ticket between London Waterloo and St-Raphael costs pounds 164, if you book at least eight days in advance through the Rail Shop (0345 300 003).
The closest airport to St-Raphael and Frejus is Nice. The lowest return air fare from London is pounds 133 (including tax) on British Airways (0345 222111) from Gatwick or Heathrow or Air UK (0345 666777) from Stansted. British Midland (0345 554554) and Air France (0181-742 6600), both from Heathrow, are slightly more expensive.
Where to stay
Philip Blackmore paid FF280 (about pounds 35) a night for a double room with bathroom at the Hotel des Pyramides, 77 avenue Paul Doumer (00 33 94 95 05 95).
Who to ask
French Government Tourist Board, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123). At St-Raphael, the tourist office is opposite the railway.
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