St.-Tropez: Where the Rich Come to Play

St.-Tropez is probably better known outside of France than any other Cote d’Azur spot except perhaps Cannes and Nice, and it has become a symbol of the region’s opulence and, to some, decadence. No matter what people think of it, though, they keep coming. Most of those who come, however, usually see little more than the picturesque village and never experience the real St.-Tropez that requires at least a visit to Pampelonne Beach, some understanding of its history and is helped by a taste of the local nightlife. Day-trippers may wonder why all the fuss about this overpriced village, but the many mega-yachts sitting in the harbor are not there just for the scenery.

St. Tropez pictured from a boat

Crowded day at St. Tropez port as we approach by boat.

Even for those that just come for the day, it may be hard to believe that St.-Tropez was still a small fishing village in the early 1900s when Monaco, Cannes and Nice had already become major tourist destinations. This would not change until the mid-1920s when Colette, a talented French author whose lifestyle helped make her a well-known celebrity moved to a rather rundown St.-Tropez.

Thirty years later, Brigitte Bardot, would raise the fame of St.-Tropez to a higher level, but it would be a different St.-Tropez. Ted Jones in his book on the literary impact on Cote d’Azur noted that “sadly, the writers of 1920s and 1930s – Colette working on La Naissance du Jour, Jean-Paul Sartre sitting in the Café Senequier writing The Roads to Freedom and the novelist Anais Nin – probably saw St.-Tropez at its best.”

No matter what one thinks of Bardot’s talent, and she was never considered for an academy award, her And God Created Women is one of the best known movies of all time. It was a great promotion piece for the village when released in 1956 as sex and opulence was becoming synonymous with St.-Tropez – an association that seemed to be welcomed locally.

Even without Bardot, St.-Tropez was headed in that direction. Collette and her life style started the village down the sybaritic path between the wars, and its location on a peninsula with a long sandy Pampelonne Beach on one side and a deep harbor and charming village on the other was a perfect setting for the newly rich and famous with their yachts, and those that wanted to live like them. Unlike earlier years, these rich and famous were movie stars, nouveau billionaires, and, in most cases, represented neither royalty nor inherited wealth.

Despite being the “Johnny come lately” of Cote d’Azur tourist spots, St.-Tropez has a history that goes back 2,000 years. In the 1st century AD the Emperor Nero beheaded a Roman centurion named Torpes for converting to Christianity, and legend has it that he was then set adrift in a rotting boat with a rooster and a dog that was washed ashore at present site of the village of St.-Tropez that took its name from this subsequently sainted soldier.

The citadel that sits next to the village was built near the end of the 16th century by Genoese immigrants brought in to defend the Gulf of St.-Tropez. Not much later the citadel would be needed as St.-Tropez was attacked by Spanish galleons in 1637 as part of Spain’s war with France. The invasion that would be repulsed by the Genoese immigrants, and St.-Tropez celebrates the victory of its “bravados” over the Spaniards every June 15th.

Few people, though, come to see St.-Tropez because of its history. What draws the visitors is the picturesque village, a deep harbor that can handle the biggest yachts and sandy beaches. For those that cannot afford a yacht, the attractions are similar, but with the added allure of sitting in restaurants along the docks and watching the “beautiful people” come off those yachts. It is not often, though, you get to see the likes of Jack Nicholson, Beyonce and Rihanna that are frequent visitors. When they are there they do not go into hiding, but are more likely to be seen at the beach clubs and night spots than in the village.

Unfortunately, most visitors only get to see the village and do not experience the beach scene on the other side of the peninsula that maintains the reputation started by Collette and Bardot or the night life. On a summer afternoon, the sea along Pampelonne is filled with enough yachts to resemble a naval invasion, which to some degree it is as the boat people come ashore for lunch and the sun.

The most famous of the beach clubs, and where one is most likely to see the celebrities, is Le Club 55, but it is not the best for getting a feel of the beach. Smaller clubs like La Voile Rouge and Ocoa (my favorite) have better views and equally good, if not better, food. Further down the beach away from the main concentration of clubs is the famed Nikki Beach – an open air club on the beach, but structured around a pool – and a hot spot from 6 PM to 8 PM. If you keep walking you will find the nudist beaches, but the scenery is better at Nikki Beach and the other clubs.

The Crowds at Pampelonne Beach

The Crowds at Pampelonne Beach

Unless you are fortunate enough to live in the area as I did for eight years, getting in and out of St.-Tropez – village or beaches is no easy task in the summer. When the road north from Cannes and Nice gets to Ste.-Maxime – about ten miles from St.-Tropez – what would normally be a 20 minute additional ride off-season is a two hour trip in July and August. A good alternative if day-tripping is the shuttle boat from Ste.-Maxime that leaves every 20 minutes and makes the crossing in less time than that.

The traffic makes a one or two night stay a necessity in order to fully experience St.-Tropez, and there are limited hotel rooms – and much of what exists is very expensive. If one has the money, Byblos is the place to stay, but there are cheaper and well-located alternatives like Hotel Sube, La Ponche and Bastide du Port if one is able to book far enough ahead.

Even staying at a village hotel, if you do not have a car, it is a taxi or elusive bus ride across the peninsula to the beach something those visiting on yachts or staying at the Byblos do not have to worry about. The yachts pull up anchor around noon and move around to the beaches for lunch, swimming and sun bathing, and then by 5 PM, they are headed back around the peninsula to the village to dine and enjoy the nightlife. The Byblos provides ground transportation for its guests.

There are good restaurants along the waterfront – Le Girilier and the Café de Paris are my favorites – but they are not gourmet dining and highly priced because of location. There is better food and prices a block or two off the waterfront with Les Pesquiere and Les Garcons being a couple of such alternative. Food, though, is not what anyone remembers about St.-Tropez. I seldom left Ste.-Maxime to eat in St.-Tropez, but on many Sundays, my wife and I took the shuttle boat over for lunch, but usually to sit at the red-chaired Café Senequier, which has been there since 1889, with a ham and cheese sandwich and watch the yachts come and go.

For nightlife, the VIP Room at the Byblos is the “must go” place where celebrities are almost always in attendance, but it does not really start to move until 11 PM. An earlier opening alternative is the music bar, Le Quai, on the waterfront.

Also capable of adding to the enjoyment of the area are the nearby hill villages of Ramatuelle and Gassin. Pampelonne Beach and the homes of the area’s very rich are in Ramatuelle. The hilltop village of Gassin has a splendid overview of the area and is a great place to have lunch.

This blog includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.

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